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

Thursday, September 23, 2021

What does it take to have access to genealogical records?


Each of the large online genealogy family tree/record websites advertises the large number of records they have available for doing user research. In many cases there are various levels of indexing to support the records they claim to have available. But access is not determined by the number of records digitized or otherwise available. 

Let's suppose that you are looking for a record in the U.S. National Archives. First of all, only a vanishingly small percentage of the National Archive's holding are digitized or even on microfilm. However, all of the present microfilm publications from the National Archives are digitized and available on CD or DVD. See Record Reproduction and Microfilm. By the way, during the COVID pandemic, all reproduction and digitization services have been suspended. What this means is that research in the National Archives will often require the researcher to personally visit the facilities or hire someone to do the research. Here is a description of all of the National Archives repositories across the United States. See National Archives facilities

If we expand our concept of valuable historical and genealogically helpful records to other repositories. We will find the same conditions. Some of the records are digitized and available online, some are indexed but not digitized, and some are sitting in piles and boxes and no one really knows what is there. For example, one major state archive has millions and millions of stored paper records. The index to these records is a huge 3x5 inch paper card catalog like the one I used 50 years ago at the University of Utah. Not even the indexed catalog is entirely digitized. So, once again, research in the archive will frequently require the researcher to personally visit the facilities or hire someone to do the research.

You might get the impression, with all the hoopla about huge online collections that almost everything is available. Here is one example: Indonesia. Her is the link to the Indonesian National Archives. Here is the statement about record availability. 

The National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia (ANRI) through the work unit of the Archives Service Center carries out services in the field of services that are offered, namely the creation of archival guidelines and applications as well as improvement, maintenance, maintenance and archive storage. Archival services are provided to central and local government agencies, educational institutions, BUMN, BUMD, private companies, and the community. Service tariffs are fixed and definite based on Government Regulation Number 53 of 2019 concerning Types and Tariffs for Types of Non-Tax State Revenues Applicable to the National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia (download). Likewise, the mechanism for providing services must comply with regulations according to the mechanism for non-tax state revenues where the Archives Service Center is not a business entity. See Records Services.

My point is that the pile of records online on the large genealogy websites is helpful but not complete. In addition, the records, when digitized, have to be online, indexed, and accessible for someone who does not have physical access to the repository.  Just for information's sake has some Indonesian records. Neither or seem to have any records at all. 

What does it take to have access to records?

1. The records need to have been preserved. Obviously, if the records were destroyed they are no longer available in any format. 

2. The records need to be stored and preserved in way that researchers have access to examine the records and do research. This may involve fees, restrictions, and other impediments such as the times the archive is open for research. Some libraries and archives require a membership or even an academic certification to gain access. See The Huntington Library for an example. 

3. For most genealogists, the records need to be online, available in digital format, and reasonably accessible. This may include a pay wall or subscription.

4. For genealogists, indexes are a help and can expedite research where they are accurate and complete. 

This outline does not include the time and effort it takes for researchers to find out that records exist and where they are located. It does not include the time and effort to actually access the records as my visit to the Philadelphia City Archives is a good example.  


  1. Hello James, thank you for the excellent writing and seminars. I have a subject that I have not seen covered by family search / BYU. If I am correct, then I think it would make a great webinar or blog post. When I find conflicting data on a person, even in my own family, I ask "Do I really have the documentation or written proof statement to make the change?" I write in the discussion tab about my concerns and ask if another researcher has concrete evidence one way or the other. I think this tab is under utilized and the community would benefit from using it more. It at least alerts others to questions and concerns. Someone made a change to my great grandmother's surname! When I thought about it, all my reasoning for using the Irish surname did not contain one document to prove my "fact". I let the change stand and I wrote about it under discussion. If I ever find her baptismal record in Ireland, I will change it back but right now I think discussion is the best place for my thoughts. It would be an excellent place to put family lore, that doesn't have proof too. Thank you, Mary Beth Mueller

    1. Thanks for your excellent comment. I agree that the Notes and Discussions features are not used. I have posted comments and to my recollection, I have never had a comment or question back. Most of the Notes and Discussions on the website are old preserved note from GEDCOM files. FamilySearch wrote about this topic in 2019. See I think when the messaging system was implemented, it sort of replaced any use for these other two ways of communicating. I get a lot of messages.