I find that I use both Ancestry.com as well as HeritageQuest Online when doing census research. There a several reasons for this.
First – the digitizing was done by two totally different companies. A little history might be in line here. I was working for Heritage Quest when Brad Steuart made the decision that he would digitize the United States Census records. Brad purchased several “SunRise” microfilm digitizers to do the job. This was back in the days when these machines were extremely expensive, so the dozen or so machines that would have been nice were not in the budget. Instead, our machines ran around the clock. Brad made the decision – which I still believe was the right one – that he would digitize the film in a bi-tonal – or black and white – format. He could have done it in a grayscale format. However, grayscale produces a much larger image, making download time longer. Grayscale also produces what I believe is a much poorer image – if the microfilm image is good in the first place. The bi-tonal image makes black even blacker – and that can be good. If the image is very light (as much of the 1910 film is), grayscale images are often easier to read. However, the vast majority of film isn’t bad. After weighing the pros and cons, Brad went with bi-tonal images.
Following the digitizing, but prior to launch, there was negotiation between Heritage Quest and Ancestry about possible collaboration between the companies in the posting of the data to the Internet. Ancestry decided against it and proceeded to digitize the records again – this time in grayscale.
There is one other issue that should be mentioned as deals with digitizing. During the process, we heard much about enhancement of the images. Most of this was done automatically, but some images took a fair amount of hand work to get dark film corners to lighten, and light images to darken. How good an image we have today is not only because of the original quality of the film, or whether it was imaged as bi-tonal or grayscale, but also on how good the “SunRise” operator happened to be. The operator that was on shift as that image came through the machine often made the difference.
So – to make a long story short – today we have two separate digital databases with two separate digitizations. As you know, sometimes you can read one when you can’t read the other. Most active genealogists use both, if they are available. Sometimes we make a run to the Family History Library to read the microfilm itself.
HeritageQuest Online doesn’t have anywhere near the indexes available that Ancestry does. Many of us use the Ancestry indexes and the Ancestry digital images first. If the images aren’t legible, we move over to HeritageQuest Online. This happened to me last night. I had a 1900 census image out of Webster County, Nebraska that was absolutely black in the lower left corner – and that’s where my family was listed. I couldn’t read the names at all using the Ancestry image. So I moved over to the HeritageQuest Online image. I got lucky. The HeritageQuest Online image was legible and I was able to not only save good image to my hard drive, but I transcribed the entire family into my personal Roots Magic database.
Don’t get the idea from my above illustration that it always works this way. Often it’s the other way around. The Ancestry.com image (especially of “light” handwriting) is sometimes better. And there are times when neither image is any better than the other. However, there are enough times that they are, that I would be very unhappy if I didn’t have access to both. Thank God and Davis County, Utah, that I do…