Monday, January 19, 2009

More on Originals, Images and Indexes

The discussion about original papers at Archives, images made of those originals, and indexes created of those images on the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) mailing list has continued unabated over the past two weeks, with many useful observations, opinions and suggestions.

As readers of the APG list know, it is difficult to follow the conversation threads sometimes, so I have tried to pick out some of the most useful posts to summarize here so that I (and others) can find them (now or later - this is always one of my reasons for blogging about anything!).

In my earlier post on this subject, Are imaging services missing NARA records? I noted one example of missing NARA records from the Ancestry.com database, and raised questions about records, images and indexes. Others on the APG list have raised similar questions, and as of now there are no real answers. But there are interesting and useful observations and recommendations. Here are some of the best ideas from the last two weeks on the APG list IMHO:

a) Elizabeth Shown Mills offered these ideas to turn "venting" [against commercial companies and imaging services] into "constructive criticism" (see the entire thread for context):

"1. Develop a list of procedures we think would resolve the indexing difficulties.
2. Contact each provider of historical data on whom we rely and ask if they would provide a copy of their own quality-control process for indexers and those who supervise indexers.
3. Compare our list with the corporate lists, to identify potentially useful procedures not being applied.
4. Go back to the providers with a targeted list of potential solutions not yet applied and ask for a discussion of the pros and cons of each method we think would ameliorate current problems."

Those are excellent suggestions for assessing and improving quality control.

b) Michael John Neill responded to a post with these observations about indexes (see the entire thread for context):

"My philosophy of indexes is that they allow us to locate 90% of our people quickly and save us time for the other 10% who aren't as easily located."

The point Michael makes is that the indexes are tools that help us - they cannot and never will be perfect. We can learn to use them efficiently and creatively, too. If the requirement was that the indexes were perfect, would we ever have any indexes?

Obviously, we want the images to be as complete as possible, and the indexes to be as accurate as possible, and every researcher needs to understand Michael's point and act accordingly.

c) Elizabeth Shown Mills responded to a post by Langdon who had said "Personally, I don?t trust Ancestry.com data bases anyway." Elizabeth's reply was telling to me - pierced my brain so to speak (please read the entire post for context):

"So, no. We cannot trust any database--academic, archival, or commercial. We use them, we're delighted to have them, but we don't trust them."

Whoa. Flash of light for me. If the best of the brightest doesn't trust any database, why should any of us? Her comments about archivists, scholars and genealogists are very interesting. There's a lesson here for all of us!

d) Elizabeth Shown Mills offers a potential solution to some of these problems in her response to a post:

"Yes, problems exist with the policies of all archives and commercial suppliers. Yes, we all wish for better performance out of everyone. However, my observations across the past four decades in this field convince me that we don't achieve that better performance from others by broadcasting blanket condemnations or organizing rebellions. Archives, when confronted with angry dissidents in the genealogical community, simply turn their backs on us. Commercial suppliers, if their subscriber base goes away, go out of business and we're left with nothing.

"The Association of Professional Genealogists, which sponsors this list-serve, is a trade group organized to further the practice of genealogy, the quality of that practice, and the materials available for practicing it. As a professional group, led by broadly experienced professionals who understand genealogical needs, archival practices, and commercial exigencies, APG is in a position to develop sound quality-control guidelines and to approach both archives and commercial firms in a spirit of cooperation and negotiation. That approach is far more likely to be listened to than all the carping we do as frustrated individuals.

"If you (meaning all subscribers to this list) are a member of APG, then I hope you will urge your officers to develop quality-control guidelines for record providers and to enter into dialog with them to eliminate any lapses in their quality-control processes--and I hope that those of you who place high priority upon this issue will lend your expertise to the effort.

"If you are not a member of APG, then I hope you will join and make an impact by strengthening APGs ranks and resources. Together, if we devise workable solutions and approach record providers courteously, we'll have far more chance of achieving our common goals."

Here is a concrete proposal to try to solve the real problems that researchers have with originals, images and indexes. I totally support this proposal, and I urge the APG to pick up the ball and run with it toward the goal of quality control and transparency on the part of the archives, imaging and indexing services. Every genealogy researcher has a stake in this discussion and the outcome.

Note that there are three major parties that need to participate in this discussion and, hopefully, problem resolution:

a) the Archives (National, State, local, etc.) that holds the original records

b) the Imaging/Indexing services (e.g., FamilySearch, Ancestry, Footnote, etc.)

c) the Genealogy community (you, me, societies, APG, researchers at NARA, etc.)

Are the Archives and the Imaging/Indexing services willing to participate in a quality control endeavor such as Elizabeth proposes? I hope so. My faith and trust in them will be enhanced if they are.

I have quoted extensively from these four APG mailing list posts because the issues are important to me. I hope I haven't violated any "fair-use" provisions. These are not my ideas - they are ideas of wise and experienced persons whom I greatly respect.

I urge readers interested in these issues to read the entire set of posts in December 2008 and January 2009. Individual posts are difficult to find because of the thread nature, but the issue is too important to not read the threads completely for context and complete information.

Only a few individuals have contributed to these discussions on the APG mailing list, and I appreciate their contributions. In my opinion, more facts about the current situation and more problem solving suggestions are required - the genealogy community deserves my comments, your comments, and the comments of the Archives and the Imaging/Indexing services.

1 comment:

Valorie Zimmerman said...

Hey Randy! I hope you posted the essence of this post to APG-L. No, I'm not a subscriber at this moment, but you have tempted me to subscribe again, and spend some time in the archives catching up on what I've missed since unsubbing.

Thanks. You speak for me so often. I'm sure we are cousins!