The online world has created many opportunities to find additional information and connect with others who are researching our ancestors like never before. The ability to search indexes and view the original images from home at our convenience is changing the world of family history. Digital is here to stay and will continue to enhance our ability to identify our ancestors, but it does bring some challenges.
The goal in identifying and documenting a source is to know what we have searched, what we have found (and what we have not found) and where to find the information again when we want to look at it later. The challenge is that when we go back several years later, many websites that we used to access sources no longer exist, or if they exist, they no longer have that the same structure. When we try to visit the URL (the web address i.e. morgannewspaper.com) instead of the record, we dutifully recorded we receive the dreaded 404 error.
Several organizations have been working on this problem. FamilySearch has been deploying what they call a Persistent Archive Link (PAL) so that when a user comes back in 10 years even if the site has been re-arranged in the mean time the link will still take the user back to the record. This type of approach is one that all of the commercial organizations ought to be using.
Just in case they are not using this type of approach and for all the companies that go out of business and all the personal websites where we find information, it is important to store more than the URL. It is worthwhile to treat the online source just as we would a microfilm or a book or other type of record.
When information is found in a film or microfilm we record the original source, but we normally will take a copy with us. Sometimes it is a physical copy, sometimes it is a digital copy, and sometimes it is an abstract. We take the copy to ensure that we will have access to it later and can easily find it. I suggest the same approach for websites. Take a screen shot of the image and index and store it as you do your other sources. Keep either a digital copy of the source and back up these digital copies to more than one place (online services such as dropbox facilitate this) or keep a physical copy that you print from the screen shot organized with the physical sources you own.
An important part of online research is ensuring that you can repeat the process you used to find the information and can know why you came to the conclusions you did. A little work now in preserving these online sources will save hundreds of hours down the road. We are all still learning to manage the world of online genealogy. Learning to manage sources is just one more element of this change