Do You Know the Limitations?

Every database, index, record, or compilation has limitations. Do you know at least one limitation for each finding aid or actual record you use?

  • Transcriptions may include errors.
  • Search engines may not work the way you think they do–or the way another site does.
  • Informants on death certificates don’t have to prove every statement they make.
  • Census takers may guess at information or ask uninformed neighbors.
  • Probate records generally will not list relatives who died without descendants.
  • Land records do not include those who rent their land.
  • Indexes are not always full-name indexes.
  • Affidavits in pension claims can contain lies or exaggerations.
  • And so it goes.

For every source you use, every database you query, every book you read–ask yourself what limitations there may be.

Knowing the limitations doesn’t mean that we don’t use the item.

Knowing the limitations makes us better informed users.


2 thoughts on “Do You Know the Limitations?

  1. Meredith Bell

    My paternal great grandfather disappeared off the British census: he was 2 and a half on the 1861 Census and suddenly appeared being married in Adelaide in South Australia in 1886. It took quite a few years to find that the 1871 census had been transcribed incorrectly. Fortunately, he had an unusual christian name and a search by that name only brought him to light. Viewing the original record was the key.


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