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

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Genealogy and the Digital Divide

My recent blog posts about the fact that the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah is systematically digitizing all the books in the library and then removing many of those books from the shelves has caused a considerable amount of comment. Because I had the opinion that digitizing the books and making them available for free online was beneficial to the genealogical community, I received comments concerning the fact that not all of the potential genealogists had access to the Internet or their access was so slow as to make the book impractical. This particular problem is called the Digital Divide.

Let me illustrate the issues with a not-so-imaginary hypothetical. Let's suppose the the Family History Library has a book that is unique. That is, a book that was written where there is only one, single copy of the book in existence. Unfortunately, this particular hypothetical situation is not so uncommon in real life. The Family History Library has many unique items, including many submitted by myself. To see these items, you must visit the Family History Library in person. Many of these unique items cannot be viewed outside of the library itself. So, any genealogist who cannot afford to travel to Salt Lake City, Utah is effectively barred from using those unique items in their research.

Now let's further suppose that the Family History Library digitizes the unique object and makes it available for free online. Was further suppose that the person who did not have physical ability, either through economic disadvantage or other limiting circumstances, now has the ability to view the object online. Is this a benefit or not? Now I suppose, that same person lives in an area that is so remote that he or she has neither Internet access nor access to a library and also has neither the means nor the physical ability to visit the library in person. How is this person harmed if the Family History Library digitizes the unique record and puts it online for free? The person could not consult either the paper copy before it was digitized or the digital copy.

Let's further suppose that the Library digitizes every single book and record in its entire collection and makes that entire digital collection free online. Going back to our hypothetical person, the person who cannot visit the library and does not have Internet access, how is that person harmed if the library's collection is now only available online? Changing the format of books from paper to digital hardly affects those who had no physical or Internet access to the library in the first place.

What if a person had no Internet access at home but could physically visit the Family History Library? Then, the fact that the books were digitized means that a person could come to the library and use one of the free computers to access the Internet, download a copy of the book on the fast servers in the library, and take the books home and read it on a computer at home or other device. No home Internet connection would be necessary. At this point we should note that the person visiting the library can obtain a digital copy of most of the digitized books for free. Even if the person could not utilize a digital copy of the book obtained from the Library, they are no worse off than if they came to the library and had to use the book while physically in the library. This Internet deprived person can use both the Internet and the digitized book copy in the Family History Library.

If you persist in your objections, you would finally have to admit that those people who would never visit the library and will never have an Internet connection are not deprived. I do not think, unlike Facebook, that an Internet connection is a basic human right.

So, we have, of course hypothetically speaking, a class of people who have no Internet access. In addition, once again hypothetically speaking, we have a class of people who have no physical access to the Family History Library or any of the branch libraries around the world. Guess what? It absolutely makes no difference to them as to whether or not the books are in paper or digital format.

Back to reality. The hypothetical is not so hypothetical after all. In the real world, we have a huge number of people who have access to the Internet but do not have the means or the inclination to visit the Family History Library or one of its branches. Remember, there are over 4600 FamilySearch Centers around the world but there are still places where visiting a Family History Center is impossible or very difficult. The idea that there is something unfair about the process of digitizing the collections in the Family History Library makes no sense at all.

Essentially, the items in the Family History Library fall into several different categories.

  • Unique items which exist in the Family History Library and in no other library or repository
  • Rare items that exist only in a few libraries or repositories
  • Items that are fairly common, but difficult to find
  • Items that are so common as to be available in most libraries in the United States
  • Items that are so common as to be available in many libraries around the world

Let's suppose that you live a long distance from Salt Lake City and you wanted to consult a book in the Salt Lake City Family History Library. Would you rather travel all the way to Salt Lake City or to the nearest high-speed Internet access point?

 Of course, this whole discussion ignores the existence of the Digital Divide. Many people around the world have little or no access to the Internet either because of age, economic deprivation, lack of education, political restrictions or a multitude of other limiting issues. The high-speed, world-wide movement to digitize records and books pertinent to genealogical research has no effect, one way or another, on the people who find themselves deprived. The digitization effort is not cause of the Divide. Digitization does not cause poverty. It does not cause lack of education. It does not cause people to fear computers. In short, none of the root causes of the Digital Divide have anything to do with digitizing books at the Family History Library or anyplace else for that matter. In law, raising the issue of the Digital Divide as a reason why there is something wrong with the Library's digitization of paper books and then removing them from the shelves, would be called a "red herring," that is, irrelevant to the issues.

You don't have to look at even one of the more than 200,000, free, online, digital books put there by the Family History Library. You can still come to the Library and find all sorts of information. You don't even have to use any of the computers in the Library (free also). But I can assure you that there will be a huge number of genealogically pertinent documents you will never see that are now, and always will be, available only on line from

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for expansion of your views.

    My point has been that existence of the "digital divide" is ignored by so many writers who make such generalizations about access as "everyone has . . . ." (handheld devices, etc.).