What is an Item?

In recent posts, The Original in Context and How Many Copies?, I examined how an original item fits into the collection and how originals are copied into many different forms. Those transformations raise a critical question: What is an Item?

The archival standard, ISAD(G), defines an item as

“the smallest intellectually indivisible archival unit” where a unit of description is “A document or set of documents in any physical form, treated as an entity, as such, forming the basis of a single description”.

So, what does that mean and how can it be applied to genealogical sources? In the example of Alfred Munday’s baptism, the Abinger baptism register is described as an item. It is a single physical entity, a book. It has a particular and unique history in that it was created between July 1841 and May 1898 by the parish clergy filling in baptism details.

What happens to the item when copies are made?

A bundle of Bishop's transcripts

A bundle of Bishop’s transcripts

Annual copies of parish registers were made for the bishop (Bishop’s Transcripts). In the Abinger example loose sheets of paper (or folios) of baptism, marriage and burial forms were filled in, and the diocese (or later custodian) filed these together by year. So, what is an item for these Bishop’s Transcripts? Although they share the same purpose of providing a copy for the bishop, the baptism, marriage and burial folios are copies of 3 separate registers. A logical argument can be made to consider the 2 baptism folios an item. I prefer to treat each folio as an item, as each is a separate and unique physical object.

Filmed records present different issues. Microfilms often contain more than one register and a register may be spread over more than one film. The Abinger 1841-1898 Baptism Register is split over 2 microfilms, numbers 991768 (1841-1876) and 994421 (1874-1898). Both of these microfilms also contain other registers from Abinger and other parishes. The Family History Library catalogue sometimes marks parishes as separate ‘items’, but does not appear to consistently identify original registers or even sequential runs of data. When the microfilm is of something which is itself a copy the relationship to the original may be obscured. The Abinger Bishop’s Transcripts are spread over 2 microfilms, with baptisms 1844-1850 on film 307739 and baptisms 1851-1857 on film 307740.

The distribution of images over microfiche present similar problems to microfilm, except that the number of images on a fiche is typically fewer than film. In the Abinger case, microfiche were produced from microfilms of the original registers. The fiche that contains Alfred Munday’s baptism includes baptisms from 1835 to 1865.

It is clear that a microfilm or a microfiche is a single physical object, but the contents may vary and may not be adequately documented. A pragmatic approach is to treat each microfilm or fiche as an item. That leaves the problem of describing the contents of each item.

So far I have considered physical copies with a pragmatic approach to defining what an item is. In short if you can pick it up and shake it and nothing falls off, it is an item. For artefacts that are in good condition, it holds true. Fragile artefacts (please don’t annoy archivists by shaking) may become detached, but if the parts have been kept together, it still makes sense to treat the whole as an item. When parts of a artefact are split up and distributed, as in the example discussed in Book Breaking and Digitisation, the parts have separate custodial histories, so should be treated as separate items with a lot of documentation.

What about digital objects? Two types of digital objects have been identified for the Abinger example: digital images and databases.

A digital image, typically a jpeg file, is easily identified as an item that can be viewed and downloaded. In the Abinger case, the digital images mostly depict microfilm frames, but some parts of the collection have been directly digitally photographed. The number of pages of a manuscript (e.g. original register or bishop’s transcript) depicted in a traditional photograph or digital image varies, with 1 or 2 pages being common. When 2 pages are depicted, it is usually an opening of a book, such as the Abinger baptism register. Both sides of a folio do not appear in the same image, because you can’t photograph both sides at once. The Abinger bishop’s transcripts were photographed with 1 side each of 2 folios shown in each image, which results in the last page of baptisms and the first page of marriages being on the same image. As Ancestry has re-arranged the images into separate sets for baptisms, marriages and burials, this image appears twice.

Digital image of Abinger Bishop's transcript showing 2 folios

Digital image of Abinger Bishop’s transcript showing 2 folios

Identifying items in databases is the hardest of all. The main online genealogy data vendors categorise data into collections, such as Ancestry’s ‘Surrey, England, Baptisms, 1813-1912’ and ‘London, England, Births and Baptisms, 1813-1906’ collections that contain the Abinger parish registers and bishop’s transcripts respectively. The distinction between collections is blurred by search facilities that permit broad searches on multiple collections. Each collection is a compilation of data from diverse sources, so the collection is not a good candidate for treatment as an item. The structure of online databases is not transparent. A database record, a single row in a database table, could be considered the smallest intellectual unit within a database. A parish register or bishop’s transcript entry may not actually equate to single row in one table, but entries returned by queries could be stored that way.

Each time a copy is made, a transformation occurs. Transformations change the characteristics of an item. The data contained within items is split, re-arranged and compiled in different combinations each time.

split re-arrange compile

© Sue Adams 2015

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How many copies?

During recent discussions in the FHISO Sources and Citation Exploratory Group, Nick Hall suggested this baptism as an instructive example:

1845, 30 Nov, Alfred son of James & Lucy Munday

This entry, numbered 123, is recorded in the parish baptism register for Abinger St James on page 16 of a bound book of printed forms.

It is likely that you would not be permitted to inspect the original register, but would be directed to a copy instead. Popular records like parish registers would deteriorate through being handled by many people. The primary concern of archives is the long term preservation of documents in their care. The archivist is not being an obstructive pain, but doing their job.

Copies offer much wider access, especially to those who cannot easily travel to the archive. However, copies are not equal, so it is important to know exactly which copy of a record you are using.

I have tracked down as many copies of this baptism record as I can find. Here is how the copies were derived:

Abinger_St_James_Baptism_Register

Derivatives of Abinger Baptism Register (Follow link for an interactive version)

 

I count 18 versions in addition to the original register. Can you find any more?

 

© Sue Adams 2015

 


Parish Register and Transcript Comparison with Implications for FamilySearch Index

In the last post, Now you see it, now you don’t – IGI and FamilySearch, I discussed the shortcomings of the FamilySearch index for marriages in Claverley.  The index is based on a published transcript, so just how accurate was the transcript?

The title page bears the name of the honorary secretary of the Shropshire Parish Register Society, W.G.D. Fletcher, but the introduction tells that this transcript was made by Lieutenant-Colonel G. S. Parry[1].  Also included are descriptions of the ten original registers, for example:[2]

Vol. X. Contains Marriages, 1813-1937, on printed paper forms, 3 to a page, printed in pursuance of the Act of 28 July 1812, by Geo. Eyre and Andrew Stahan.  Of these forms, 223 on the first 75 pages are filled in, the rest of the book remains blank.  There is a printed title page and one fly-leaf. It is bound in vellum.  Size, 15 ¾ x 10 inches.

The original registers are available on microfiche at Shropshire Archives.  The above description is accurate making it easy to identify this volume on fiche numbers 9 & 10[3].  Both the original register and transcript record:

  • For the groom and bride:
    • names
    • parish of residence
    • status e.g. bachelor, widow
  • Date
  • Parental consent
  • Banns or Licence
  • Name of the officiating clergyman
  • Names of witnesses (signatures)

The transcript is not an exact copy as it omits the standard form text, abbreviates some terms and names, and reformats the information.  Notes added by the author indicate that parish of residence is omitted when it is Claverley and name of the presiding clergyman is noted for blocks of records.  Other omissions are signatures of the bride and groom as they have already been named and indications of illiteracy (e.g. x her mark). The original register’s page numbers and record entry numbers are omitted, but the sequence of records is preserved.

So the transcript contains a great deal more than an index, but as it is not a complete copy.  It should really be described as an abstract.

Of the 223 records in Volume X[4], I found 25 discrepancies between the original register and abstract:

no field abstract register
13 year 1815 1814
23 witness Eleanor Glover
29 witness Susan. Harrison Susanna Harrison
31 witness Eleanor Glover
35 witness John Smith
37 witness William Ball
43 witness Ann Jones
45 witness Hannah Rushtow Hannah Ruston
61 witness Sarah Adams Sarah Evans
63 witness Sus. Smallman Susanna Smallman
64 bride name Matlida Pope Margaret Matilda Pope
76 witness E A Re__hall [?]
78 witness Ann Harley Sarah Ann Harley
84 groom name Thomas Bennet Thomas Kennet
89 groom name William Rowly William Rowley
104 witness Job Noke Joab Noke
119 witness John Doughtey John Doughty
130 groom name Thomas Parson Thomas Parsons
133 groom name Vicarage Culwick Vickaridge Culwick
135 witness Philip Crompton, Phoebe Sophia Rhodes
181 witness Mabel Branford
182 witness Wm Ball
184 witness Wm Ball
203 bride name Elizabeth Churchyetts Eliza Churchyetts
206 witness Jane Devey Jane Devy

11% of records in this sample contain an error.  How important is this?

The most common errors are the omission (10, 4.5%) and mis-transcription of witness names.  One record omitted witness names altogether (no 135), one unreadable witness (no 76) was omitted, and the rest of the omissions occurred when there were more than the 2 witnesses required by law.  Witnesses are often relatives of the bridal couple, so may provide important genealogical clues.   However, the omission of William Ball may have little genealogical significance.  He witnessed a high proportion (28, 12.6%) of the marriages between 1813 and 1837, a pattern that might indicate frequent availability to serve as a witness, perhaps as a lay official of the church such as a church warden.  Mis-transcription of witness names (8, 3.6%) was more common than that of bride (2, 0.9%) and groom names (4, 1.8%), suggesting that these were less carefully transcribed.  Witnesses tend not to be included in marriage indexes, so these errors are not repeated in the FamilySearch index.

Errors in the bride and groom names and date are repeated in the FamilySearch index, at least for those records included in the index.  A search for exact matches would fail to find a particular record.  However, a soundex search that matches names phonetically should cope with the spelling errors encountered in this sample.  Search algorithms could potentially cope with standardised abbreviations.  In this sample Susanna has been abbreviated in two different ways (nos 29 & 63).

The published transcript was produced in 1907, using the technology of the time.  It is certainly easier to index a printed work than handwritten records, so using the original registers would not necessarily been more accurate.  Sequential page and entry numbers were specified in the 1812 Act to guard against the loss of records.  Had at least the entry numbers been included in both transcript and index, identification of individual records and checking of the completeness of the data set would be much easier.  The 31% records missing from the FamilySearch index vastly outweigh the small proportion of errors in the transcript:

Year no marriages in FamilySearch index no Marriages in register difference % difference
1813

5

5

0

0.0

1814

5

7

2

28.6

1815

4

10

6

60.0

1816

2

3

1

33.3

1817

3

6

3

50.0

1818

3

5

2

40.0

1819

4

7

3

42.9

1820

7

10

3

30.0

1821

8

12

4

33.3

1822

10

15

5

33.3

1823

5

9

4

44.4

1824

6

6

0

0.0

1825

4

11

7

63.6

1826

5

7

2

28.6

1827

5

8

3

37.5

1828

9

12

3

25.0

1829

4

5

1

20.0

1830

6

7

1

14.3

1831

5

9

4

44.4

1832

6

9

3

33.3

1833

8

11

3

27.3

1834

15

17

2

11.8

1835

11

12

1

8.3

1836

9

16

7

43.8

1837

4

4

0

0.0

Grand Total

153

223

70

31.4


[1] Fletcher, W.G.D. 1907. Shropshire Parish Registers.  Diocese of Hereford. Vol X. privately printed for the Shropshire Parish Register Society.  p. ix.

[2]  ibid. p. vi.

[3] Church of England. Marriage Register. 1813-1837. P68/fiche8-9. Shropshire Archives, Shrewsbury

[4] Fletcher, W.G.D. 1907. Shropshire Parish Registers.  Diocese of Hereford. Vol X. privately printed for the Shropshire Parish Register Society.  pp. 409-423.

© Sue Adams 2013