Sunday, March 26, 2017
Which records will be the last to ever be digitized?
Over the past few years, more and more of my monetary transactions have become entirely internet-based. Between credit cards, automatic bill payments and automatic check deposits, I hardly ever use cash. Many news reports talk about the imminent creation of a cashless society. Despite my personal experience and my own acceptance of a cashlessness, the many transactions that still require cash, this particular prediction still seems very far off in the future and possibly something that will never happen.
As genealogists, we see a similar transition from paper-based research to online, digitized documents and records. Many of us who have been using the FamilySearch.org website have been watching the online collections of digitized records grow rapidly almost every day. Of course, FamilySearch is just one of a multitude of digitization projects going on around the world. At the same time, more and more of the day-to-day records being created around the world are be created as digital records, bypassing the need for any future digitization projects. Whatever your attitude and beliefs about the permanence or utility of digital records, the tidal wave of digitization will continue unabated.
Recent statements by representatives of FamilySearch have spoken about a not-to-distant end to the digitization of the records in the Granite Vault, some 2.4 million rolls of microfilm. But there are still about 300 FamilySearch volunteer camera teams operating around the world to add new records to the FamilySearch.org website. It is relatively easy to identify and locate records maintained by large record repositories such as the United States National Archives, but how do you identify and digitize smaller, local collections?
In addition, we have seen billions of records go online in the larger genealogical database websites simply because there is an economy of scale. FamilySearch.org has to rely on volunteers to do the work of digitizing the records but the expense of putting those volunteers on site with the proper equipment is expensive and can only be justified if the record sets are large enough for the volunteers to stay for a considerable time. It is simply too expensive to work on smaller record sets. The same economies of scale apply to the commercial companies involved in digitizing records, they need to have large record collections or the cost of hiring companies to digitize the records makes the cost of digitizing each record uneconomical.
The results of this economy of scale are that smaller, less accessible collections of records have a much higher incremental digitization cost per record. In addition, the smaller, less well funded, organizations and repositories do not generally have the funds to digitize their records and put them online.
Another major factor in the cost of digitizing large or small collections of records are the legal red tape issues of obtaining permission from the "owners" of the records. Most countries of the world have extensive copyright laws that restrict the copying of protected works. In the United States, for example, the copyright laws are arcane and extremely restrictive. I know from my personal experience in working to obtain permission to digitize records that working with the government and other entities to obtain permission to digitize their records and make them available online can be very time consuming and sometimes take years simply to gain permission to copy the records.
When you realize that the time to negotiate the rights to put records online can take just as long for a small collection as it may take for a very large one, you can see that many of the smaller collections of records will likely remain undigitized and subject to loss for a very long time.
Those records that reside in smaller, more local record repositories such as historical societies and local libraries will undoubtedly be the last to be digitized. What is needed is a mechanism that can allow for private digitization projects where the local genealogists can negotiate permission for duplication and then provide the local volunteers for digitization efforts. In the end, these local records need a pathway to be better preserved online.