Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Small private efforts in family history add up

A reader contacted me about a small Website called dedicated to scanning and publishing online copies of genealogy books. Given the huge Websites that do scanning and Web publishing, like Google Books , the Family History Archive, and sites like Project Gutenberg, this type of site may seem insignificant in comparison, but if more family historians used their Websites to publish their own family histories, the effort would be significant.

On obstacle to this happening is the belief that putting such a work on line will somehow cause the owner to lose his or her copyright. That could happen, putting a work into the "public domain" can cause the work to lose its copyright, but are most family histories really works where the writer thinks they are going to make money and that need copyright protection? Are they really worried that their death defying prose will be copied and sold for a profit? From my own experience, when my father financed a newer family history publication, he ended up with boxes of the books and no one, even in the family, can be induced or even bribed into taking them. By putting the books on line, at least they would have a distribution to anyone who might be remotely interested in the information.

One drawback to the publishing a book through a small Website, is the transient nature of Websites in general. Websites have a tendency to come and go. Sometimes the information can be resurrected through Web archives, but many times when site goes down, it is gone forever. We don't visualize sites like Google and Project Gutenberg as being transient, but that is only a matter of perspective. We have no history to study about online services to give us an idea of how long information will persist on the Internet. However, the very fact that any piece of information may be copied again and again, helps to insure its perpetuity.

Nothing is truly free. Even a "free" service, like Google, has an underlying cost. Users pay daily to use the Internet, either to a service provider or by purchasing items through the Web and thereby adding to the total of advertising income generated online. Users also buy equipment like computers, monitors, iPhones and other devices that help support the Web structure. We cannot imagine this structure collapsing, but it might. Just as print media is undergoing a revolutionary change, the Internet may also go through some unanticipated changes in the future. This fact mandates that any preservation of information, especially family history (and historical information in general) be maintained in a variety of formats, print, electronic and whatever new formats might become available.

All in all, the idea of creating small private archives on the Internet is a good one. Given the limitations we should always remember not to rely on just one method of preservation. This is why I don't trust online backups.

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