Friday, April 23, 2010

A Conversation with David E. Rencher - Part 3

This is the third post in a series that transcribes parts of my telephone conversation on 21 April with David E. Rencher, Chief Genealogical Officer for Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here.

Part 3 continues with information about FamilySearch Indexing and online record access:

Randy Seaver (RS): Let's switch gears here. Family Search Indexing - you have many thousands of people working on that --

David Rencher (DR): Three hundred thousand --

RS: Wow, and you have 2.4 million microfilms and another million microfiches, how many of those microfilms can you do with copyright issues and that sort of thing?

DR: I'm glad you went straight to the heart of the issue. Most people do not understand. When we started microfilming in 1938, no one envisioned the digital era. Most of those contracts were never negotiated in that way. Where we've picked up one film here, a dozen films there, 150 films here, we have to go back and we have to look at those contracts, and, oftentimes, look at it from the standpoint of whether or not we have the digital rights to post those images. Things change over the years. We just have to be very careful - we don't want to do anything that would damage our reputation in the archival community, we don't want to do anything that would jeopardize any of those relationships. We are very earnest in trying to do all that we can to maintain good working relationships with the archives. When we post images, we want to make sure that we have the right permission to do that.

RS: So are you going to be able to do most of them? It seems to me that a lot of what you have, the ones really important to me - the ones with high genealogical value - the probate records, the land records, the vital records - they're before 1920 and of government origins, and I guess that the repositories that hold the originals would be ecstatic to have digital access.

DR: Right. There's a certain percent that fall in that category. There's a certain percent that we won't image - and it's because they are either duplicate copies of the same records, for instance, we have two copies of the 1870 U.S. census, and so there's no reason to digitize both copies, because we know that one was photographically far superior to the other one, which was why we re-imaged it in the first place.

Think about a set of probate records in the courthouse, for example. Think about the fact that there are probate records themselves, and the indexes for the probate records. If we're indexing the probate records from the originals, do we need to image the indexes? We may choose not to image the rolls of indexes, and therefore create our own index from the original records, which overcomes the problem of an entry being left out of the index. When we say that we will image a certain portion of the 2.4 million rolls, but there's a good chance that we won't image all of them - all of them may not be image-worthy.

RS: How do you choose which films to image and index at this point in time?

DR: Right now, we're trying to do what we determine to be the highest priority ones, and we're starting a little bit different approach than we've had in the past. In the past, there's been a number of records, and we were indexing records at a different level. Today we're thinking in terms of complete record sets. Can we create a complete record set for a particular area. One of the difficulties we used to have with the International Genealogical Index, once you'd searched it, you weren't quite sure what you had searched. So your next step was to go back, then, and try to determine, if I just searched for this marriage in Alabama, which marriages records have I not now searched by virtue of searching the IGI? That would drive then: "Oh, I need to search the marriage records for Sumter County, or Greene County, or Hale County." But you only knew that if you knew which records were not in the index to begin with. How much better it is if we can create a complete index that says "I've just searched all of the marriage records for Alabama." Now I know that if it's not there that there may be some other techniques and there may be some reasons, but at least I know with some certainty that I've pretty much covered the planet. Instead of taking more of a "swiss-cheese approach" we're taking a much more complete record approach. We're starting with the top tier records, until those are done, those basically are covering the bases. Until you get all of those covered, we're not going to move on into the more esoteric sources.

RS: Will more of the databases be put on the commercial sites like Footnote and Ancestry, and you have the indexes?

DR: We've worked very diligently with the other players in the community. We welcome all of the other players. We see what they are doing as a vital part of having a community of players. When you look at the deals that we do, where we may provide an index and point to images, we have to weigh that against "OK, if we were to just do that ourselves, how long would it be until we can get to that record?" As a user, would you rather have the indexes now, and point to an image that you may have to pay a small fee for. Or would you rather not have that data for ten years online? Those are kinds of the tradeoffs that most people don't see from the industry view point that we do, because we're looking at a lot of data.

RS: No kidding! Have you figured out how many images you have from all of those microfilms?

DR: Actually, we have. I believe the figure is around three billion.

RS: And there may be 50 to 100 names to be indexed on each image.

DR: You know, one of the films is going to be first, and one of them is going to be last. If we can come up with an interim solution that makes the data available to you more quickly, as a user wouldn't you rather have that than hold out for ten years just because we might put it up for free ten years from now. That doesn't really help your research much.

RS: If it's just the images, that's like scrolling through the microfilm down at the Family History Center, but dong it at home in your pajamas, that's the tradeoff. It's a lot easier to do it at home and capture the images.

There's one more segment that I will try to transcribe tomorrow.

What other questions should I have asked David about FamilySearch Indexing and putting imaged records online? Or what wasn't explained well? Please send comments - perhaps David will read them and respond to them either in Comments or via email to you or me.

Several of you have asked in email and comments about my own thoughts and reactions to what David Rencher has said in this interview. I will try to capture my own thoughts in a summary post after the last segment.

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