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

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Where are the rest of the records?

With the overwhelming number of digitized, genealogically significant records going online almost daily, we might have a tendency to believe that "everything is being digitized." This impression is far removed from reality. What is out there that we have yet to identify, catalog, digitize and index? I live here in Provo, Utah, home of the largest private university in the United States, and predominantly inhabited by people who appreciate the importance of records. Are there still significant numbers of records here in Provo that need to be digitized both for research and preservation? Absolutely.

Probably one of the largest such accumulations of records resides in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library in the Harold B. Lee Library on the campus of the Brigham Young University. Here is a description of this huge collection from the BYU website,
The L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library preserves and houses materials requiring regulation. Because of their uniqueness, value, or fragility, these materials are given great care to protect them from damage or theft and to ensure their proper long-term use.
Hence, Special Collections acquires, preserves, and makes available for use printed materials (280,000 books, pamphlets, prints, etc.) and a vast array of items comprising manuscript materials (8,000 manuscript collections including diaries, journals, papers, music scores, university records [including records of retired faculty], and 500,000 photographs).
I am not picking on this particular university, there are approximately 24 public and private universities and colleges in the State of Utah, not counting those operated for profit. Each of those schools has a library and it is almost certain that there are significant portions of the books, documents, and records in those libraries that have yet to be digitized or preserved.

I use this only as an example if you extrapolate this fact across the United States to all of the colleges and universities, approximately 4,000 or so, you can imagine the number of documents, manuscripts and other records that remain on paper and researchable on at each of these institutions' libraries. We delude ourselves if we think that the process of digitizing all the world's records is in anything more than its infancy.

I have another illustration from here in Utah. This past week or so, I was asked to look for a copy of a book containing the reports of the cases from the Supreme Court of Utah. I have been used to using digitized case law for many years. But I was surprised to find that the particular volume from the early 1900s was not readily available online. One of the very, very few losses I have suffered as a result of retiring from my law practice was losing access to the online legal database programs such as I was surprised that these early Utah Supreme Court cases were not readily available online. I did locate a copy in the BYU Special Collections Library, but in this particular case, the researcher that asked the question found a copy online in the

The is a partnership community of universities and colleges in the United States that provide digital, online access to their library records. Surprisingly, Brigham Young University is not listed as a partner and the number of partners is far fewer than the more than 4000 such institutions in the United States.

So, any genealogical researcher who claims to have done a reasonably exhaustive search of existing records would have to have spent a considerable amount of time in a significant number of special collections libraries depending on the area of the United States where the research was being conducted. In reality, I suspect that no individual during an entire lifetime, adequately review even a small portion of the records available in the United States that are still on paper and uncataloged, unindexed and undigitized.

If you expand this view of records to local public and private libraries, historical societies, museums and other repositories, you can begin to see the vast scope of what is left to digitize in the United States alone. I cannot tell you how many people have come to me and claimed the "they have looked everywhere for records of their ancestors" and after I asked if they had searched in newspapers, special collections, historical societies and elsewhere, have come to realize that their research had only just begun.

As genealogists, we need to become more aware of the records around us and become knowledgeable about the need to digitize, index and preserve these valuable records. As a community we need to become more proactive is facilitating the digitization and preservation of the existing records. I will refer you again to the post entitled, "Preserving Historical Records: Lesson of the National Personnel Records Center Fire."


  1. is amazing. Thank you for the link. It's going to take me a good long time to "exhaust" it. Played with it a little bit this morning, and it turned up exciting "new" information for me. The best research is a combination of combining library/archive collections, courthouses, and online searches. I, however, look everywhere, under every rock. And I find the most incredible bits of information.

  2. "As genealogists, we need to become more aware of the records around us and become knowledgeable about the need to digitize, index and preserve these valuable records. As a community we need to become more proactive is facilitating the digitization and preservation of the existing records."

    Well said.