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

Friday, April 26, 2013

Genealogical Records -- What is and what is not online?

Many researchers seem to assume that all the records they need are already online. This is extremely far from the truth. There are whole classes of records that are not only unavailable online, but the original copies are difficult to locate and research. For example, despite the huge number of newspapers online, there are still significant numbers of smaller, local newspapers that, if they are available, are only available in state libraries, historical societies and other repositories. Although it may be hard to find a book that hasn't been catalogued online, although digitized, due to the copyright law, most of them are yet unavailable online in digital format. There are a huge number of cemetery records waiting to be digitized. Although inroads have been made in recording gravemarkers online, there are a huge number of other cemetery records waiting to be digitized. You can say the same for mortuary records, insurance records, employment records and a myriad of other types of records sitting around in boxes and file cabinets.

Although some small efforts have been made to capture these records and make digital copies available, there are no large scale organized efforts aimed at smaller, localized collections. FamilySearch has indicated some interest in preserving smaller collections but the details of how this is to be accomplished have yet to be worked out. Likewise, there are some notable first-time efforts to incorporate smaller collections by companies such a offers free scanning of historical and genealogical documents and then puts them online to share with the genealogical community. One drawback of the project seems to be the requirement that the documents be shipped to for processing. Not only would many people hesitate to send one-of-kind documents off for processing, the types of records that can be processed are limited to those that are amenable to shipment. Additionally, as with all online scanning projects, there is a concern about the future of the documents online from a digital preservation standpoint. However, if it is a case where the documents are going to be destroyed or thrown away, may be providing one of the few ways the documents can be preserved and hosted online.

Of course there are perhaps thousands of genealogists around the world that are involved in digitizing all or part of their personal records. The issue is how these records are going to become publicly available to the greater community.

At the core of the problem in integrating smaller scanning projects into larger online collections is the issue of standardization of file formats and scanning parameters. Most larger online repositories of digitized records have some pretty strict standards for accepting images. It is unlikely that repositories are going to lower their standards merely to accommodate private or volunteer scanning efforts. It will be up to those doing the scanning to make sure that their output is acceptable and meets the repository's standards. For example, some repositories do not accept color images. However, stripping the color from scanned images may destroy some of the more useful data in the images.

There are also issues with the resolution, contrast, uniform lighting, cropping issues and many other considerations. There will not be a way to incorporate the vast number of smaller and less accessible collections as long as these issues remain unresolved. Whether or not a particular repository can accept the images may also become a political and legal issue. The document custodians may resent the fact that they are "losing control" of their collections by allowing donated, unsolicited material into the collections. There are also cataloguing and indexing issues. Who will spend the time to catalog a collection of personal letters or family photographs and who will bear the expense of doing so?

Economic considerations also come into play when you factor in the cost of scanning, handling, indexing or cataloging and ultimately storing and making the smaller collections available online. These issues alone may limit some collections from ever being hosted in publicly maintained collections.

Let's suppose I have a huge collection of digitized documents that includes letters, photographs, certificates and documents of all kinds (such as the one I do have consisting of 2.3 TB). What are my options? Is it at all practical for my to create my own online repository? How could that be funded, especially if I were to pass on or otherwise be unable to pay for the maintenance? Without addressing and resolving the issues I previously raised, it is unlike that the online resources would survive my demise.

Presently, the types of collections that are attractive to the entities that have the resources to preserve the records is quite narrow and usually based on a subject evaluation of the historical importance of the records.

I continue to search for alternatives and solutions to these problems mainly because of my personal huge time and energy involvement in the process for the last thirty or so years.

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