Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Mystery of the Disappearing Databases

Prominent genealogy blogger, Randy Seaver, the author of Genea-Musings Blog, has been commenting on the appearance and disappearance of online genealogical databases. See "Here Yesterday, Gone Today: the New Jersey Wills and Probates 1656-1801 Records." Obviously, from the dates of these records, this is not a U.S. Copyright issue. Any such documents would either pre-date the U.S. Copyright Law's protection or would have long since lost the protection. The issue is that certain genealogically valuable collections have been added to large online databases, such as and and then have been summarily removed. So what is actually going on?

The incident reported by Randy is only one of a huge number of similar incidents that have occurred during the past few years. Many documents and collections of family history importance have limited access. The basic reason is simple and has been appropriately expressed in the Doctrine and Covenants Section 121, Verse 39:
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
Unrighteous dominion is a complex subject. But in the sense of its application to these types of circumstances, it results in bureaucratic pettiness and over-reaching. There are many complex reasons why access to records is limited. With more modern records, there are concerns of privacy in addition to copyright claims. But why would old records be subject to limited access?

The answer to this question is twofold: control and monetary gain. Governments, agencies and even private record repositories have long recognized that there is a monetary value associated with the possession of vast collections of records. Simply put, you can charge people money to view the records. As an example, take the phenomena of university libraries "special collections." Documents with presumed historical value (read monetarily valuable) are "protected" by only allowing a certain access. This "protection" is usually explained as a need to preserve the original documents. Where this breaks down is when the institution prohibits copying the document. An extreme example of this is the United States Archives. You can get a glimpse of this issue by reading through their Frequently Asked Questions.  Here is a statement from that page that illustrates my point:
Why aren't all the records online? 
NARA tries to make as many records as possible available via the Internet. This is a daunting task, even with records that were created in electronic format. More information on this effort is available at Digitization at the National Archives
The volume of records in NARA's possession that pre-date electronic formats is so vast, that costs and resource availabilities will most likely preclude the conversion of all of them to electronic formats. However, as resources permit, NARA will continue to select records to be digitized and made available electronically.
If you follow up with research on this issue, you will soon find that this "digitization" effort is being done by fee-based entities. In other words, yes, the documents will become available if you have access to those companies' collections.

Let me illustrate this issue with a hypothetical situation. Let's suppose that I find a huge collection of genealogically important documents (such as wills, probate, land records, etc.) is located in a certain repository. Let's further suppose that there are no privacy or copyright issues with the documents. Shouldn't I be allowed to make copies of the original documents?

The answer is often, yes, if you pay for the copies. It is also yes, if you have the right credentials. It may also be yes if you fall into the category of those allowed access, i.e. university professors and professional historians. I was once asked to leave a "private" library because I wanted to look at the books. I have been told not to take photos by guards.

It should not be a surprise at all that collections of documents appear and then disappear from online access. These agencies, repositories, special collections, etc. will often change their mind about access if they see that there is a monetary benefit to the institution. I am not being cynical. I am merely reporting what happens.

Again, I refer to the U.S. National Archives. There is a website page entitled, "Obtaining Copies of Records." Quoting from that page:
When records cannot be copied 
There are sometimes restrictions that prevent records from being copied. The most common are preservation priorities, copyright, and donor restrictions. Details..,
If you have questions about specific materials, please check with the appropriate reference staff.
Who owns the documents in the National Archives? Why can a "donor" restrict access?

The reality is that these restrictions and interests exist. Those who consider that they "own" certain documents will always limit their access. As researchers, we can only try to work within and sometimes around the system.

By the way, I have a strict personal policy of always honoring access requirements. It does not help me or anyone else if I am banned from access because I violate local policies about copying records. Yes, I sit there with my allowed pencil and a piece of paper and hand-copy out the information from the records where that is allowed.

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