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

Friday, July 30, 2010

Why there will not be a genealogical Dark Ages

There have been several comments in Blog posts about a news article reporting a presentation given by Curt B. Witcher, the manager of The Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library. Unfortunately, my access to Mr. Witcher's comment come only from a Mormon Times article by Michael De Groote. Even though I really enjoy attending the BYU Cofererence on Family History and Genalogy, my schedule does not give me the opportunity. Normally, I would not comment on a presentation I did not personally hear, but so far, I have not found a transcription of the presentation anywhere online. As reported however, I do have a number of comments and I heartily disagree with the entire premise.

First, Mr. Witcher is quoted as saying, ""I believe we have a crisis in our midst," Witcher said. "We have left the care of our written records largely in the hands of disinterested strangers." He said these records include everything from birth records to tombstones — and more and more they are disappearing." Well, I disagree. Our written records have always been "largely in the hands of disinterested strangers." I also do not buy the assertion that "more and more they are disappearing." Let's take birth records for an example. Where are birth records disappearing where they were previously maintained and available? Prior to the early 1900s, very few birth records were created and even fewer of those were available to anyone outside of a persistent researcher. Presently, in more and more jurisdictions, birth records are available on the Internet, either free or for a price. I am unaware of any state in the U.S. where birth records are not available even if there are some (or many) restrictions. Where are the birth records disappearing?

Now, what about tombstones (I prefer the term gravemarkers)? Some jurisdictions have been destroying cemeteries for hundreds of years. Take Philadelphia for example. My Great-great-great Grandfather, William Linton was first buried in the Fourth Presbyterian Cemetery in downtown Philadelphia back in the 1850s. He was moved at least twice and is now buried in the Westminster Cemetery. All of those early cemeteries were destroyed to build buildings. Again, losing cemetery sites is hardly a new phenomena and we certainly are not in the Dark Ages because of the past losses. Many states have a central registry for all cemetery locations and development of existing cemeteries is limited by either local or state ordinance. I agree that grave markers are deteriorating, but that has always been the case. On the other hand, there are huge grave marker databases that are preserving the existing markers. I think we are gaining ground on grave markers.

Any loss of information about our ancestors is a loss. But, as I have been asked several times recently, do we really need to preserve our ancestors' junk mail? Even if they were so diligent as to keep every thing they every received? I have many of these issues myself and it is a current topic of discussion considering the amount of space we have available to maintain paper records.

It is correct that libraries are limiting hours and access. But isn't this primarily a result of the downturn in the economy. Court houses do destroy records, this has been going on forever, but many state and county records are finding their way into online databases. In my own county, Maricopa, court records were almost entirely unavailable until quite recently when they were all digitized and made available free online. I do not see a threat at every turn, I actually see an opportunity.

Mr. Witcher also complains that no one is writing letters anymore. From my own family's standpoint, our family is generating many times the amount of family records that we used to when we had to write paper letters. The real issue is not that people are not writing, but that what they are writing is now so voluminous that we don't know what to do with all that information. I will address the issue of preserving E-mails and Blog Posts in a post in the near future.

I guess I disagree that we are entering a Dark Age. I see a lot of light and promise.

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