One of my cousins asked me to look at a will for her because she was having a hard time reading some of the names. Whenever I am presented with a document that I did not personally obtain I try to get a "clean copy" which means going back to where the original document came from and pulling my own copy. Sometimes a document has been photocopied so many times that it is junk to try and read. I also like to get a clean copy so I can format a proper source citation and to make sure that the document I am looking at is what I think it is.
My cousin sent me a link to someone's Ancestry.com page. That person had uploaded a copy of Anderson Chick's will from Walton County, Georgia. This was not a document they had linked to on the Ancestry.com website so not a digital image from microfilm. I didn't link to it for you to see since it is attached to someone's tree page which includes their name. I checked FamilySearch to see if they had a digital image of Anderson's will taken from microfilm. They did. You can see Anderson Chick's entire loose probate file HERE which includes his will. The names recorded in the will are clear. A bonus is that my cousin can now see the entire probate file and not just the will. If a digital image taken from microfilm had not been available online, I would have instructed my cousin to contact the Walton County Courthouse to obtain a photocopy or digital image from them.
Another example, I was asked to transcribe a will from Abbeville County, South Carolina. The document was unreadable so I called the courthouse to get a clean copy. When I received it I found that not only was it very readable but there was a second page. That second page contained some very valuable information. I now had the date the will was proved which gave me a date range for when this man died. The will was proved over five years after he wrote the will. One of the witnesses was different between who witnessed the will versus who was there to prove the will. It turns out that one of the witnesses had died. The new witness was the original man's sons-in-law. I didn't know that right off but after a little digging I was able to figure it out. These little bits of information make for a clearer picture. This wasn't my family but I wanted to be able to give the person I was doing this for as much information that I could.
It is common to find miscellaneous documents in someone's personal papers. If your great uncle Norman hands you his marriage certificate you will have to cite the certificate as an artifact unless you obtain a clean copy from the agency that created it. This is another reason why it is a good idea to go back to the original creator, if possible.
You can expand this concept to the digital copies available online. A digital image of a document can easily be available on multiple websites. Each website has their own way of "cleaning up" the images so they can look very different from website to website. If you are looking at a document that is hard to read you can try finding it on another website before you try and contact the originating agency.
If you are presented with bad copy of a document don't immediately throw your hands up in despair. Try and get a clean copy and many times you will be rewarded.
Michele Simmons Lewis, CG® is part of the Legacy Family Tree team at MyHeritage. She handles the enhancement suggestions that come in from our users as well as writing for Legacy News. You can usually find her hanging out on the Legacy User Group Facebook page answering questions and posting tips.