1. Understanding evidence, Part 3: Modern derivative records, and pulling it all together

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    Janice HeppenstallJanice Heppenstall is a graduate of our Advanced Certificate programme (with Distinction). She has a passion for finding the extraordinary in ‘ordinary’ people’s lives, using their stories as a springboard to explore the local, social and political context in which they lived. She blogs regularly on family history and genealogy topics at English Ancestors and is also to be found on Facebook.

    This is the third of three posts looking at different types of documentation and other sources that we draw upon to evidence our research. The first two parts looked at primary and secondary sources, original and derivative records, digital surrogates, and some grey areas that appear to be originals but are in fact derivatives: contemporary copies. We now move on to modern derivatives: transcriptions and online indexes.


    Strictly speaking, a transcript is a word-for-word copy of the document, exactly as it appears on the original. However, modern day ‘transcriptions’ prepared for online genealogy research generally do not conform to this definition. Transcribers input information into predetermined fields for forename, surname, date, and so on. Any information falling outside these predetermined fields is simply omitted. This could mean important information or visual clues are missing. In any case, transcriptions vary in quality and accuracy. Sometimes the handwriting is difficult to read, particularly for someone not experienced in reading old handwriting styles. Consequently, the transcript may not record accurately the name, date or other information.

    In the last post we looked at the baptism in August 1819 of James Sword Mann, the first child of Thomas and Lucy Mann. We saw that in the original parish record the clerk had mistakenly recorded the mother’s name as ‘Sophia’. Although this was eventually corrected in the parish record it was not corrected on the Bishop’s Transcript. Let’s look now at modern transcriptions of the event as recorded in both these records: the parish register and the Bishop’s Transcript.

    Here is the transcript of the original record in the parish register:

    Baptism transcription

    James Sword Mann, Transcription of Baptism Register Entry, 15 August 1819, Norwich, St Martin at Oak, Transcript by FamilySearch, available on www.ancestry.co.uk Accessed 12 December 2022. Original data: Norfolk Record Office, Ref: PD 15/10

    And here, the modern transcript of the Bishop’s Transcript:

    Bishops Transcript transcription

    James Sword Mann, Transcription of Bishop’s Transcript of Baptism Register Entry, 15 August 1819, Norwich, St Martin at Oak, Transcript by FamilySearch, available on www.ancestry.co.uk Accessed 12 December 2022. Original data: Norfolk Record Office, Ref: BT ANW 1819-n

    • In both these transcripts the child is named as James Mann, thereby omitting the middle name Sword. Sword is in fact the mother’s maiden name – a valuable clue for researchers.
    • Both transcripts record the mother’s name as Sophia. This is of course correct in the case of the Bishop’s Transcript – it is a faithful copy of what was written. However, it is clear that on the parish record the transcriber has simply scanned the record looking for the facts required for the predetermined fields, and in doing so has not read the important amendment. Here, an entry of ‘Sophia amended to Lucy’ would be more accurate/useful.
    • In the transcription of the Bishop’s Transcript, ‘Tho[ma]s’ is transcribed as ‘Ether’.
    • On both transcripts the date of birth is omitted – the loss of a useful piece of information.
    • While for the transcription of the Bishop’s Transcript the actual parish of ‘Norwich, St Martin at Oak’ is given, the parish register transcript records only ‘Norwich, Norfolk, England’. While technically true, in 1819 there were 36 parishes in Norwich, and the inclusion of parish is an important part of the record.


    What we see here is that the further we have moved away from the original record, the more errors and/or omissions have crept in. That said, we should not discount transcripts. A transcript is far better than nothing; and although we will come across many mistakes like those just described, others are of extremely high quality, particularly those made by local Family History Societies and those made in years gone by, by local antiquarians. In cases where parish registers have been lost, their ‘reconstruction’, often done as a labour of love, using Bishops’ Transcripts and whatever other records are available are a wonderful resource. I have also used transcribed listings of parish register entries, arranged in alphabetical order, as a checklist, just to make sure I haven’t missed anyone. Wherever possible, though, transcripts are best used as a pointer to the existence of the actual record, guiding us to the original where we can see for ourselves what was written.


    Online resources for genealogy bring a double bonus. Not only can we research from the comfort of our own homes, but also the individual records have been indexed. This means we can achieve in an afternoon what might previously have taken years of sifting through decades of un-indexed data stored on microfiche at the local County Records Office. Whether we’re using commercial genealogy sources such as Ancestry.co.uk or FindMyPast, or free-to-use sites such as FamilySearch and FreeBMD, we just type in a few key search terms and are rewarded with a selection of possible records, probably including digital surrogates of the originals.

    The indexes themselves, however, are a derivative record, created pretty much as described above, by third parties, whose work may be of variable quality and accuracy, typing key facts into the predetermined index fields. As such they can and do include errors. My great grandfather, born in Leeds, is indexed on FindMyPast for the 1911 census with a birthplace of ‘Scotland’. I have also found a very clearly written ‘Alfred’ listed on the index as ‘George’, and indeed an entire collection indexed under Northamptonshire rather than Norfolk. Sometimes archaic spelling on very old original documents makes index searches even more ‘hit-and-miss’.

    Pulling it all together: combining different source types for best effect

    In this 3-part overview we’ve identified some good practice guidance for working with different source types:

    • Always get as close as possible to the original source for facts about your ancestors.
    • Use secondary sources to add context and depth, and to develop your understanding of the times they lived in.
    • Be aware of the nature of the record you’re looking at, and record that along with the information from the record.


    We will now add one more point:

    • Have several alternatives in your ‘arsenal’: Familiarise yourself with, and be prepared to use different source types together whenever necessary to reinforce, cross-reference and compare.


    Here’s a final example from my own research to illustrate this:

    An index search on several sites for a marriage for my 7x great grandfather John Lucas returned only one record: an abstract of Boyd’s marriage index 1538-1850 on FindMyPast. Information provided was simply: ‘Jones Lucas and Elizabeth Marshall; 1670, Rothwell’

    I suspected ‘Jones’ was a poor transcription, and although my John Lucas lived in Leeds, not Rothwell, this transcription intrigued me. I knew that digital images of the original parish registers of Rothwell, Holy Trinity, were available on commercial website Ancestry.co.uk and having located them, I used the information on the transcript to search 1670 for the appropriate entry so I could see the exact record for myself. The image below was what I found.

    Parish Register

    John Lucas and Elizabeth Marshall, Marriage Register Entry, 20 July 1670, Rothwell Holy Trinity www.ancestry.co.uk Accessed 14 Apr 2022. Original data: West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield: Yorkshire Parish Records; Reference: RDP91/1/5

    A digital surrogate is usually the closest we can get to using the original record.  However, this is not a good image.  The text is obscured by the rolled-back previous pages.  I could guess at some of the missing words, but others were simply not legible.  My solution was to turn to an early twentieth century transcription of the register by local antiquarian George Denison Lumb.  My thinking here was that, working in 1906, Lumb would have had access to the original document; and he would have been able to separate out the pages lost here in the fold.  My hunch was correct.  His transcription agreed with what I could see and enhanced my own:

    “[Jo]h[ann]es Lucas de [Le]eds et Eliz[a]betha [M]arshall de [R]othwell marit Vicesimo’ “

    The point is that if we are flexible we will find ways to use whatever is available to best effect.  The more sources at our fingertips, the more effectively we will do this – even if it means on occasion a transcription is preferable to a digital photograph of the original record!

    What I hope these three blogposts have illustrated is that although there is a hierarchy in terms of all these different types of source, there is value in all.  Wherever possible we should aim to use the original or a digital surrogate with photographed images of the original.  Secondary sources add context and help us to develop our knowledge and understanding but can also point us to new original sources we didn’t know about.  Online transcripts may show up in a search where the original record doesn’t – a problem with the indexing, perhaps – but if we know where digital surrogates of the originals are available we can use the transcript as a signpost to guide us to the correct entry in the original register.  When archaic handwriting is difficult, Bishop’s Transcripts might offer a slightly easier hand for us to read, and indeed a modern transcript may help us to ‘see’ the letters.  Finally, if a parish has lost its entire collection of registers, we can thank our lucky stars for the hard work of people who, as a labour of love, have tried to reconstruct them.


    George Denison Lumb: The Registers of the parish church of Rothwell Co. York, Part I 1538-1689 (1906) Privately printed for the Yorkshire Parish Register Society
    Transcription of marriage record of John Lucas and Elizabeth Marshall at p.284
    Accessed 5 May 2022 via Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/registersofparis27roth/page/n5/mode/2up

  2. Understanding evidence, Part 2: Derivative records – some grey areas

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    Guest Post

    Janice Heppenstall

    Janice Heppenstall is a graduate of our Advanced Certificate programme (with Distinction). She has a passion for finding the extraordinary in ‘ordinary’ people’s lives, using their stories as a springboard to explore the local, social and political context in which they lived. She blogs regularly on family history and genealogy topics at English Ancestors and is also to be found on Facebook.


    This is the second of three posts looking at different types of documentation and other sources that we, as genealogists, draw upon to evidence our research. These posts focus not on distinct record sets like censuses, birth registers or manorial records; rather they provide a broader look to get us thinking about the relative value of ‘evidence’ from different source types.

    In the first of these posts we focused on primary sources, which we often refer to as ‘original records’, and secondary sources. We looked at how we can use them together to build a fuller picture of our ancestors’ lives and experiences. In this second part we’re starting to look at derivative records.

    Derivative records are created after the event but based directly on an original record. In other words, information is copied from the original to another document. As such, there is scope for error in their creation, based on illegibility of the original text, carelessness, or other errors and omissions. There are several types of derivative records. In this post we’ll start with some grey areas: certain record types that are contemporaneous to and certainly look like originals but strictly speaking are not.

    Censuses, 1841-1901
    In the first post we differentiated between the 1911 and 1921 censuses and all those that went before. Why are these ‘original’ records, yet the earlier ones are not? When we find the 1911 or 1921 census return for our person of interest, we see a single sheet completed by (or on behalf of) the head of household and relating to the members and housing conditions of that household. This is an original record and primary source. By contrast, for the earlier censuses what we see is a long list of all residents in a specific locality, arranged by household and organised according to the route the enumerator took as he walked from house to house, collecting the information. You might have explained this difference with reference to illiteracy rates: that since a great many people were unable to read and write, the enumerator simply arrived on the doorstep and wrote down the information he was given; but this is not true. Individual records were created for each property, and this was then transcribed onto the lists we see today. The original household sheets were then destroyed. In other words, all we have left for these earlier censuses is the contemporaneous derivative record. This might explain some inconsistencies. The second child of my great grandparents is referred to in the 1881 census as Jane (female). He was actually John, a boy. Another great grandfather, George, appears as ‘Enoch’ in the 1891 census. Was this a mis-transcription, or did George object to nosy-parkers coming to ask him questions? (I have spent a lot of time playing hide-and-seek with George, and I suspect the latter…)

    Civil Birth, Marriage and Death certificates (Civil BMDs)
    Are they original records? You would think so, but they are not necessarily so. Imagine yourself registering a death in 1851. You would go to the local Register Office. They would record all the information, give you a copy, keep the original for themselves and send a third copy to the General Register Office (GRO) in London. Of course, there were no photocopiers: the only way to do this was to write it out by hand several times. In other words, when we buy Civil BMDs online from the GRO, what we receive is a facsimile of a hand-written copy of the original record, i.e. a true copy of a derivative record, and not the original itself. You can choose instead to buy your BMDs from the local Register Office. However, some don’t offer this service, while others don’t have the capacity for creating facsimiles of the originals, in which case what we receive is a modern handwritten or typed copy of the original – again, a derivative record. Might this explain an odd discrepancy you’ve come across?

    Bishop’s Transcripts (BTs)
    BT’s are an interesting grey area. They are the copies of parish registers that, from 1598 until around 1800, church ministers were required to keep and send annually to the diocese office. They are contemporaneous with the originals, and written by a churchwarden who may have known the individuals involved. Even if a parish’s records from this period have not survived, there is the chance that the BTs have, since they will have been lodged with the diocesan records, quite separately from the parish, and possibly in different archives. As copies, strictly speaking they are derivative records and may contain transcription errors. However, sometimes they contain more information than the originals, and are often invaluable in providing a second chance in deciphering 17th or 18th century handwriting.

    Let me give you an example from my own research:
    The first image below is the 1819 Bishop’s Transcript of the baptism of my 3x great grandfather’s first child. When I found it I was in no doubt that this was the correct Thomas Mann and son James Sword Mann. However, since my 3x great grandmother’s name is Lucy, and the mother’s name here is Sophia, my assumption was that Thomas must have married twice, his first wife, Sophia, having died not long after James’s birth.

    James Sword Mann, Bishop’s Transcript of Baptism Register Entry, 15 August 1819, Norwich, St Martin at Oak www.ancestry.co.uk Accessed 12 December 2022. Original data: Norfolk Record Office, Ref: BT ANW 1819-n

    Some years later another I found the parish register record for the same baptism, below. It contained all the same information: James Sword, son of Tho[ma]s and Sophia Mann. Clearly, the BT had been absolutely correctly copied from this original record. However, here, the clerk has added a note to the effect that he has realised the mother’s name of ‘Sophia’ should be ‘Lucy’. The note was dated seventeen years later, 14 August 1836.

    James Sword Mann, Baptism Register Entry, 15 August 1819, Norwich, St Martin at Oak www.ancestry.co.uk Accessed 12 December 2022. Original data: Norfolk Record Office, Ref: PD 15/10

    In this example, the BT is a faithful copy, but whereas a correction has been made to the original, the BT has been left with the incorrect information. Only by using the one original parish register entry do we see this additional important information.

    What all these types of sources have in common is that they are contemporary copies. You may come across other examples, such as the copying of information from chapel of ease records to the main parish register, or post-Interregnum transcriptions made by the parish clerk, based on notes received from the interim civil parish clerks. They are contemporary, and undoubtedly they have value. In some cases they are all we have. But they are copies nevertheless, and as such there is the possibility of error or omission. The important point to take away from all this is that we should be aware of the nature of the record we’re looking at, and we should record that along with the information from the record.

    In the final part of this look at different source types we’ll focus on more modern derivatives: transcriptions and indexes; and we’ll meet up again with James Sword Mann and his parents.


  3. Understanding evidence, Part 1: primary, secondary and original sources

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    Guest Post

    Janice Heppenstall

    Janice Heppenstall is a graduate of our Advanced Certificate programme (with Distinction). She has a passion for finding the extraordinary in ‘ordinary’ people’s lives, using their stories as a springboard to explore the local, social and political context in which they lived. She blogs regularly on family history and genealogy topics at English Ancestors and is also to be found on Facebook.


    This is the first of three posts looking at different types of documentation and other sources that we, as genealogists, draw upon to evidence our research. These posts focus not on distinct record sets like censuses, birth registers or manorial records; rather they provide a broader look to get us thinking about the relative value of ‘evidence’ from different source types. In this first part, we’re looking at some important terms used to distinguish source types: primary, secondary, original and digital surrogate. The second and third posts will build on this, looking at a range of what are termed derivative sources. Although our starting point is that some types of evidence carry more weight than others, as we shall see, none should be disregarded because there is value in all. It all depends on how we use them.

    Primary sources are created at the time of an event, or not long afterwards. These include what we, as genealogists, tend to refer to as original records. They include the documents from official bodies and government offices that are the nuts and bolts of our research, such as civil birth, marriage and death certificates; records of baptisms, marriages, burials; wills; property documents, e.g. deeds; apprenticeship records; Court records; newspaper reports; and the 1911 and 1921 census (we’ll consider the earlier censuses in the second post). These types of original documents provide us with the hard facts that enable us to build our trees. They can include far more information than the mere fact of a particular event having occurred. A baptism record, for example, essentially has the date and location of the event, the child’s name and the name of one or both parents. Depending on the year and the parish, it may also include place of residence, father’s occupation, both parents’ fathers’ names and the child’s actual date of birth. Some even include the day of the week on which the birth occurred! It will of course include the denomination, and there may be other notes in the margin. That’s a lot of evidence! The important point here is that we are looking at the original document with our own eyes, and we see for ourselves what was written. We can examine it closely, decipher the handwriting, verify that this is the correct document for our research and get every last scrap of information from it.

    When we refer to ‘original records’, strictly speaking what we mean is the actual original documents lodged in archives like the local Country Records Offices, the National Archives at Kew, National Records of Scotland, National Library of Wales, Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) or other diocesan, university or specialist archives. However, increasing numbers of such documents have been photographed and made available to us online, through various websites. The availability of digital images can mean it is no longer necessary to handle the originals, which are stored away, safely. Indeed, often they are no longer available for the general user, meaning the photographed copies of them are what we must use. Archivists refer to them as digital surrogates. In almost every case they are as good as the original, but just occasionally they are not – we’ll see an example of this in part 3. When we rely on these surrogates, it’s good practice to say so. We can refer to them as ‘digital images of the original documents’ and give the website.

    Whether we see the actual original documents or an online photograph of them, we can be reasonably confident that most of the information in these original documents/ primary sources is true. Why only reasonably confident? Because the information recorded is only ever as true or as accurate as the facts provided by the informant. In the 1911 census my great grandmother added six years to her second husband’s age to make the age difference between them less obvious. Another example: the marriage record for my widowed 3x great grandmother has her father’s surname as ‘Moss’, which is actually her first husband’s surname. Sometimes we have to read between the lines, recognise human error, make allowances for individual foibles, and on occasion perhaps witness a web of deceit unfolding before our eyes.


    Family letters are also original documents (Karen Cummings’ personal collection)

    However, primary sources do not have to be from official bodies. We might also have personal items such as photographs of people and places; letters; memoirs; diaries; and spoken accounts by people who witnessed an event. In the case of photographs, sometimes simply seeing the image can be sufficient for our information needs: ‘Oh look, that’s Auntie Ethel at Grandma’s Ruby Wedding party, so she must have emigrated after 1977…’ However, often it’s what’s written on the back that adds vital information. The name of a studio on the back can help narrow down the date of the image, or there may even be a date stamp. Alternatively, someone may have written a note on the back. On the back of a group photo taken at the start of my Dad’s National Service training he has written his Platoon, Company and Regiment, along with the full address of the barracks, the date, and a signed dedication to his parents. But beware! Notes may have been added later by someone whose knowledge of the photo is based on hearsay. My Mum incorrectly labelled a photo as her ‘Uncle David’. Meanwhile, her cousin had incorrectly labelled a different photograph of the same man as ‘Uncle Albert’. It took a collaboration between the two daughters of these cousins – myself and my second cousin – to compare what we had and work out that these were in fact two precious photos of ‘Uncle Joe’, who had been killed in action in 1917, before his nieces, our mothers, were even born. This opportunity to exchange stories and photos is one of the things I love about finding new cousins via online trees. Another more distant cousin sent me a memoir written by his late aunt. It included information about family relations and tensions relating to my great grandfather and his birth family – information I simply never would have found any other way. Again, beware, though! A diary entry and a memoir is the writer’s ‘truth’, which on occasion may differ from the reality.

    Moving on to secondary sources, these tend to be published works in which the author describes, summarises, discusses or in some way draws upon information gathered from other sources (primary or other secondary). A secondary source may be produced many years after an event. The author may have had no physical connection whatsoever with the original event; and yet with the benefit of distance, hindsight and objectivity, the author can present an overview that adds context to our own research, helping us imagine our ancestors in their setting. Examples might include historians’ texts based on research about a person, locality, event or period of interest; literature contemporaneous to the time/ events; and modern historical novels or films based on sound research. Unless you are actually reading a book about your ancestor, such texts are unlikely to refer specifically to your family, but they can provide a fantastic backdrop to your research. While reading recently about trench warfare and the Western Front, I decided to watch a couple of films about the First World War to help me visualise what I had read: All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) and War Horse (2011). The depiction in both films of ‘No Man’s Land’, the area between the opposing trenches helped me to imagine the utter horror of ‘going over the top’, even down to the placement of coils of barbed wire laid by the troops to make an attack more difficult for the opposing side. Joey the ‘War Horse’ is seriously injured when he becomes entangled in one of these coils. In this example, my reading and the films were secondary sources, but both helped me to understand the conditions and horrific reality of life and death in the trenches for my own kinsmen. They enhance what we find in primary sources. Sometimes secondary sources include great photos and maps, or direct quotes from primary sources, guiding us to them so we can examine them for ourselves. Reading about the 3rd Battle of Ypres, where my aforementioned great uncle Joe was killed, I learned of diaries kept by his commanding officer and was able to locate these and read this factual account (primary source) of Joe’s final weeks, days and hours – even though he wasn’t mentioned by name. Other published works may be memoirs written by people who were there. Strictly speaking these are primary sources, but we can use them in the same way we use secondary texts, to help us understand the context and reality for our family.

    To summarise, then, primary sources are the original records made at the time of an event. They provide us with the essential data for our research. We simply could not progress without this information. The historian’s and genealogist’s mantra is always to get as close as possible to the original source. Today, often this means using online digital surrogates – photographs of these originals. However, although these records can help to pad out what we know about our ancestor – their occupation, maybe a physical description, evidence of regular drunk and disorderly behaviour, perhaps, and so on, they do not in themselves provide depth and context. What was life like on a prison hulk? Why were so many people in the north attracted to Nonconformity in the eighteenth century? What were the stages towards universal suffrage, and what can I deduce from the fact of my ancestor’s right to vote in a specific period of history? For these and many more questions and themes our research can benefit enormously from secondary sources.

    In the second part we will move on to derivative records, starting with certain types of records that appear to be originals but in reality are copies.

  4. Time to improve online coverage details


    This is cross-posted from Celia Heritage’s blog.  Celia is a Tutor with Pharos, a member of AGRA and runs a family history research and teaching business in Kent.
    Celia says:
    It is my opinion that genealogy websites should provide full source details and coverage dates for each of their databases. They should also clearly state where a database is not yet complete.
    While there is a wealth of genealogical and historical data now available online courtesy of websites such as Findmypast, Ancestry, TheGenealogist and FamilySearch it is becoming increasingly difficult to accurately determine what exactly the various databases include and, in some cases where they came from, thanks to the inadequate or inconsistent detailing of their sources.
    This is caused by several factors but the main two are as follows.
    • A lack of information as to where the information came from and the coverage dates and any gaps within the coverage. Source data should be clearly visible for anyone using the database or at least for anyone who wishes to make the effort to check the details.
    • Inaccurate or unhelpful title names indicating complete coverage where coverage is not in fact complete are misleading.
    Let us take parish registers as an example. Neither Ancestry nor Findmypast has a complete county-by-county listing of what they hold. If I am searching for a missing baptism, burial or marriage I need to know exactly which parishes for a certain county or counties are available online and for which dates. Once I know this I can work out which are not and will potentially have to be searched in the record office. However, since neither company provides a county-by-county listing of which parish registers they hold it’s not easy to check this.
    I emailed Findmypast to ask if they had such a listing on their website as I know that they do sometimes issue such lists when new databases are released. This is the reply I received:

    ‘We are sorry but the website does not have a full list of coverage for the parish registers. You would have to check the search form for the parish and then carry out a blank search. Once you have done this you can change the results page by clicking the sort order at the top right – relevance. If you change this to ascending/descending you will see the years covered.’

    This seems a very long-winded way of established county coverage, especially when they must have such listings in existence! Ancestry collections are better detailed but they still have no means of checking county coverage in one go. Similarly, the Family Search Wiki is a quite good way of determining which parishes have online coverage, but I don’t believe this is entirely up-to-date and this is again not as useful as a county-by county- listing, as each parish has to be searched individually to determine online coverage.
    To my knowledge the only major commercial website to offer a county-by-county listing for parish registers is TheGenealogist which has its ‘List of all datasets’ at the bottom of its home and search pages. This provides a full list of which parish registers it offers and the coverage dates for each type of event and, for logged in users, this can also be accessed from the ‘Search’ tab, entitled ‘What’s included in my subscription?’ The list naturally covers all its other datasets too, not just parish registers, although some of the other categories are not as detailed as they should be.
    In order to prevent the online world of genealogical sources descending into chaos, I call upon the major genealogy companies to make it quite clear what information their datasets do and do not include. Surely this is not too much to ask?
    If you would like to join me in my campaign to encourage companies to improve the quality of their sourcing details and a new openness about which records they do and do not offer, please spread the word and encourage those interested in family history to email the companies concerned as well with this simple request. Let’s start with a request for full county-by-county parish register listings. Please share my blog with the genealogy world  and you can also follow my posts on the subject on Twitter @CeliaHeritage and Facebook. Your examples of inadequate source detailing and coverage are most welcome.
    Please let’s help Celia achieve her aim!