Thursday, July 14, 2011

Storming Your Bastille

Every French history buff will recall that today commemorates the 1789 uprising of the people of Paris, an act that has become a symbol of revolt against oppressive government. The Bastille, once an imposing medieval fortress turned political prison, was soon physically dismantled, but its import as a psychological rallying point has survived for centuries.

The energy from that flashpoint of historic action can vitalize your endeavors, too. While you may not see yourself in a struggle against oppression, you are still seeking to liberate segments of history that have been held hostage by institutional silence. While we have ample supplies of digitized documents for online research, every collision with a genealogical brick wall reminds us that there are many records in store that still need to be liberated for public access.

I have gone through seasons in my own research when I’ve been on a roll, finding online what seems like endless data sources to stoke my progress. And then, it all stops. It is at such times that I remember that those old-fashioned microfilm readers may still serve a purpose: there are reams of documents still sealed in old-technology formats that have yet to be transformed into new-technology-readable material. Some of our data need liberators!

There are other records that have yet to be rescued from their paper-bound original state: newspapers not yet scanned, county records from less-populated settlements that lay off the beaten historical path. Those records need rescuers!

Thankfully, this is already happening, though the progress seems slow. Individuals—and in some cases, small groups—are realizing how little data from their own region is represented in the collections of the better-known genealogical data aggregators. An acquaintance of mine is just such a one-man show, single-handedly photographing birth, marriage and death records at local courthouses, starting with Perry County, Ohio—home of my mother-in-law’s family roots, for which I’m thankful—and branching out to other states. One of his latest projects is to convert historic books to a searchable computer format for free public access, a project so huge it will require many kind donations of time and money to conquer.

Another example I’ve recently found in my own hometown is that of a coalition of county Genealogical Society, Historical Society and Museum, and public library to create an online, searchable database of local obituaries. A call for volunteers for this project just went out last month.

Of course, there are the trailblazers in this type of endeavor. I’m so grateful for the work of the Italian Genealogical Group; without their online postings, I would be hard-pressed to research my New York City roots from a distance. They are still pursuing additions to their digitized collection, still seeking not only donations for their work, but volunteers to multiply their efforts. And in Canada, I am indebted to the ongoing efforts of the volunteers at Automated Genealogy in transcribing and linking census records for public access at no charge.

There are many other such projects, of course—enough to require a document the size of Cyndi’s List to recount. But these projects couldn’t exist without the dedication of many volunteers.

At the dawn of this new internet age, someone once observed, “Information wants to be free.” “Free” may be the destination, but the journey will take work—the kind of work that requires the hands of many liberators.

Join that effort. While you are helping others dismantle their brick walls, you may find that someone else has unearthed a treasure for you.

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