For the past few weeks, I have been writing a series of posts on each of the state archives. Granted, I have a long way to go to get to all 50, but my experience so far and previous experience have provided me with some interesting observations.
First of all, any impression or thought that I had about the number of documents that are digitized as opposed to those yet to be digitized has been entirely readjusted. In the archives, I have visited and those I have looked at online, the number of digitized documents is only a vanishingly small percentage of the total number of documents that are still only on paper. The large online genealogy websites measure their online collections in the billions of records, but when you focus on one state or even one city, the number of records already digitized shrinks down to almost nothing.
Around the world, we currently create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. (See How Much Data Do We Create Every Day? The Mind-Blowing Stats Everyone Should Read) But that is almost all new data. Although the pace of digitization has increased, realistically, it is barely scratching the surface. In 2010, Google estimated that 129,864,880 books had been published. Even at best estimates of the number of books that have been digitized indicate that the number is about 40 million books. That is about 30% of the total. But most of the paper contents of the archives in the United States and elsewhere are not counted as books. Here is a description of the holdings of the United States National Archives Records Administration (NARA);
NARA keeps only those Federal records that are judged to have continuing value—about 2 to 5 percent of those generated in any given year. By now, they add up to a formidable number, diverse in form as well as in content. There are approximately 10 billion pages of textual records; 12 million maps, charts, and architectural and engineering drawings; 25 million still photographs and graphics; 24 million aerial photographs; 300,000 reels of motion picture film; 400,000 video and sound recordings; and 133 terabytes of electronic data. All of these materials are preserved because they are important to the workings of Government, have long-term research worth, or provide information of value to citizens.What does this mean for the average genealogist? It means that if you are searching online and have not visited an archive that could have documents pertaining to your ancestors, it is very likely that you have not looked at even a small percentage of what is available for research. Some of the archives have ongoing digitization projects. For example, the State of Washington's Digital Archives have preserved over 216 million documents and have over 78 million of those searchable. But some states, with far more documents, have far fewer documents in their digital collections.
What else have I learned? I have learned that accessing the paper records in state and national archives is a very time-consuming activity. Some archives have large onsite collections, but in some cases, the main repository for storing the documents is off-site and gaining access to the documents can take days of waiting for the documents to be transported to the main archive location. Additionally, almost all archives require some form of registration for access to any of the documents. In addition, most archives also have strict rules about how and when their documents can be accessed. All of this is understandable given the fragile nature of many of the documents, but it also indicates the need for digital copies.
One obvious problem with all archives is that they are physical locations that must be visited. In addition, most of the collections are classified by record type and organized chronologically. Some indexes exist but in some cases, even those indexes are on paper or bound in book format. For example, in one archive, you can access the catalog online, but the information online only tells you where the physical documents are stored and you have to guess the contents.
I am extremely grateful for those who established and now maintain archives. They provide a service that is only rarely acknowledged by the state and local governments. Many archives are constantly operating under threats of budget and personnel cuts. Some U.S. state archives have even faced threats of complete closure. As genealogists, we should be familiar users and supporters of the archives that contain or might contain information about our ancestors.