Friday, July 30, 2010

The Ancestral Golden Arches of Genealogy?

Several of my genea-blogging colleagues have written about Curt Witcher's talk (at the BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy) about the coming of the genealogical dark ages, as reported by Michael De Groote in the Mormon Times on Thursday. Some cogent arguments for and against the thesis include:

* Bill West at the West in New England blog - Part 1 and Part 2

* Pat Richley-Erickson on DearMYRTLE's Genealogy Blog.

* James Tanner on the Genealogy's Star blog.

The examples given by Curt, as described in the article, are concerning but not fatal, in my view. The one that concerns me the most is the statement that "Courthouses are engaging in 'radical sampling,' where they take a few samples of large collections of old records and destroy the rest." No examples of this were given, but I know that Curt has an excellent network of correspondents and this is probably happening as we think about it.

The only positive response to this is for libraries, museums, genealogical societies and/or historical societies to do something about the loss of any historical record before it occurs. The only acceptable choices are to:

* accept, house, organize and preserve the records for posterity, while making them available to researchers
* digitally image them as quickly as possible and make the digital archive available to researchers.

Vital records are the other significant issue for me - many states have restricted access to their birth, marriage and death records. The Records Preservation and Access Committee of the Federation of Genealogical Societies is trying to keep track of what each state is doing with their vital records, and advocates for access to records (with appropriate privacy restrictions) and records preservation.

It is right to be concerned, but my opinion is that we are not in the "dark ages" where historical records are being pulverized under an authoritarian boot, at least not in North America, Western Europe, Australia/New Zealand and other open-government countries.

Every governmental body is struggling to adapt to the digital age, and historical records are some of the primary targets for digitization. The US National Archives are digitizing many record groups through their commercial partners, as are many State Archives. The Library of Congress, and many other national, regional and state libraries are digitizing their holdings also. Unfortunately, everything we want isn't available "right now" but the volume of records available in digital format is steadily increasing.

However, I think that we are also in the middle of the greatest explosion of genealogy and family history records availability in recorded history. The efforts by volunteers at FamilySearch with their Imaging and Indexing projects, who are working on bringing record images of the Family History Library microfilms and indexes for many of them, will bring many records to light that have been hidden in the reels of microfilm for years. has their World Archives Project, who are working with individuals to index and with genealogy societies to image locally held records.

The efforts by,,,,, and many other commercial companies to image and index records continues unabated. These efforts should be appreciated and supported by all researchers.

These imaging and indexing efforts bring great promise to the genealogy and family history world for the preservation of the records and for providing access to them. For many researchers, the number and variety of online record databases is overwhelming, but wonderful, and they feast on them for days at a time.

To me, the record databases on the Internet seem like a good "all-you-can-eat" buffet restaurant - it all looks so good, and seductive, and I can't wait to chomp through the offerings. We have the "Genea-SouPlantation" here, and the "Ancestral Golden Arches" there, and, oh look, there's the "Genealogy Domino's" that delivers right to your door! So is online genealogy only "fast food?" Is it "nutritious" for our genealogy research? Does it satisfy our research hunger? It is certainly "fast," but it is not complete, and it doesn't provide a "reasonably exhaustive search" - yet! [Note to self: quit "eating out" so much, and get your butt down to the FHC more often!]

Many seasoned researchers understand that "it's not all online" and counsel their colleagues to use archives, libraries and other repositories - finding books, manuscripts, periodicals, microforms, vertical files and other resources to find genealogy and family history records. We need all researchers to understand and experience the "full menu" of research offerings - and that's where our genealogy societies and popular magazines come into play.

My conclusion here is that it's not the end of the genealogy research world as we know it - but we need to be wary of the threats to genealogy records and be willing and able to do something about it if there are threats.

Okay, back to FamilySearch, Footnote and Ancestry, and lookee there, more records! Cool. No wonder I'm overweight!

What do you think? Are we on the verge of the genealogy dark ages, or on the doorstep of a golden era of pajama research in online genealogy databases, or are we somewhere in between?


James Tanner said...

Record loss is a real problem. But not a new one. In balance, I think we are into the digital age and whether it is dark or light will depend on issues we probably have yet to see or understand. But I do know, that I would not have seen quite so many U.S. Census records had and others not made them available online.

Martin said...

This is clearly a case where "new" internet genealogists see the glass half full and us "old" genealogists see the glass half empty. Of the postings only Bill West notes the problem of money, a real concern.

Have you read Nicholson Baker's book, Double Fold? This is the true story that after many U.S. newspapers were microfilmed, the original papers were destroyed. Baker delves into the problems that color pictures were lost, which editions were microfilmed (the N.Y. Times alone had several daily editions), etc. We think we are saving records via one type of technology and inadvertantly destroy some in the process.

I'm wondering how many court houses are not saving old court cases? Certainly 19th century court cases have no value today. Are they being saved? They are certainly not being digitized. Certainly deeds are not being digitized. Probate records are not being digitized. Companies are picking the lowest hanging fruit. Vital records. Military records. Census records. Are we presuming that the Family History Library has already microfilmed it all? That would be a terrible error of thinking.

There is nothing so frustrating as to read a footnote in a work 80 years ago, and not be able to see the record because it has been lost. Trust me--I know.