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

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Digital Image Dilemma

Genealogists fall into distinct categories based on their technological awareness. In the general population, this phenomenon is called the "Digital Divide." The divide is between those with computer skills and access to high-speed internet connections and those who, for whatever reason, do not have that availability. The current issue raised by's announcement about the discontinuance of microfilm shipments on September 1, 2017 and the reactions to the announcement raises some additional related issues in the genealogical community. See "Digital Records Access Replacing Microfilm."

Contemporaneous with this post, I posted another to my Rejoice blog entitled "Where are the digital images on" This other post looks at one very narrow part of the overall issue of digital awareness; the impact of the decline of microfilm on the overall availability of records and the location of the digital records on the website.

But there is a deeper problem than just the technological obsolescence of microfilm. For example, when was the last time you received a letter from a family member? I mean a letter written on paper and sent through the mail. Many of the traditional paper-based records that genealogists have long relied on for information about their ancestors will not be available to future generations. So, the dilemma becomes weighing the advantages of digitalization and the concomitant increase in access and availability and the steady decline in the creation of certain types of records.

Here is the hierarchy of considerations.

At the first level of concern is the availability of the records. Are the records available at all? Not all of the entities that have (or as they believe, own) records are willing to allow them to be digitized or even made available to the public for research. As genealogists, this has been the reality for a very long period of time; long before digital records were even imagined. We have always had to travel or write for records. As far as these "paper" records are locked up by their owners nothing has changed. By the way, there are significant numbers of records that will always remain unobtainable.

Moving to the next level, there are records repositories that have an overwhelming number (billions) of documents, many of which are not interesting or useful to genealogists, but many are. For example, very few of the records in the National Archives of the United States have been digitized. This is not particularly an access issue, i.e. I could go to the National Archives and do research on site. Granted the National Archives is in the process of digitizing some of the records, but it is entirely possible that the number of records being added exceeds the number of records being digitized by a huge factor. Will the entire National Archives collections ever be digitized? It is possible but not likely.

Now, we get to smaller repositories. Many of these records are waiting to be digitized. Large online genealogy websites, national and local governments and other entities are pushing to have all of these records digitized. Obviously, not all of these records will show up on the large genealogical database programs. These records will always remain scattered across the internet. But even considering the large number of records available, the initial restrictions set forth above still apply. For example, there is a large collection of digital books on the website. However, only those in the public domain are accessible unless you happen to be associated with one of their academic partners.

In short, digitization is only part of the issue. Even digital records remain restricted by their "owners" and some digital records will still only be available in certain locations or to certain classes of people. But the real issue with genealogists lies in the Digital Divide. There are huge numbers of records available online but for those with few computer skills or a simple lack of awareness are as separated from those records as they would have been fifty or hundred years ago.

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