Ancestry.com managed to get two articles in local Boston newspapers announcing the digital arrival of these microfilmed records. The Boston Herald announced the event with "Mass. records dating back centuries go online" while The Boston Globe headlined with "A new window on Bay State's vital records." The Boston Globe article indicates that as of this week 9 million records, which is more than half of the collection, have been digitized.
Does the new database warrant all the hype? I decided to take a look to see.
A Birth Record 1872
First I searched for the birth record of Susan Cobb born in 1872 in Medway, Massachusetts to Joel and Susan (Whiting) Cobb.
Ancestry.com had an image of the birth record taken from the register. The quality of the image is not very good.
The American Ancestors website from the New England Historic Genealogical Society also has images of Massachusetts vital records. Their image of the birth record was much clearer.
|image: American Ancestors|
But as you will notice these images are not taken from the same book. The typeface from the page forms are very different. I just ran down to the Medway Town Hall in order to verify with certainty which version was which. The Holbrook Collection shows images from the original Medway Town Record Books while the American Ancestors version is likely from the copies at the Massachusetts Vital Records office. While both record books should contain the same information the original books in town hall are known to contain more detailed records such as burial location that the state record books leave off. Also, since the state vital record books are copies there is always the chance that an error could have been introduced during the copying process.
FamilySearch.org also included the birth record in their database. Unfortunately they do not have a copy of the image but finding the record is helpful.
Fold3.com also has two relevant databases - Massachusetts Printed Vital Records and Massachusetts Vital Records Index 1841-1895. Susan Cobb came up in both of those searches. Unfortunately, I don't have a subscription to Fold3 so I can't take a close look at the records but from the thumbnails they look like typed transcripts of the original registers. (Perhaps someone can take a look and let me know.)
[Update: Fold3 does provide an image of the original book which seems to be the same version as the American Ancestors database (ie the state copy). Both American Ancestors and Fold3 provided excellent quality images but they may have been digitized separately by different organizations and not identical images.]
An interesting aspect of this collection is the front matter for each town's records. After finding your ancestor's record take the time to check out that first page of each town's digital collection. You can do that by entering 1 (or sometimes 2) in the page number box on Ancestry.com. There you will find all the information about the individual town collection. From looking at the front matter for the Medway Town Records it appears that town record books containing town meetings and reports were also in the Holbrook microfilm collection. I'm not sure at this point if that material was digitized and included on Ancestry.com or not. And if so, whether it was indexed (not likely!).
|Medway front matter image: Ancestry.com|
A Marriage Record from 1772
I decided to jump back 100 years and test the collection on the 1772 Medway, Massachusetts marriage record of Abijah Richardson and Mercy Daniels.
The new Holbrook collection on Ancestry.com had a digital image from the microfilm. Again the quality is not great but this does look like it comes from the record book at Medway Town Hall.
|image: American Ancestors|
It must be noted that the title of the collection states that the records go all the way up to 1988. In order to check that I did a search simply on the year 1965 (I didn't care to do anything too recent for privacy reasons). What I found appeared to be compiled records from Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The first page of the collection indicated that the records where compiled by Stockbridge from "town records, church records and grave records." So indeed the database does continue through the 20th century. I have not done a full analysis of the modern records so I don't know to what extent the records exist but it is interesting none-the-less that the collection includes such recent records.
|Stockbridge, MA record. Image: Ancestry.com|
Worth the Hype?
While much of the new Holbrook collection on Ancestry.com has records that are easily accessible elsewhere, the record sources as not identical. The fact that these images come from the original town record books makes them very valuable. The 20th century records in the collection do seem to be a new advantage but it is unknown at this point just how substantial and beneficial it will be to researchers until further analysis is done.
I wouldn't shout Hip Hip Hooray from the mountain top at the arrival of this collection without further examination. However, having access to images of the original town records, both pre and post 1841 is a definite benefit. It is also a benefit, in general, for Ancestry.com subscribers and it is certainly a benefit for the careful, thorough researcher who cares to take the time to review all versions of a record for comparison purposes.