This will be an ongoing, sporadic series highlighting specific websites around the world that contain valuable genealogical original source records. Despite my own efforts to promote online sources, there still seems to be a general lack of knowledge among most genealogists about the major online repositories of genealogical information. In this series, I intend to skip over the established online sources such as FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com and Findmypast.com, for some of the other websites. I do this even though I find few genealogical researchers that utilized the full capabilities of even these four genealogically-oriented websites. Commonly, when I mention one or the other of just these four websites, I get blank stares and comments about how the researcher doesn't have time to look at all "that online stuff."
In counterbalance to the online resources, there is a perception among a certain group of genealogists and often repeated by instructors at genealogy conferences, that there is still a huge overburden of paper-based records in the world. This is certainly true to some extent, but if you compare the records I had access to back in the 1980s with the records I have online access to today, there are now more records easily available than I could research in the remaining years of my life.
It may also be true that extensive and exhaustive research will often require visits to individual repositories and other locations, such as cemeteries, but I often wonder how much of this onsite research could have been avoided if the researchers had been aware of that the same records or records containing the same information were available online? How do you know what you are looking for is not online?
As I have attended classes from prominent genealogists during the past couple of years, I have often come away more disappointed than informed. It has been evident that the instructors, although they are competent paper researchers, have little knowledge of the online resources. When they talk about the archives, courthouses and libraries they have visited, I am sometimes dumbfounded at their naivety about the Internet. Some years ago, during the first showing of the "Who do you think you are" TV show, I sat watching the show with my computers as I watched the featured investigators, assisted by their staff of professional genealogists, flit around the world looking for records about the families of the personalities featured as guests. Time after time, before they finished their short segments on research around the world, I found the same records online or in the FamilySearch.org Catalog, readily available. But, of course, telling the famous singer or actor that he or she could have found out most, if not all, of the surprising information for the TV show could have been found in a local Family History Center, would defeat the promotional, advertising aspect of the show.
Now, before you get into a discussion with me about some obscure record you found in a dusty basement in a courthouse somewhere in the world, let me ask the same question again: do you know that the information you were seeking was not already online? How do you know?
Now on to the featured website of this post: The Internet Archive or Archive.org.
One of the common tactics in writing about a complex subject is to try to impress readers with numbers. I do this myself on occasion. But the real issue with genealogical research is that no matter how many records a particular repository may have, if they don't have what you are looking for, then numbers are meaningless. On the other hand, as I have been writing above, if you don't know where to look, you are not going to know if they do or do not have what you are looking for.
The Internet Archive has a lot of stuff. From a genealogical standpoint, I frequently find helpful items on this website when I least expect it. First of all there are over 10 million fully searchable books on this one website and everything on the website is in the public domain. This brings up another issue that I mention from time to time. No, there are no completely digitized, current, copyrighted books on this website, but get serious. Genealogists are interested in history not current affairs. The books on this website are old and useful. All of the books on the Internet Archive have been subjected to OCR and are fully searchable. In fact, they are all searchable through Google searches.
The fact that the Internet Archive has 10 million or so books is at the core of what I am writing about. Even though I live a few short minutes away from a major university library, I do not really have access to their holdings. Why? Because I have to depend on the catalog to find material about my family. So even if the Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library has over 4 million books, I have to spend days and weeks searching for those books' content. This is no different than my research in the Phoenix Public Library 55 years ago. I have to go into the library and search page by page after pulling the books off the shelves.
Today, right now, while sitting at my computer, I can search a library with more than twice as many books as the BYU Library, online for free. I do not have to walk up and down miles of shelves. I can browse through all 10 million plus books in far less time. However, the ease of searching online often obscures the need to actually do research online.
To find what you need online, you must know how to ask the right questions.
The Internet Archive is a particularly good example of a vast resource that is really only available to those with well developed, online research skills. Sticking in a name or two will not be helpful. As I write this series, one of my sub-topics will be the need to change the way you do research to adapt to specific online resources.
Here are some concluding questions for today:
- Have you seriously searched the Internet Archive?
- Do you regularly use content from this website in your genealogical research?
- Did you know the website existed before you read this post?
- Have you explored its available content?