Thursday, December 15, 2011

Huge leaps forward and some steps backward

I’ve been doing genealogy a long time.  In the 1970s I mentioned that I was driving to Boston to take a look at the US Federal Census Indexes at NEHGS, so I could write to NARA for a copy of a census record.  I was talking to someone who remembered doing genealogy research before the invention of photocopies.  She said she that remembered having to drive to NARA in Washington to look at the microfilm back in her early days of genealogy research.  Then we discussed her grandfather, who researched genealogy before microfilm was invented.  Together we wondered how he researched with census records.  We knew he used them, but we had no idea how it was done at the turn of the 20th century. 

Now I can sit at home in my PJs, anytime of night and day and not only look at a census index, I can pull up the image of the record itself!   Within minutes I can compare records from several decades in the United States, or even check those in Canada or the UK.   It often makes me shiver when I think about the possibilities.  Sometimes I will show someone new to genealogy how to look up a Federal Census record, and they are amazed, too.  You don’t have to be an “old timer” in genealogy to appreciate the power of the internet.

After almost two decades of records appearing online freely and in exponentially increasing frequency, there have been a few small steps backward.   Due to the proliferation of “identity theft” several states have started requiring a few hoops you must go through in order to obtain records, and this is not just on line.  Here in New England there are states that have cracked down on researchers.  For many years Connecticut has required genealogists to present a researcher ID.  This is easy to obtain, but requires planning ahead, and has caught many people off guard.   Last year Maine implemented the same.   

Many other states across the US are starting to change access to records.  How do I know this?  Facebook, Twitter, genealogy blogs and email have all brought me messages about bills up before the state governments in faraway places like Pennsylvania [Vital Records Bill SB-361].   Not only do I know about this bill, I know about the grassroots efforts against it, and about the meetings, discussions and public hearings for and against.  This is a good thing!

The internet has brought records into our living rooms, but it has also brought information about access to records right into my lap.  Only a small percentage of records have been scanned or transcribed for internet access.  But a huge percentage of records have been discussed, cataloged, indexed, chatted about or written about on the internet.  If it’s not accessible, someone on the internet has written about how to find it, who to contact, where it is located, how to write or call for copies, and maybe even reviewed the contents.    This is one of the good things about using the internet for research, since you have no excuse for not being prepared to visit any repository or library anymore.  

As access to records change, for the better or for the worse, at least we can remain prepared.  All this discussion is invaluable.  Someone looking for the most obscure bit of data on someone who lived one hundred or two hundred years ago can still find clues online, or at least hook up with someone who can help out.  It is the people, volunteers and paid staff, all working behind the scenes, that make this possible.   And even when we lose access to a repository, or lose an entire website (like the current shut down of Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness)  through this incredible web of people online we can piece together new ways of finding the same answers, clues, sources and data.

I know that my research has become much richer since I recognized the fact that joining in on the discussions, blogging and online chatting is the new way of finding resources… even if those resources aren’t internet based.    Anyone who toils away alone on their genealogy research is missing out on the biggest advance in genealogy- the people online and in person at your local or state genealogy clubs and societies.   A network of people can be more valuable than a network of data.  People working together can overcome loss of record access, temporary or permanent.

Keep up the discussion!  In Maine Rep. Deborah Sanderson sponsored LD 258 to amend LD 1781 which passed last year and closed vital records for 100 years.   There is also Maine LD 388 which will lower the fee for the state researcher ID card, and make it last for two years.   You can tell that lawmakers are reconsidering their previous votes, especially when tourism and the local economy is affected by closing down access to Maine’s rich archives.   We are making a difference!


This post is a response to Thomas MacEntee’s Open Thread Thursday discussion for 15 December 2011 at this link:

Copyright 2011, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

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