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

Thursday, October 23, 2014

What is and what is not already online?

I get into a lot of discussions that leave a number of questions about what is and what is not already digitized and available on the Internet either free or through subscription services. On one hand, we have the online genealogy database programs telling us how many millions and millions of records they are putting online each week and on the other hand, those of us who have searched extensively online are more than aware of the vast number of records that still remain locked in either paper or microfilm copies. The question has become a conundrum. We even have those researchers who are "convinced" that "everything is now available online." 

Is there some way to get an accurate estimate for how much of the world's genealogically valuable records are now online? I decided that I would start to answer this question by giving one particular example involving the U.S. National Archives. On their website they have a section that answers the question "what is a record?" Here is what they have to say on that subject:
Now, think about the United States. Billions of letters, photographs, video and audio recordings, drawings, maps, treaties, posters, and other informative materials exist that tell the stories of America’s history as a nation. From the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights to census records that account for every citizen—the preservation of important American documents helps illustrate what happened in the United States before and after we were born.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is America’s record keeper. NARA is the Government agency that not only preserves documents and materials related to the United States but also makes sure people can access the information. It has facilities all over the country, including Presidential libraries and materials projects that maintain records and artifacts from the administrations of Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and William J. Clinton.
What do they mean when they say they have "billions of records?" Here is an explanation:
NARA keeps only those Federal records that are judged to have continuing value—about 2 to 5 percent of those generated in any given year. By now, they add up to a formidable number, diverse in form as well as in content. There are approximately 10 billion pages of textual records; 12 million maps, charts, and architectural and engineering drawings; 25 million still photographs and graphics; 24 million aerial photographs; 300,000 reels of motion picture film; 400,000 video and sound recordings; and 133 terabytes of electronic data. All of these materials are preserved because they are important to the workings of Government, have long-term research worth, or provide information of value to citizens.
Now, if you think about this for just a few minutes, you will realize that the U.S. National Archives is just one of many repositories around the world. So how much of this is (1) digitized and (2) available to the public? The answer is a only a vanishingly small number of records of the total number held in the National Archives. Finding this information about the number of available records is a real challenge. It turns out that the majority of the online records are available through and the associated website,  The U.S. National Archives has only about 126,500 digitized copies of documents and photographs available on their website. Look at the numbers above and then think about this.

The next time someone makes a statement about how much has been digitized online, simply remind yourself that the U.S. National Archives is one example where that impression, that all has been digitized, is not yet, and may never be, a reality.

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