Ancestry Library Edition vs. Heritage Quest

by Megan M. Isely, Archives Assistant, La Crosse Public Library
Is it the fight of the century?  No, actually Ancestry and Heritage Quest are complementarians that make genealogy database information available in an easily accessible form. First, there is some bad news.  Even with all the information in both of these database collections most resources that people use to find genealogy information are not available online.  Dick Eastman, a well known genealogy and technology expert with a great blog, estimates that, at most, three to five percent of available genealogy material is online.  More resources continue to be added, by both commercial providers like Ancestry and Heritage Quest and by entities, like state archives and colleges, which make information available for free. But all genealogy information and resources are not available on the Internet.

Also a database cannot “do” genealogy.  A database cannot solve logistical problems nor do the thinking and analyzing required to deal with conflicting information from different sources.  Online sources can help point the way to records and provide some records.  Most records are created at a more local level (like the county or township or city or individual church) and those records are vital to breaking down genealogical brick walls.  Many of these records are not in an index or online.  Ancestry and Heritage Quest can get people started and help them locate where their ancestors are at a particular place and time, which can lead to local records.

There is not one Ancestry or Heritage Quest.  Each of them is a collection of databases.  Except for U. S. census information the databases that each service provides are different.

Heritage Quest

Heritage Quest has several databases that provide an index and digital images of the actual materials. Selected Revolutionary War pension files and bounty land warrant applications are valuable sources that can help a person prove the Revolutionary War service of an ancestor, a goal of genealogists.  The Freedman’s Bank was a bank set up for post-Civil War freed blacks.  These records can help a person identify information about their ancestors at a time when few records about blacks are available, because those who applied for accounts were asked for their birth information and parents’ names.

The U. S. Serial Set is a record of acts of Congress which includes private acts.  The United States was a smaller country at that time and private acts were relief acts for the benefit of an individual.  Widow Smith gets her pension based on her husband’s military service, even though she can’t quite fulfill all of the requirements to prove his service (there is no written record because of the destruction in Washington D. C. during the War of 1812 and all the old boy’s comrades in service are dead so she can’t find anyone to testify to his service, but everyone in the neighborhood, including the Congressman, knows he served).  The final database that includes digital images is made up of older books of local history and family history, that can be searched full text for names or places.  Many counties and states published local histories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that can often provide biographical details and valuable local history information.  Family histories were also published during this time period that could include information gained from persons alive at the time.  These books can be valuable genealogy sources.  Because these books are often held in libraries in their reference collections access to them can be difficult.

Heritage Quest uses PDF images that can be read by Adobe Acrobat or another PDF reader so they are easy to use for libraries and patrons.   Heritage Quest also allows library users to access their collection from home if the library, or library system, is a subscriber.

Heritage Quest also has the PERSI index, an index to articles in all kinds of genealogical publications from large national and state journals to local publications by local county or area societies.  Local societies often publish indexes and abstracts of valuable local records (like indexes to marriages or probate records) so these can be valuable resources for people searching for genealogy records and information.  PERSI is an index only so copies of articles need to be sought via interlibrary loan.

Ancestry Library Edition

Ancestry has a large number of databases (6,660 as of October 21, 2009) that encompass a wide variety of resources and types.  Some databases are only an index.  Some have transcripts or extracts (partial transcripts) of information.  Some databases have indexes and also include digital images of the actual documents.  Most images use the free Ancestry viewer software (which provides better images and faster downloads) and some are in PDF format.  Some of Ancestry’s databases include lists of passengers arriving in the United States (some with images), vital records (some with images), military records, and city directories.  Ancestry also provides a card catalog that allows people to search for a specific database.

One key resource for genealogy searching is census records.  Census records help locate a person’s ancestor in a particular place and time so that more local records can be identified, as well as provide other clues.  In the United States the census is taken every ten years, starting in 1790.  Early censuses only listed the name of the head of the household and identified other members by age, gender, and (sometimes) race.  Starting in 1850 every name in the household was listed and more information appears on later censuses.  The 1890 census was destroyed and the most current census available is 1930.

Heritage Quest and Ancestry both have images of the U. S. censuses.  Not all censuses in Heritage Quest are indexed.  All censuses in Ancestry are indexed.  Because Heritage Quest and Ancestry have different image formats (Heritage Quest images were scanned in black and white and Ancestry images were scanned in grayscale) sometimes images are easier to read in one or the other.

Ancestry also has images and indexes for some U. S. state censuses that can sometimes help fill in the missing 1890 census.  States include Kansas, Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin (1895 and 1905).   Ancestry also has images and indexes of some censuses from the U.K. and Canada.

For libraries, the biggest difference between Ancestry Library Edition and Heritage Quest is in home access for patrons.  Because Ancestry’s primary business is providing subscription access to individuals libraries are not allowed to offer home access to their patrons; Ancestry Library Edition can only be used in the library.  ProQuest does not sell subscriptions to individuals and allows subscribing libraries to provide home access to their patrons.  With WRLS starting to provide Ancestry Library Edition and Heritage Quest to member libraries in January 2010, home access to Heritage Quest will be available to all library cardholders in the WRLS area.

The La Crosse Public Library web site has some guides to Ancestry and Heritage Quest searching that were prepared by Archives staff.  Go to and scroll down to the bottom of the page.  There are some genealogy guides there, including guides to Ancestry and Heritage Quest.  Printable copies of all the guides are available in PDF format.  ProQuest, the vendor that supplies both Ancestry and Heritage Quest to libraries, has a collection of PDF formatted guides available at  There are guides to many ProQuest databases, including Ancestry and Heritage Quest.  The home subscription version of Ancestry,, has a Learning Center that provides free information and guides about using, and searching, Ancestry.  Click on Learning Center, on the right hand side at the top of the home page, for links to videos, webinars, blogs and articles.

Ancestry and Heritage Quest provide easy access to a wide variety of useful genealogy databases.  Even so, online information is only a small fraction of what is available offline.  Ancestry and Heritage Quest are great starting points and can help point people to locations where they can find more information.  Heritage Quest also allows libraries to provide home access for their users.

(from January 2010)

Categorized: Archives

2 comments on “Ancestry Library Edition vs. Heritage Quest

  1. This is an amazing article. I hope it’s okay if I use it in a program I’m doing in Destin, Florida on Thursday, October 20th. The Library there has recently added both of these databases and this is one of the more definitive articles I have read.

  2. Nice article, here is a good source of history and heraldry and genealogy, great news for those that are willing to learn about their family roots. Always is useful have multiple sourses in genealogy and ancestry investigations.

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