RootsTech 2015

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

Sunday, January 5, 2014

What genealogy records are and are not online

This morning in helping a friend with some basic research and after a few minutes searching for a marriage certificate in the 1930s in Arizona, we found that the only records available for that particular county in Arizona were in the Arizona State Archives and not online. This points up a really simple fact: not all the basic records we need to do our genealogy are yet online. Fortunately, in the case of my friend, we found a lot of additional records about that particular individual on Ancestry.com. The question is do we assume the records are all "online" or do we know through experience that they are not?

I have to admit this is a trick question. Any genealogist with a little bit of experience will quickly find many classes of records that have yet to be digitized. But at the same time, we also need to recognize that for many of the specific un-digitized records we are searching for there are alternate or substitute records that contain the same information and are more readily available online. In the case of a marriage record in the 20th century, there are undoubtedly a number of alternate records that could be used in order to establish the marriage and the date and place. I would suggest that when searching for records we keep in mind the entire class of records that may contain the information we are searching for.

There are however, some classes of records that are very unlikely to be available in digitized copies merely because of the limited number of records created and by virtue of the fact that the records are being stored in repositories that have little or no motivation to digitize their records. For example, a genealogically valuable record could be available in the local public library but there is no incentive on the part of the library to digitize that single record and make it available online. The record in the local library could be a journal, diary, handwritten manuscript or similar document that was essentially one-of-a-kind and is not likely to be included in an online collection.

I think that the records that have yet to be digitized fall mainly into certain classes or classifications if you will. The first class of records that are not yet digitized and likely to remain so, include individual unique records kept by families or by smaller repositories such as my example of a record in a public library. There are two problems here, one is the fact that the document itself is valuable only to a very narrow audience and second even if the document were to be digitized by an individual or family it is very unlikely that the digitized copy of the document would be generally available in any of the larger collections and depending on the way it is cataloged, could be nearly impossible to find online. The exception to this situation would be if the family or individual donated the document to a larger repository which in turn digitized the document as part of a local collection or whatever.

Another major category of documents that will likely remain un-digitized or in the alternative unavailable are classified government documents. It is true, that many of these documents after a great deal of time passage may become publicly available and could be included in a digitized collection but that is not as likely as the possibility that the documents will merely be destroyed.

Other classes of documents that will not be digitized in the foreseeable for future are those held by local county archives and museums. This is due primarily to lack of funds and lack of an opportunity to provide online access. This would also be true of many of the smaller governmental jurisdictions throughout the world. Unless the organization sees a significant demand for access to the documents, they are very unlikely to provide online access with the initial digitizing, set up, and maintenance costs that will be incurred.

For the foreseeable future it appears that genealogists around the world will still be haunting piles of paper in back rooms and storage vaults for a long time. Now, the danger in making such a sweeping statement is that someone will come back in the future to this blog post and point at the altar as being extremely naïve. However, we do not presently have any particular technological limitations on scanning documents and including them in larger databases. What is missing presently is the mechanism by which the scanned documents and images become incorporated into a larger collection.

This is true about documents concerning rather obscure people who are not outstanding in any particular way.

Another class of documents that is likely to remain outside the digital realm are all of the collected works and papers of various writers, professors, historians and similar people who contribute their papers to university special collections departments. Lack of demand for these documents, as with other documents I mentioned above, will certainly limit universities from spending on these particular types of documents.

In conclusion, it looks like genealogists still be looking at paper for a very long time. Even if this fact is very discouraging to the "modern" family historian.

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