Sometimes it seems as if the government creates new documents faster than it knows what to do with them. But what about old documents woven into the history of the United States and its people?
Between the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration, you’ll find many projects designed to preserve and make accessible documents, films, sound recordings and photographs. Preservation and access are two sides of the same coin. The access side means digitizing records so they can be subject to unlimited access with none of the damage that comes from direct handling.
For Jim Hastings’ corner of NARA, access to the past involves partnering with other organizations with rich stores of records. He is director of Access Programs at NARA , and says NARA couldn’t fully realize its mission without partners.
“[Partnerships] help us with our goal of having as much material online as possible,” says Hastings, a 36-year veteran of NARA. “There are millions and millions of pages we can’t do ourselves.”
He is referring to records relating to family genealogies and popular history more than scholarly records. Such records are held by three organizations with which NARA is forging partnerships: Ancestry.com, Footnote.com and the Genealogical Society of Utah, a non-profit funded by the Church of the Latter Day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City. The organizations have physical and digital records of all sorts, and visitors can create accounts into which they can load family pictures and other documents.
Ancestry.com has federal records online, mostly Census records up to the 1930 count-the most recent the law allows public access to. For privacy purposes, personally identifiable Census data is unavailable for 72 years after it is collected. It also has ship arrival manifests through 1957, which Ancestry.com is now scanning. And it has death notices of U.S. citizens abroad reported by the State Department back to the eighteenth century, Hastings says.
Such records “have always been available, but you had to know its there. Online with a rich index, you can find out not only that they died overseas but that there’s a record of it.” Such access, Hastings adds, will create “an incalculable increase in openness.”
Under the agreements-which Hastings stresses are not contracts-the owners of documents digitize them, and NARA takes physical possession so that people can view them in one of the agency’s 28 reading rooms nationwide. In five years, the documents become NARA property and NARA agrees to provide online access. In the meantime, the record owners charge fees for access for people wishing to do research. An example of how the agreements manifest themselves at NARA’s web site can be seen here.
“We don’t currently have the infrastructure to put them online, but in five years, who knows?” says Hastings. “Eventually more people will look online than go to a research room.”
The agreements let NARA concentrate on the digitizing of documents best suited for the agency to do. Those, says Hastings, include items of high intrinsic value-such as telegrams from President Lincoln or the notes he sent to the telegraph office to be transmitted-items to delicate for automation or untrained hands, and non-text AV materials.
“There is no end date for this effort,” Hastings says. “We have infinite material to digitize.”