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

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The top ten genealogical repositories -- on line?

Access is the issue. Size is really not the issue, especially if there is no access. A recent Blog post listed America's Top Ten Genealogical Repositories. Rather than just look at a list of the largest repositories, it more useful to consider not only the size of the collections but the availability of the items stored in these vast libraries.

For example, the National Archives (NARA) is a huge repository of stuff, but is it accessible? Footnote.com has digitized over 69,000,000 documents, most from the National Archives, but how does this compare to what is there? The archival holdings of the NARA number more than 10 billion pages of unique documents. Many of the documents are handwritten, and include formats such as maps, charts, aerial and still photographs, artifacts, and motion picture, sound, and video recordings. Footnote has yet to reach 1% of the records and Footnote.com (now owned by Ancestry.com) is a subscription website. About half of the documents in the National Archives are described in its online catalog, the Archival Research Catalog. but only about 126,000 documents are online through the catalog. Quoting from the NARA website, the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) is the online catalog of NARA's nationwide holdings in the Washington, DC, area; Regional Archives; and Presidential Libraries. ARC is a work in progress; currently over 63% of the records are described in ARC at the series level.

ARC contains many descriptions of records of interest to genealogists and family historians, including:
  • applications for enrollment in Native American tribes
  • court records
  • fugitive slave cases
  • land records
  • military personnel records
  • naturalization records
Now, what does this mean? It means that only an extremely small percentage of the vast holdings of the National Archives is readily available. The rest is available only to those who either visit the Archives to do research or hire someone to do so. 

Likewise on a very small percentage of either the Library of Congress or the Family History Library are yet available online. The other libraries would have similar percentages of online materials. So what is the conclusion?

1. Despite the impression of many would-be genealogists, only a very small percentage of the holdings of the larger libraries has been digitized online so far. You still have to go to the libraries to use their books and other materials.

2. The larger libraries are very large, with many times the holdings of the smaller libraries, even those still in the top ten. For example Number ten, the Sutro Library has 150,000 books. The Library of Congress, on the other hand, is the largest library in the world, with nearly 145 million items on approximately 745 miles of bookshelves. The collections include more than 33 million books and other print materials, 3 million recordings, 12.5 million photographs, 5.3 million maps, 6 million pieces of sheet music and 63 million manuscripts.

Here's how it stacks up.
NARA    10,000,000,000 pages of documents (probably less than 1% online)
Library of Congress 145,000,000 items (including all the different kinds mentioned above and way less than 1% online)
Sutro Library  150,000 books not pages or documents (does not advertise an online collection)

Not an exact comparison, books do not necessarily equal documents, but the numbers give you a rough idea of the scope of the issue of availability and the difference between number one on the list and number ten. It should, of course, be noted that the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah has committed to digitizing its entire collection of 2.4 or 2.5 million rolls of microfilm. It is already well into the project which can be viewed online at Beta.FamilySearch.org.

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