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

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Online Information's impact on genealogical libraries

What is the roll of libraries, particularly those who provide genealogically important information, in the age of digitization and online databases. You may wish to review the above video interview with Robert Darton, head librarian at Harvard University, who discusses the continued importance of the library in the age of Google Book Search, and the creation of the Digital Public Library of America.

Let me propose a hypothetical. Let's suppose that FamilySearch finishes its goal to digitize all 2.4 million rolls of microfilm in its archive. Let's further suppose that the digitization of records, including books continues at an increasing rate in libraries and repositories all over the world and finally, that brick and mortar libraries decide to allow more and more of their current book collections to be loaned or "checked out" through electronic means. Let's further suppose that this movement to electronics continues to affect the genealogical community in proportion to its participation in the overall information community.

Now what will be the effect on brick and mortar libraries? One phrase used by Robert Darnton in the above video sticks in my mind; (paraphrasing) libraries will have to become the facilitators of acquiring information (knowledge). But another very interesting comment is that thinking that all information and knowledge is online is absurd. Darnton states that the Harvard Library has 400 million manuscripts, most of which have never been seen, much less cataloged.

My conclusion concerning my hypothetical above: even if the rate of digitization increases, it will be long time before the content of our nation's libraries are completely available online. As I pointed out in an earlier post, there is a huge amount of paper based records still waiting to be digitized. So, there is no present scenario where genealogists' use of libraries decreases. But there are some interesting trends. Here are some statistics on the use of libraries as found in the Public Library Use, ALA (American Library Association) Library Fact Sheet 6 about the activities of libraries across America;
  • 62% of libraries report that they are the only provider of free computer and Internet access in their community
  • 91% of public libraries provide free Wi-Fi, and 74% of libraries report use of Wi-Fi increased in 2011; 57% of urban libraries offer broadband speeds greater than 10 Mbps, as compared to 17% of rural libraries
  • 76% of libraries offer access to e-books, and 39% of libraries provide e-readers for check-out by patrons; e-books are available from 92% of urban libraries, compared to 65% of rural libraries
  • 15% of library websites are optimized for mobile devices, and 12% of libraries use scanned codes (e.g. QR codes), and 7% of libraries have developed smartphone apps for access to library services; 36% of urban libraries have websites optimized for mobile devices, compared to 9% of rural libraries
  • 65% of libraries report having an insufficient number of public computers to meet demand, this increases to 87% in urban libraries
  • 50% of libraries report insufficient staff to meet patron job-seeking needs
  • 57% of libraries report flat or decreased operating budgets in FY2011, up from 40% in FY2009
  • For the third year in a row, 40% of state libraries report decreased state funding for public libraries.
  • 90% of libraries offer formal or informal technology assistance to library users, and 35% offer one-on-one technology training by appointment
  • 36% of libraries report increased use of library technology training over the previous year; technology training classes are provided by 63% of urban libraries, compared to 32% of rural libraries
  • 70% of libraries use social networking tools such as Facebook
As the migration of records from paper to digital continues, as genealogists, we will need to acquire the online computer skills but at the same time retain our paper and pencil skills for the foreseeable future.  


  1. I can almost imagine a streamlining of libraries and archives as their roles become more aligned James. Someone has to be responsible for the preservation of digital versions as well as the written/printed versions. Digitial data is very senstitive to damagae from an EMP, and it is often said that a large EMP could set us back decades. Given the effort and expense of our digitisation projects, maintenance and preservation of the digital copies is becoming a fundamental issue in its own right.

    1. Absolutely correct. Archivists and librarians are starting to refer to our present generation as the "lost generation" because of the lack of permanent copies of letters, manuscripts etc. See the Library of Congress website for a lot of information on this topic.