Thursday, June 21, 2007

Crystal Ball: Part 2 - Digitizing Records

In an earlier post, I asked questions about the future of genealogy, especially the effects of digitization and indexing on access, libraries, societies, etc. I answered the first question, which concerned the question if "all" genealogy records will be digitized, in my post here.

I want to give my opinion on questions 2) and 3) of my earlier post. They were:

2) What records are most likely to appear in digital form with indexes?

3) What records are least likely to appear in digital form?

Before I answer those questions, I want to point to my Wish List post about digitization and indexing here. I don't claim to know everything about what records are available, and what have already been digitized, but I have some knowledge about the subject. Based on that knowledge and my own experience, my opinions on the two questions are (listed by record type):

1) State vital records - births, marriages and deaths: There are many state indexes for these records (see Joe's Births and Marriages Indexes and Death Indexes sites). However, only a few states have these indexes available online, and fewer provide images of the actual records online. The LDS Family History Library has many of the older vital records on microfilm or microfiche, and will hopefully digitize and index them in their ongoing projects. With the societal concerns about terrorism and identity theft, I don't think that there will be complete indexes or images of vital records available at any time soon, but there may be more available than we currently have.

2) Census records - the federal census records for 1790 to 1930 are available online, and the 1940 census will be released in 2012. Many state census records are available online, but not all. I think that all of the available state and federal census records will be available online in the next 5 years (subject to the 72 year restriction).

3) Military records - the US military records for wars before World War II are in the National Archives. Some of them are available in digital form online, with some indexes (see has an agreement with the Archives to digitize and index them. I think that all of these records will be digitized and indexed in the next 5 years (subject to a year restriction).

4) Naturalization records - the US naturalization records are held in many courts, and will be difficult to obtain, digitize and index. Some of the indexes are available online (see this site) and some are on film at the FHL. I think progress will be made on digitizing the indexes, but probably not the actual records.

5) Passenger Lists - many of the available passenger lists are available online at There are others on film/fiche at the FHL. This site has lists of the available online indexes and records. I think most, if not all, of these lists will be available online within the next 5 years.

6) Land and deed records -- there are few online collections of land record indexes and fewer images of the deeds. The exception is the General Land Office records at However, the FHL has microfilm and microfiche of the early (say before 1920) deed indexes and records and these should be digitized and indexed in the LDS projects. However, the records are mainly handwritten, and a complete indexing may be difficult. I think that all of the indexes will be available online, and images of the records, but the records may not be indexed.

7) Probate records -- same as Land Records. There are some transcriptions of wills online, but not many.

8) Tax records - same as Land Records. There are some indexes online, but very few images of these records.

9) Newspaper records - several major sites are and have digitized and indexed historical newspapers. Recent issues of many current newspapers are online and can be accessed. I think that most of the historical newspapers (say up to 1930 or 1940) will be digitized and indexed, but I doubt that the gap between the historical and current will be closed in the near future.

10) Cemetery and tombstone records - there are several excellent cemetery records sites (like and, plus transcriptions available on Rootsweb and USGenWeb sites. Some societies have indexing or transcription projects in work, and there are many books in local libraries or societies. However, all of these comprise only a fraction of the available records. More of these records may come online in the future, but I doubt that they will be complete.

11) Genealogy or historical society periodicals -- some societies have indexes and page images online, and some have paper indexes for their paper periodicals, but many do not have indexes or digital images. There are copyright issues that may prevent digitization of these paper documents. The LDS announcement of potential partnerships with societies to do the digitization and indexing is encouraging. I think a lot more of this will be done, but there will not be "complete" coverage.

12) Family papers and archives held in genealogy or historical societies -- there are file drawers of "stuff" donated by individuals. There may be more digitization if societies partner with the LDS as noted above.

13) Published books and manuscripts -- many out-of-copyright books are available in digital form, and have been indexed. Books under copyright protection are not available, in general ,ands likely won't be unless the copyright holder agrees to digitization. Some self-published books or manuscripts have been donated to the LDS FHL - will these be digitized in the LDS projects? Many manuscripts are held by repositories, and have not been digitized. I think that there will be more out-of-copyright books available, and probably more manuscripts, but not books under protection.

There are other types of records - for instance church, school, court, funeral home, city and phone directories, etc. that could be considered and discussed.

Likewise, I've only discussed US records - the conclusions for Canadian, European, Asian, and other records may be much different. I'm reminded that Iceland has "done" the genealogy for all of their citizens!

My guess at present is that we have 5% to 10% of "all" records available online in image form, with more constantly coming online.The combination of commercial databases, the Archives and the LDS church projects will drive the number higher. However, I don't think we will ever be able to find all records online. Just more.

Your thoughts? Open forum time - what do you think? Or blog about the question yourself.


Anonymous said...

Hi Randy,

Another nice post on a topic that I am sure interests many of us. Just this past week at the local Family History Center I was wishing I could get the records from distant places I need online instead of what we all have been doing for years with ordering the rolls, waiting a few weeks, and then getting them, before starting the process over again with other records. Of course it is wonderful that we can do it that way when otherwise we wouldn't have access, and more wonderful still that the LDS Church is so generous in allowing those of us who don't belong to use their facilities.

Regarding your list, the most likely and wished for items are probably numbers 1-5 and #7 as well as far as wills only. These are the records that not only can produce big genealogical paydays, but also are more easy to search and use.

But it is the rest of the county level records like deed books and court minutes, tax lists, etc., that I really wish for online, for this is mostly what I order from SLC. They take more effort to use, especially when unindexed, but are the types of records where you find hidden either a direct statement of relationship you need, or from which you can assemble a solid circumstantial case.

The non-official types of records I would most like online are cemetery transcriptions and newspapers. But transcriptions are historically the province of local societies, who mostly don't post that info for free online, as they depend upon sales of extract books for funding other projects. And as to newspapers, thus far most of the digitization I have seen are indexed via OCR software and produce horrible results, even when you specify search terms to be close to each other. Which is especially frustrating as older newspapers pre-1900 aren't even likely to have information you want.

All of this wish list and speculation stuff though, seems to be the result of most genealogists, including us, not understanding just what the FHL is intending to do with county records. Of course they have said the are going to index all their collection, which includes those records. And then ask volunteers to help index them. But as far as those indexed digitized images being actually available online, that seems to depend, even for national level records, on the willingness of commercial providers to host same.

But most county records like deeds don't have wide appeal, and collectively would take up huge space. Which might make the cost/benefit analysis of providing same to be a negative one for those commercial providers. So unless the FHL is willing to expend the financial resources for such massive hosting itself, then those records may only be available by ordering them for a price (and one which I would be willing to pay).

I would be most interested in reading a more detailed plan of the FHL on this matter.

Mike Ferguson

Bobp said...

Randy, I am a member of GLAM FHS (Swansea,Glamorgan,Wales)which is a ROOTSWEB Link member FHS. If anyone in our CVGen group needs a check let me know. Bob Page

michael said...

Land records are really hit or miss. Some counties, like Stark County, OH, have excellent access to scanned images online. While their deeds only go back to 1900 or so, the plats go all the way back to Plat Book 1 (1870s).

There used to be scanned images online for my county, but they decided to get rid of that. My theory is that the counties prefer that people go to the courthouse to PAY for copies of the records. That may be a roadblock in getting certain documents scanned and put online.

Michael McKean