July 28, 2020
NOTE: This is a slightly updated version of an article I published four years ago. The subject arose again recently so I decided to republish this for the benefit of newer readers who did not see the earlier article. I also updated some of the text to better describe newer developments.
Several newsletter readers have sent messages to me expressing dissatisfaction with records that were available online at one time but have since disappeared. I am offering this republished article as an explanation about why we should not be surprised when that happens. I will also offer a suggestion as to making sure you keep your own copies of online records that are valuable to you.
Two newsletter readers sent email messages to me recently expressing dissatisfaction that a set of images of vital records has been removed from a popular genealogy site. Indeed, removal of any online records of genealogical value is sad, but not unusual. Changes such as these are quite common on FamilySearch, MyHeritage, Ancestry.com, Fold3, Findmypast, and many other genealogy sites that provide images of old records online. Removal of datasets has occurred dozens of times in the past, and I suspect such things will continue to happen in the future. I thought I would write a brief explanation.
In most cases, information of genealogical value obtained from government agencies, religious groups, museums, genealogy societies, and other organizations is provided under contractual agreements. The contracts specify what information is to provided, how it is to be made available, and what price the web site owner has to pay to the provider for the records. All contracts also have a defined expiration date, typically 2 years or 3 years or perhaps 5 years after the contract is signed.
When a contract nears expiration, the two parties usually attempt to renegotiate the contract. Sometimes renewal is automatic, but more often it is not. Maybe the information provider (typically an archive) decides they want more money, or maybe they decide they no longer want to supply the data to the online genealogy service. For instance, in the time the information has been available online, the information provider may have learned just how valuable the information really is. The information provider may decide to ask for more money or may even refuse to provide the information any more since the provider may have a NEW plan to create their own web site and offer the same information online on their new site for a fee, hereby generating more revenue for the provider than that of the expiring contractual agreement.
Sure, that stinks for those of us who would like to have the information everywhere; but, it makes sense to most everyone else. I am sure the budget officer at most any state or local government archive thinks it makes sense.
Every contract renegotiation is different, but it is not unusual to agree to disagree. The contract ends, and the web site provider legally MUST remove the information from their web site. The same thing frequently happens to all the online sites that provide old records online.
Another issue that has become a problem recently is the European GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). These new rules apply to all public records in Europe. These regulations arose because of the concept of the “right to be forgotten,” mostly concerning people who had legal problems in the past but have since reformed and do not want the old records to constantly create new problems. The regulations are generic and open to various interpretations. While not specifically requiring information about ancestors of 100 years ago or even earlier to be removed from public view, many people and organizations have taken a conservative approach and deleted any record sets that are even slightly questionable under the new rules.
A full discussion of the GDPR would consume hundreds or even thousands of web pages so I won’t attempt that here. Instead, you can find many online articles that address the issues created by the GDPR by starting at Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Data_Protection_Regulation and then moving on to https://duckduckgo.com/?q=gdpr&t=hi&ia=news.
One problem for web publishers is how to create two separate services: one to display European records that comply with the GDPR and also create a second service that displays records from the rest of the world. Some web publishers have simply removed ALL records that might not comply with the GDPR regulations, regardless of the geography involved.
The moral of this story
If you find a record online that is valuable to you, SAVE IT NOW! Save it to your hard drive and make a backup copy and save it someplace else as well. If there is no option to save, make a screen shot and save it on your hard drive and save another copy, either in the cloud or some other place off-site where it will last for many years. Just because you can see the record online today does not mean that it will be available forever.