Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Indexing Periodicals, Manuscripts, Collections, etc.

Many genealogy writers and bloggers have stated that the records that might identify elusive ancestors and break down ancestral brick walls can be found on the pages of:

* genealogical and historical society newsletters and periodicals

* manuscripts held by repositories (often in restricted access locations)

* estate paper or vertical file collections held by societies and repositories

* family Bibles, photographs and family papers held by individuals in their homes (who are often unaware of their genealogical value)

There is a catalog of many society publications in PERSI, and manuscripts in some repositories are cataloged in NUCMC. The problem is that often these holdings have copyright restrictions that prevent digitization (unless the publisher does it) or they have access restrictions due to privacy or archival reasons. But some are not cataloged. PERSI and NUCMC provide only basic author, title, note and form search options - not an every-name or every-location index. The researcher does not know what the periodical articles contain.

In many cases, the estate paper and vertical file collections are sitting in a file cabinet at a repository or, even worse, in someone's garage, and are not ever perused. The family Bibles, photographs and papers are in attics, basements, bookcases, cabinets, boxes, files, and occasionally on a wall.

The genealogy industry is well on the way to digitizing the records that can be digitized and displayed - those created by a government, those out of copyright restrictions, and those submitted by or displayed by genealogy researchers.

How can the documents hiding in the repositories be brought into the genealogy sunshine in ways that can further genealogical research? The answer is really simple - by indexing them for names and locations.

Many genealogical and historical societies have a partial, or complete, every-name index of their periodicals in book form or online on their web site. Some, like the New England Historical and Genealogical Society, have digitized their research periodical and have it available on their web site for member access and download, using the available index as a person finder. Not every society has done this, but every one of them should do it, if possible.

There are some institutions and businesses that actively solicit the contribution of family Bibles and papers, and estate collections, for saving and even indexing. For instance, the National Genealogical Society has a Family Bible collection, and Arlene Eakle's Genealogy Library Center solicits estate paper collections.

With that background, I have some comments:

* Genealogical and historical societies should put their existing periodical and manuscript indexes online for everybody to use. Why are the indexes to the online periodicals behind membership firewalls and not freely available online for anybody to access for free? Are the societies trying to sell one more copy of their index books? It seems to me that the societies would gain many members all too happy to join the society if they could find out that their ancestors were in the society online or physical holdings. Currently, the only way someone will find the index information is to find it in a published book or periodical, but they won't find it online unless the information is outside of the member firewall.

* If there are no plans for digitizing the holdings, an index would provide the "finding aid" needed for a researcher to try to obtain the record from the repository. For publications, manuscripts and paper collections that are not digitized and indexed, volunteer indexers might be able perform the service if the need was made known. Many society members would love to do this work for their organization, but they are not asked. The NYG&BS transfer of holdings to NYPL comes to mind here - will these records be indexed or even accessible? If not, what good are they?

* Societies could team up with FamilySearch and Ancestry to digitize the records and index them using volunteer society members. Several large societies have done this - see my post on FamilySearch Indexing yesterday for examples.

* Societies should encourage their members to contribute the information in their family Bibles and family papers for posting on the society web site or blog, or contribute it to a USGenWeb (or similar) site or archive. The goal should be to get as much information online as possible in a digitized, transcribed or indexed form, within privacy restrictions.

* Societies or individuals should try to solicit, or rescue, unwanted family Bibles and family genealogy papers from the community through newspaper publicity, contacts with libraries, at estate sales, or government centers. The San Diego Genealogical Society did this recently, and received very favorable publicity, and perhaps more documents will be donated and posted online.

Each of these thoughts is a win-win for societies and individual researchers as far as I can tell. All it takes is the vision, willingness and effort by genealogy researchers and societies to do the work.

What do you think? How can the genealogy industry bring the "hidden gems" in periodicals, manuscripts, estate papers and private holdings into the genealogy sunshine?


Jasia said...

Unfortunately there are still far too many gen sos that are firmly committed to doing things the old fashioned way (traditional print only). They fear technology and they refuse to embrace it. They will happily recommend other organization's web sites for help with research but they don't want to learn what's required to put their own societies online in a meaningful way (many still don't even have a web site let alone any meaningful content). I think this attitude is the single biggest obstacle in the way of indexing projects such as you suggest.

Marie Cooke Beckman said...

Randy, I too wish that more local genealogy societies would have an online presence. I believe Jasia is probably correct in stating that a good deal of the problem is their failure to embrace technology. They fear losing revenue from books they have published if they put some free information online. What they can't see is that by having a website, they could actually generate revenue.(from new membership dues, their book sales etc.) Just some thoughts.

Melissa Barker said...

I totally agree with Jasia and Marie. For example, our local historical society president doesn't even own a computer and refuses to learn how to use one. She transcribes records and publishes books from this work which is great, but has put a strick copyright label on all her work so that no one can reproduce it or digitize it. I agree that most societies are afraid of losing revenue any whatever shape or form they receive it. A lot of the small town societies just don't have hardly enough to sustain their own society. I don't know what the answer is, but I wish someone would come up with it!

Charles said...

I agree about doing it the old way, but some societies are changing. Our society has books for sale, but about half are online today, and even when we sell a book we make very little profit. We make much more each year doing research for those that do not come to our area for what ever reason.