Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ancestry's New Vital Records Database: Is it worth all the hype?

Recently released a new database of Massachusetts Vital Records officially called "Massachusetts, Town Vitals, 1620-1988." The new digital images are taken from the microfilm of the Holbrook Collection which was filmed by Jay and DeLene Holbrook.  The microfilm was created about 30 years ago and has been available to researchers for quite awhile. 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. 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. also included the birth record in their database. Unfortunately they do not have a copy of the image but finding the record is helpful. 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 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 or not. And if so, whether it was indexed (not likely!).

Medway front matter image:

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 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.


 In contrast, the vital  records pre-1841 on American Ancestors are taken from the "official series" or tan books of Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850. That means you will see a typed transcription of the marriage record rather than an image taken from the original record book. In this case using the image is better than the American Ancestors transcription.

image: American Ancestors has no record of this marriage at all. Nor does whose vital record collection starts at 1841.

Modern Records

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:

Worth the Hype?

While much of the new Holbrook collection on 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 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.


  1. I tried searching for several different family members with no luck. Might try some collateral lines when I get home. Guess my Irish luck ran out on St Patrick's Day!!

  2. I posted on G+ on the bad job they did on indexing the records, but on the whole, I'm happy these images are available. If the writing is hard to make out, I'll go with the transcriptions made and published by the NEHGS. Not only were they done by people who actually cared about accuracy, but they were also done at a time, when the writing would be less faded (early 20th century).

  3. This collection was presented at Family History Day in Tarrytown, NY last Saturday. A couple of things to note: this collection is supposed to be more thorough than the pre-1850 MA Vital Records collection, in that the Holbrooks went to every single town in MA & got records from each town that was willing to share. That being said, we noticed that certain towns were not yet available because they had not yet been filmed (like all the "A" towns). I guess more are coming.

  4. Christine - It will be interesting to see if there are more coming. The newspaper article indicated that the Holbrooks had retired. Perhaps some other group will pick up where they left off?

  5. I clicked on your link to the first Ancestry example, Marian, and it looked blurry to me. But about 20 seconds later it apparently finished loading and looked quite sharp -- at least as sharp as the American Ancestors image. So perhaps you need to give it more time to load. I was disgruntled by images in another collection last week, and then discovered they were just taking more time to load than I expected. Eventually they turned out to be sharp. Thanks for taking the time to make the comparisons. Very helpful information.

  6. I regularly use [updated site with many images];and, Mass Archives 1841-1910 [index only]. Both are free sites. I have been looking at the Holbrook Collection on It is very good for some cities/towns. There, however, as with all databases are some errors. Although, I am used to names being incorrect in the originals, and have found records at that are mispelled in the original or in indexing, the same cannot be said for the Holbrook collection at There is either an indexing problem, or some cities/towns are only partially indexed [and not in any order].

    We could use a list of the cities and towns that are included in the Holbrook Collection and whether the indexing is completed, partial or otherwise.

  7. I agree with Taco Goulooze and Anonymous (Mar 30). The Ancestry indexing of these records is dreadful. Just appalling. I'd guess that at least 25% of the records I've looked at contained at least one blatant error (i.e. something that was not in the least bit ambiguous or up for interpretation). E.g. "Jane Smite" in the index where it clearly says "John Smith Jr." and the father's name is correctly indexed as "John Smith". This is gross incompetence on the part of Ancestry and a true shame.

    Seriously, Ancestry, it would be far better for the world if you posted the unindexed images and took your time with the indexes. It is pretty clear that they aren't using the double-keying method, or if they are, they have a completely inept group of indexers. I've never seen anything this bad on Ancestry.

    I should also note that the Mass BDM registries are generally excellent and readable. There are people who should be there that have been missing, but I've come across almost nothing that was illegible (on the part of the writer, not counting damage to the physical document itself) and very few records with "incorrect" spellings or information. If the Familysearch index for the state records isn't perfect, I haven't found the errors.

    If there is anybody you can't find in the 1841-1915 time frame, I'd suggest looking either at the state records on the NEHGS or Familysearch sites and then manually searching for the person in the Ancestry database.

    Anonymous -- Ancestry (to its credit) does have a nice table of the towns that haven't been added yet on the main page for the collection.