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

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Access to Genealogical Documents -- The Ultimate Challenge

If you focus on the vast stream of documents being digitized every day, you might begin to think that the major issues of genealogy today are the need to digitize documents and index them. Granted, this process is proceeding at a furious rate and more and more documents become available every day, but there is a mountain yet to be climbed. Digitization is still in the foothills of genealogical issues. The real issues are restrictions on access. What good is a digitized document if you cannot use it or view it?

Let's suppose that sitting in a library somewhere in the United States (or anywhere else for that matter) there is a book containing your family's history. I mean a detailed history full of wonderful source citations, photos, document copies and everything your need to move out to the limits of reality. But there is one problem. Access to the book is limited by its repository. This book is classified as a "rare" book and there is only one copy in existence. The creator (author or whatever) of the book gave it to the repository (library etc.) with the caveat that it can only be viewed under certain very restricted circumstances. In this hypothetical case, you have to be a recognized academic researcher to gain access to the document with credentials from a recognized academic institution. So no matter how valuable that book may be to your research, you may never be able to see it or use it unless you happen to be a professor at a recognized university or want to hire one to do your research.

How about a more common problem with access? I am doing research online and go to the Catalog to find out if there is something I need to extend my family line and verify some dates etc. about my family. In this case, I happen to be doing research into documents in a parish in England. Fortunately, I find a reference to a promising record. For example the following:

This particular document covers the exact time and place that I need for my research. I note that it has not yet been digitized. Realizing that FamilySearch rents microfilm, I decide to order the record so I can view it locally. Here is the information about the film.

Apparently, this particular record exists in the form of 7 microfiches. These are little rectangular pieces of film with maybe a couple of hundred micro-images of the document that have to be viewed in a microfiche viewer. The way works, I can click on the little film icon under the "Format" column and go to a place to order the film.

The note on the Online Film Ordering page says "Film No. 6108687 is not current available for loan." Hmm. This seems to be leading me to the hypothetical book example I just wrote about. Not wanting to take no for an answer, I evaluate my options. Since I happen to be living next to a very large library, I decide to search the Brigham Young University Family History Library and see if they have the same documents.

I go to the Library's website and put in the film number.

So, I can only view this microfilmed record in Salt Lake City, Utah at the Family History Library. In fact, when I go to the Family History Library, I will find that I can only view this record by giving them my driver's license for security and looking at four pages of microfiche at a time. At this point I should explain that this is a real example of a record I tried to look at recently.

Why all this security for a record from 1559 to 1920? It would cost a few pennies to reproduce copies of the microfiche and make them available. If I was able to order the document from FamilySearch, it would cost me $7.50 for a short-term loan unless I order the film into the BYU Family History Library where there is no charge. But the charge is not the issue. Free or not, I can only view the record if I go to Salt Lake City. Because I happen to live in Provo, this takes me a minimum of four or five hours including driving, parking and etc. If I lived outside of Utah, it would take considerably more time and expense.

I will never know how valuable or worthless this document is to my research, unless I comply with the access requirements. Do I really care at this point about the reason why this particular old document is restricted?

Wait, what about looking for this record on some other website or whatever? I do a Google search for the document. I find the website with a lot of information about Ramsey, England.

The particular records I am seeking are listed.

I find out a lot more about the records. There are really three different sets of microfiche, one for baptisms, one for marriages and one for burials and they are not the original records: they are indexes. The fiche are available from the Huntingdonshire FHS Bookstall.

I find a whole list of records on CDs.

At the current exchange rate, the 29 British pound disk would cost me $43 U.S. dollars. Well, driving to Salt Lake is looking more realistic all the time. It turns out that the index is owned. That is why it is restricted. Whether or not you agree or disagree, the Huntingdonshire Family History Society has done the work of indexing these records and wants to get paid for their work. But how do I know which of these records contain any information about my family? I don't. I have to pay the price and may not find anything at all.

What about the original records? Don't they exist somewhere? What if I don't particularly trust the indexers? I am out of luck. The original records are sitting in the Huntingdonshire Archives and Local Studies office in Huntingdon, England.

A trip to England or a trip to Salt Lake City? Even if I choose to go to Salt Lake City, all I can see is the index.

This example is far from unique. Ultimately, this whole business of digitizing the records is going to come down to the issue of availability and access. Do you think the folks over there in England are going to be anxious to allow FamilySearch or anyone else to digitize their records and allow them to be viewed for free? Not likely.

Access is the real issue in genealogical research and the issue of access is not going to be solved any time soon.

I could give a lot more examples from libraries and private repositories here in Utah and throughout the world. All this boils down to the idea that they have the record and they are not going to let you view or use that record unless you comply with their terms and those terms usually involve a major time and/or expense investment on the part of the researcher before the researcher even knows if the document contains the information being sought. Just in case you thought digitization was the answer.


  1. It is this very question of accessibility that makes conducting and exhaustive search of the extant records so dog gone difficult.

  2. Because some records will have limited access after digitization does not take away the great benefit of digitization generally. There have always been issues and roadblocks to get past - digitization reduces them, but it is folly to have thought that it would eliminate all of them.

  3. Awesome article! I keep an Excel doc listing the records I want to search at various repositories so when I just happen to go to that city I can make a side trip. Patience is definitely one needs when researching! Lori