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

Sunday, July 1, 2012

On-Demand -- the Future of Genealogy?

The Church History Library's recent announcement of library items digitized on-demand raises some interesting issues. Foremost of which is the issue of copyright. I assume from the context of the article that the reference to on-demand sources referred to older documents, because there are obviously many newer items in the catalog that are still subject to copyright claims. So what does digitized on-demand mean to the world of genealogy? It depends. Mostly it depends on whether or not the idea spreads to more libraries and repositories and if they really mean what they say they mean.

Leaving aside the copyright issue, let's suppose that you know that your local library has a collection of the early newspapers from your town and you want all of the papers around the time your ancestor died to see if there is any mention of the death, formal or otherwise. You search through all of the online catalogs of newspaper archives and your town's newspapers have not been included in any that your can find. (I am assuming you know about all the major public and private newspaper collections including, but not limited to, the Library of Congress etc.) Do you suppose that your local library will have the equipment and the personnel to digitize a series of newspapers? What is more likely is that one of the many newspaper projects going on around the world, might be interested in your library's collection and spend the time and money to make digitized copies.

What I am saying is that the future will have many times more digitized copies available and that this will likely occur by means of the mechanisms presently in place, that is digitization processes of major repositories. It is not coincidence that one of the largest digitization projects going on in the genealogy world is being conducted by the essentially the same organization making resources available from the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.

As a matter of fact, the idea of on-demand copying is not new or innovative. As an example, the Library of Congress has an extensive copying service handled through its Interlibrary Loan department. It is a very small step from providing a paper photocopy to providing a digital copy of the same item. But here is the catch, all items lent by the Library of Congress must be used on borrowing library premises. In other words, the step from providing paper copies to digital copies is in reality, a huge one. The underlying issue, in part, is the the library's control of its "collection." Libraries are important because of their collections, if collections become commonplace, there is no need for the monolithic library. Hence the controversy over retiring items from the library shelves once the item has been digitized.

I am on my way to our Maricopa County library to pick up a book I put on hold several weeks ago. It has finally become available. How much longer am I or anyone else going to put up with this type of system. The last book I borrowed from the library had 800 pages and I could not read it carefully in the two weeks I had it on loan, so I purchased a digital copy of the book that I can read at my leisure. But this will not happen with most current books, I would have long since gone broke and run out of storage space had I purchased all of the thousands of books I have checked out of libraries over the years.

Is there a middle ground? Maybe. I look at online services such as and its Open Library project. They have an eBook lending library with over a million free eBooks available. It is possible that the existing inventory of paper books will be entirely digitized and made available through online services. How will that impact genealogy? The main restraints on digitizing all of the records of a jurisdiction right now are primarily political and economic. I use Washington State as an example, with more than 190 million records and more than 35 million of those searchable online. Will that happen in the progressive state of Arizona? (detect the sarcasm). Not likely. But over time, as more an more records are created digitally, such as the fact that all court documents in Maricopa County have to be filed electronically, the issue becomes moot. Then the state may look to third parties to digitize the older documents.

So, will on-demand digitizing impact genealogy? My guess is only after other issues in the documents world are settled and resolved in favor of accessibility.


  1. Hi, I find your post very informative. Thank you for making this topic intriguing and enjoyable to read for everyone. See also family trees to trace your family heritage.

  2. I hope so, genealogy is the future of I think!