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Saturday, April 27, 2019

Obstacles to Access: Why can’t we see the documents?

One of the more frustrating things about genealogical research is finding that the records you need have some kind of restricted access. As genealogists, we need to honor some of those restrictions but we also have a responsibility to work to overcome many other restrictions. Here is my analysis of the types of restrictions we might encounter with comments about whether we accept these restrictions graciously or work to overcome them. I have not put this compilation into any particular order. Also, I am refraining from identifying any particular repository in conjunction with the classifications.

Obviously, many genealogical valuable records could be housed in any particular repository. So even if the repository freely gives access to its patrons, the researcher has to travel to the repository to see the records and arrive at a time when the repository is open and available for research. So access is limited to those who have both the time and the money to travel to the repository's location. This has been the case since antiquity. For those repositories that still have paper-based collections and have done nothing to make them more available, genealogists are essentially caught in a time-warp where we have to revert to traditional research methodologies.

A variation on this theme is that the repository restricts access to a certain class or category of researchers. This is a real issue with certain classes of documents. The restrictions can be based on religious, ethnic, or another type of qualification.

The solution to the first type of restriction is available if the repository would consider a digitization project. Of course, the repository may still impose restrictions on access to its digitized collections, but assuming those restrictions are most likely putting the records behind a paywall, the research can then access the digitized records from home. The second classification of restriction involves a more complex issue. A particular researcher may never be able to qualify as a "member" of the class of individuals allowed access to the records. But assuming the researcher is able to qualify, then research may be possible both in person and online. Here, a researcher could encourage or even offer to digitize the records in the repository, but assuming a restriction as to the qualifications or identity of the researcher, there is little that can be done unless there is a path to avoid or comply with the restrictions.

The next class of restrictions has to do with the arbitrary withholding of access or even putting access behind a substantial paywall. This is often an issue with otherwise public records. Bureaucracies tend to manufacture their own rules and restrict access to records for a variety of justifications. Primary among those justifications is the monetary benefit of the paywall. In the United States, we have a limited pathway to overcoming this type of restriction through Freedom of Information Acts both applying to the Federal government and state governments. See Reclaim the Records. Digitization of these records only helps if the digitized copies are not placed behind another paywall. Paying for records is a reality of genealogical research today and although we would like to have "free" records, subscriptions services and paywalls are a reality of everyday life.

One of the major obstacles raised to record access is the concept of "privacy." This is a topic that I have written about many times in the past. In reality, privacy laws are very limited in their effectiveness, but claiming privacy issues is now used as a catch-all way to restrict access when there are really political, social or religious reasons behind the restrictions. There are extreme applications of the privacy claim when courts "seal" adoption records and will not allow access even to those people who are adopted and need to know the information.

There are whole categories of records that are "confidential" both inside and outside of government agencies. These types of records do not usually impact genealogical research unless one of your ancestors was a spy or had access to privileged information.

As genealogists, we all face the issues of records that have some sort of restricted access. In some cases, we can work to "liberate" and preserve the records but this will always remain a major challenge of genealogical research.

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