Growing up, I assumed that all records were both boring and infallibly correct. As it turns out, not all records are boring – and it’s important to question the validity of every record. How accurate are Mormon records?
Mormon genealogy records are based on a shared database, which means there can be errors due to poor data input, improper citations, multiple entries, and general inconsistencies. The wiki-style database improves as citations are added, multiple entries are merged, and genealogy practices improve.
Of course, no genealogy record means to be inaccurate. So let’s talk about how the Mormon genealogy records are working on improving their accuracy.
Why the Mormon Kept Records Aren’t 100% Accurate Yet
Before we talk about why Mormon records aren’t 100% accurate yet, let’s first set something straight: this isn’t an issue limited to just Mormon records. This is an issue with all genealogical records everywhere. Genealogists are trying to be as accurate as possible. However, errors happen. Even in Church records.
The Church of Jesus Christ encourages all of its members to be involved with family history. And because each church member comes to the genealogy research table with varying levels of familiarity and skill, there are going to be some errors made.
This is because there are three main choke points where errors get introduced into the databases.
- Digitized records don’t always scan or copy correctly.
- People who read those records and transfer the information into a system have difficulty with reading the form and/or data entry.
- There are millions of people involved in this process. Sometimes this causes clashes of input – especially if citations aren’t included.
Let’s talk about why these three points are preventing Mormon genealogical records (all genealogy records, actually) from being 100% accurate.
1. Digitized Records Aren’t Always Perfect
Each of the various collections (on the Latter-day Saint Church-owned FamilySearch or any other not-owned-by-the-Church platform) keeps digital copies of original records and vital statistics.
These copies are almost as good as the originals – simply because they’re the next best thing. In a professional genealogist’s eyes, though, they aren’t quite as good as the original – simply because scanning errors do happen. And then we’re missing a whole corner of a page or worse. But for most instances, the digital versions are generally sufficient.
Even so, if there is a scanning error – or the digital version is too hard to read – then it’s going to make indexing that record even harder. And that’s going to significantly increase the risk of an error.
2. Data Entry by People Means Errors Will Happen
Because genealogy has such a wide appeal (you can read more about who all loves genealogy in our post here), it attracts all skill levels of researchers and typists. All of this means one thing: errors happen (and they’ll keep happening) and they need to be corrected.
These errors can happen in multiple ways during the data entry (indexing) process. Here are a few off the top of my head.
- Being unable to read/decipher the handwriting on the record.
- Not knowing how to properly index the record.
- Putting the right information in the wrong spot on the form.
- Inverting (or completely messing up) letters – whether due to being unable to read the record or a typing mistake.
- Not filling out the indexing form all the way.
I’ve made several of those mistakes – they happen. And as more people get involved in genealogy, these mistakes will continue to happen. But don’t worry – things aren’t all gloom and doom. We’ll cover how they’re being fixed in a bit. But first, let’s finish this section on how mistakes are perpetuated.
3. Too Many Genealogists in the Records Room
Forget chefs in a kitchen – we’ve got millions of members of the Church of Jesus Christ learning how to do genealogy on a shared tree. They’re all on different levels – and they’re all accessing a shared family tree and making changes.
The Church encourages all its members to be involved with family history and genealogy. Which is totally awesome – it just means there’s a lot of people learning how to do things properly and they need a safe place to make some learning mistakes.
Can you imagine the chaos that this would cause on a wiki-style page? Because that’s essentially what a shared tree is. This is going to cause all sorts of crazy errors. There’s no way around this – not without making the tree a file that only a select few could edit. And maybe, someday in the future, that’s what will happen.
But for now, FamilySearch uses a shared tree. And they have a volunteer indexing team of thousands upon thousands of people worldwide who help transcribe portions of the records to make them easier to be found through search. Combine that with too many genealogists in the records room? And we’ve got a solid recipe for errors – but it’s also the recipe for fixing those same errors.
Mormon Genealogy Records Aim to Be Accurate
While Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ) genealogy records aren’t 100% accurate yet, they’re aiming to get there. And that’s awesome. Even so, it’ll take some time to get there.
The reason this won’t happen overnight calls back to those 3 choke points where things tend to get… stuck.
1. Improving Digitization and Storage of Vital Records
On the back end of things, the Church is also looking to improve accuracy via an improved records quality and an improved process for indexing records. FamilySearch is working on a computer-aided indexing system that is mostly computer-run – and people just verify the computer’s work.
That’s going to be huge! Assuming the computers can learn to read 16th-century cursive, anyway. 🙂 Then again, the computer could probably figure it out faster than I could, so it’s still awesome.
2. Have Users Verify Data Entry and Input Source Citations
Next, the Church is improving how data is verified and entered into the system. They do this by increasing the amount of training on indexing and a renewed emphasis on using proper citations – or at least using a form of a citation (even if they aren’t perfect).
Users are systematically going through records, updating sources, and correcting errors as they’re able. Pretty cool, don’t you think? I sure do.
Here’s an example. Recently, Breanne had a hard time finding her grandmother in the 1940 census. The reason she had a hard time finding her Grandma Kerr was because she had been improperly indexed as having a surname of Kers.
Thankfully, FamilySearch allows for corrections to be made and citations to be added to specific profiles. That way, Grandma Kerr’s census records won’t trip up any other family members who are looking for her in the future – and anyone who wants to see her on the 1940 census can do it pretty easily. It’s all thanks to Breanne’s detective and citation skills.
One of the most important skills a genealogist can learn, whether they’re a hobbyist or a professional, is how to write sources for every piece of information you find.Breanne Ballard
Oh, and another cool thing about indexing? The Church’s youth are really getting into it. That’s just cool on so many levels.
3. Leverage Millions of Users’ Combined Power for the Genealogical Good
Again, one issue that causes errors is due to the fact that the Church encourages its entire membership (which is tens of millions of people) to participate in genealogy. This means there are always new people learning genealogy – and there are always errors being made.
This is especially the case since FamilySearch is a shared family tree – which means it’s got some particular advantages and disadvantages. However, the Church is using both the strengths and weaknesses of a shared, wiki-style family tree to improve its overall accuracy.
Because it’s a shared family tree, there’s far less duplication of individual records. It’s also easier to collaborate on sharing information. However, well-meaning (or less-than-well-meaning) individuals can really mess with things if they aren’t careful.
FamilySearch understands these challenges and has some built-in features to help you monitor people on your tree – and the changes being made to them. That way, everyone can keep an eye on their family to ward off problematic changes.
Here’s how you do that (the quick version). On every person’s record page, there is a star that you can click – it’s next to the word watch. If you click the star, then the system will send you a message when someone changes anything on that individual. Pretty cool, huh?
The system also logs changes made by users. This means that you can see who made what change, and if you need to (kindly) chat with another user about a change, you can do that. That way, the two of you can collaborate and verify records together. That’s the ideal, anyway. There are definitely cases where two users just get into an “updating the profile so it’s right” kind of scenario. Luckily, that’s pretty rare, though.
What Mormon Genealogy Records Are – and How to Access Them
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that the whole of humanity is one big, happy (and sometimes dysfunctional) family. As such, genealogy is important to them. That’s why they work so hard on helping to index, store, and keep vital records.
The most common source of genealogy records provided by the Church come via compiled genealogies provided by the members themselves. Some were submitted by members of other faiths who have FamilySearch accounts (anyone can set up an account – it’s free. Read our article on FamilySearch for more details).
Common sources include the International Genealogical Index (IGI), Pedigree Resource File, and Ancestral File. To access all of these within FamilySearch under the Search menu. Simply choose the “Genealogies” option on the drop-down menu.
The Church has also helped digitize and index countless other records, and they’re constantly working on digitizing others.
- If the records have been digitized, they’re available on FamilySearch free of charge.
- If they aren’t yet digitized, then they’re available to search (also free of charge) at the Family History Library in downtown Salt Lake City.
To search all available digitized records, go to the Search tab in your FamilySearch account. You can use the “Browse All Published Collections” or search the catalogs.
When Will Mormon Genealogy Records Be Completely Accurate?
Due to the fact that humans will always be human (and prone to making errors), Mormon genealogy records will probably never be completely accurate. Even so, Church members and FamilySearch users will still do their best to make sure that the available information is as accurate as possible.
But, as a general rule, it’s wise to approach everything you find on FamilySearch (or any other genealogy website) with a grain of salt – or at least a skeptical eye that helps you look for proper citations to lead you to good research sources. That way, you can help fix the accidental errors and make things better for everyone.
One quick caveat, though… If there isn’t a source attached, that information may not be wrong – it just may not have a source. And you’ll want to see if you can find a record that corroborates (or disproves) that particular piece of information.
A common genealogical research problem (on all sites – Ancestry and FamilySearch included) is that newer genealogists accept all suggested hints without verifying the information. This perpetuates a lot of the problems. So be careful – and double (or triple) check everything.
I’d love to be wrong about things never being 100% accurate. And I’d totally do a happy dance. Until then, though, I’ll keep verifying everything to the best of my ability – and keep learning and improving as a genealogist.
A Note on Calling Them “Mormon” Genealogy Records
There’s a ton of history about the nickname of a “Mormon” – more properly referred to as a Christian or a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There’s enough history there that it could be a whole series of articles – so we won’t go into all of that right now. But I would like to bring up a couple of quick points.
The current preference of the Church (and its members) is to be called a Christian or a member of the Church of Jesus Christ. This is because being called a Mormon isn’t derogatory or anything – but it does remove Christ from the equation. So if you do have some Mormon friends, be a dear – and refer to them by their preferred terms.
Second, why would Breanne and I, as members of the Church, willingly plaster this article with the term “Mormon” all throughout it – when we prefer to be called Christians?
Well, that’s due to semantics. While we prefer to call ourselves Christians, the rest of the world still calls us Mormons. Mormon was a really cool prophet, but he’s not the Christ. Again, that’s another article (or series of them).
So in order to help anyone (and everyone) find what they’re looking for, we went ahead and used the term Mormon – but then we added this section as a disclaimer that, while you can find us via that term, we’d rather everyone focus on the Savior and call us by our preferred terms as outlined by President Russell M. Nelson in 2019 and 2020.
There really isn’t such a thing as a perfect database of genealogy records – yet. We may be able to get there one day. Until then, be patient. There are millions of people who are doing what they can to preserve genealogical records for future generations – and mistakes happen.
They aren’t the end of the world, though. They’re a chance to learn, grow, do better, and remember the stories of those who came before us.
Is Ancestry.com owned by the Mormon Church? Ancestry.com is a privately-owned company. FamilySearch.org is owned by the Mormon Church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).
What Do Mormons Prefer to Be Called? Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prefer to be referred to as “members of the Church of Jesus Christ,” “Christians,”, or “followers of Christ.” Members of the Church are asking for the change in an effort to emphasize the name of Christ and keep the focus on Him.
Why Does the Mormon Church Keep Genealogy Records? Members of the Church believe that family units are part of God’s plan for His children and that all of humanity is one big family. Doing genealogy helps us to strengthen those relationships and to prove that we’re all one family. You can read more about why the Church does genealogy in our post here.