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

Monday, December 19, 2016

Record Access is a Major Genealogical Issue

There are two sides to the issue of finding genealogically important records: first the issue of whether or not the record exists and secondly, the issue of access or availability. Let me start with a few hypothetical examples.

Let's suppose you are looking for an ancestor in the United States who lived during the mid-1800s. You would think that all of the possible issues with privacy and copyright would not apply because of the age of the documents. But as you begin your research you soon find out that even if the records exist for the time when your ancestor lived and place where you ancestor lived, those records may not be readily available for a variety of reasons. As genealogists, we often refer to the fact that not all records have been digitized or are online, but though we repeatedly refer to the need to consult paper records, we seldom envision the difficulties involved in accessing the records once they are located.

In this example, let's further suppose that the records have been collected into a university's special collections library. Of course, in most instances, you will have to physically travel to the facility to research the records. But, in addition, there are several additional obstacles to even beginning to do some research. The first question is how do you know what you need is in the library's collection? Here is a catalog entry for a book in the Louis Round Wilson Library Special Collections Library at the University of North Carolina:

This is apparently an ebook online. But when I click to see the "Full Text Online," I get the following screen.

In short, the access to this "online" edition of the book is available only to the listed categories of individuals who are associated with the library. But what if I traveled to UNC and physically went into the library? Here is a screenshot of part of the requirements for using the UNC Special Collections Library. By the way, these are in no way unique or even more restrictive than any other special collections library around the United States.

But in this case, even if you did register, if the items you needed were not digitized, you would still have to either visit the library or hire someone else to do the research for you. In short, the digitization of the records may not be a solution for availability.

This is actually the case with many of the items listed in the Catalog. It is not uncommon to find an entry that indicates that the item can only be accessed while physically in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. The most obvious example of this challenge is a book that has not been digitized and is sitting on a shelf in the Library. It may well be that the Family History Library has the only copy of this book available anywhere. I am modifying my hypothetical to move my ancestor from the United States to England.

Even if an item in the Family History Library has been digitized or is on microfilm or microfiche, there may still be additional restrictions. Here is an example of a church record that is only viewable in the Family History Library.

I have found that some of these records are not only restricted to viewing in the Library, they also require that you provide a driver's license or other ID which is kept by the Library while you view the microfiche.

So, here is the challenge. We are seeing millions of records being digitized and made available online. But it is not at all unusual to find that the specific records you need are only available while you physically visit the library or archive. This is certainly the case with the vast majority of the billions of records in the United States National Archives. These restrictions come about as a result of a variety of factors.

One the most common limitations is that the record has not been digitized and even if it were digitized, it would still not be made available online outside of the facility. In the case of the English church records above, if you do some additional research online about these records, you will find that these particular records are on sale from the Huntingdonshire Family History Society. The particular record above, concerning the Ramsey Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, are available on CD for 9 Pounds sent to the United States.

What these examples illustrate is that digitization and online availability will probably never make all of the genealogy records freely available. It will always be necessary to either travel to a library or archive or pay for access to some types of records. Although some aspects of genealogical research have been dramatically altered, there is still a need for good, old on-the-site research. The reality of genealogical research is that eventually, everyone will find it necessary to take the time to make a trip.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you James for your great article. If is for this very reason that we created, namely to bring the world's records to everyone regardless of where they are located.