Every year the world loses priceless historical records, but one dedicated group of individuals is trying to do something about it.
David Ouimette manages the Global Content Strategy team at FamilySearch.org, the world’s largest genealogical organization and a premier records preservation company.
Ouimette’s team is saving memories around the globe—historical documents that may be the only remaining witness to the existence of the individuals cloaked in their pages. It’s an ominous thought that untold numbers of records—and the stories they tell—are lost yearly.
The FamilySearch Global Content Strategy team creates its record strategy by prioritizing locations and identifying the record collections with the greatest genealogical value. Determining which record collections should be preserved first—based on how long the records will be available—is vitally important.
Choosing What to Preserve
“There are always records at risk,” Ouimette said, “so plans must be made.” With over 200 countries and principalities in the world, how do you prioritize which records to preserve first? That’s the perennial challenge for FamilySearch’s global records strategy team. They consider a number of variables to develop FamilySearch’s evolving strategy to preserve and create access to the world’s historical genealogical records.
The Five Greatest Threats to Historical Records
These irreplaceable documents include birth, christening, marriage, death, immigration, military, legal, and census records, and so on. Here are the major threats these historical documents face:
- Poor archival storage conditions. Too many records are decaying daily from mold, mildew, rain, sunlight, and insect infestation.
This photo from the National Archives in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Kinshasa emphasizes the greatest perils documents face, even in the modern era.
In the cement-block building where they are stored, these documents piled haphazardly high are bathed in sunlight and unkind weather from the roof and doorway. No special safeguards protect the records.
“When an archivist opened a book in the room, the termites just scurried out trying to find a hole to hide in,” Ouimette reported while visiting the site.
- Political instability. Ouimette and his team have gone to archives in some countries and returned years later to find that the archives had been leveled—totally destroyed.
“When there is political unrest and instability, rioters will torch government buildings, and these buildings often have the best records in them,” he said.
A photo of charred documents stacked in an archive in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, shows the damage that can be done.
A member of Ouimette’s team once returned to another archive a couple of years after rioting and found smoke damage staining the walls even years later.
- Scheduled destruction. Records in the National Archives of Ghana in Africa are purposely destroyed every decade. “As far as they’re concerned, the records are old and take up space,” Ouimette said.
The Ghanaians use the census statistics for military conscription, which uses an evaluation of the population’s health based on mortality and fertility rates, he explained.
So after a decade, they have gleaned the information they feel they need, and they discard the originals without considering the long-term genealogical value of the records.
“They are almost forced to destroy these records because they are going to do another census and won’t have room for [older] records,” Ouimette said.
An example of one of the largest destructions of valuable genealogical records, however, occurred with the British India records. “They took nominal censuses (a census that names every individual in the household), and like they did in England, destroyed them every decade, and not just in India but in surrounding countries too,” Ouimette said.
When India gained its independence, it continued the same practice of destruction. India now digitizes good material from the censuses, but by law the census is not available to the public and will eventually be destroyed.
“There is no long-term thinking about the historical value,” said Ouimette. “There is more concern about privacy today than about having a long-term record of people 200 or 300 years from now.”
- Death of oral genealogical informants. Genealogy isn’t always stored in archives but can also be found in the memories of individuals. In African tribes, it is common for an elder in the village to be able to recite five generations of the tribes from memory, and some can recite seven or eight generations. As these African villages lose population and the youth move to the cities, sometimes no one is available to replace the oral genealogists.
“When one of these elders dies,” Ouimette observed, “it’s like an archive has burned down.”
A timely gathering of oral genealogies is vital. FamilySearch visited one African tribal elder three or four times who could recite all descendants of the tribes’ members for generations. The team decided to return one last time to thank him.
“When we approached his home, his family came out and told us he had died during the night. They said how thankful he had been for being able to transfer his life’s work before passing away,” Ouimette recalled.
At a Ghanaian village where FamilySearch representatives met with the tribal elders, the Africans spoke of the need to preserve these oral genealogies because young tribal members who become urbanized don’t learn about their heritage.
“The elders said, ‘They forgot who they are. We essentially write their book—the book of their family. The book allows the younger generation to remember who they are by turning to their ancestry.’ It was so amazing to hear this tribal elder make this connection,” reflected Ouimette.
- Substantial risk of natural disaster. Floods, hurricanes, typhoons, fires, earthquakes, and such are natural disasters that compromise or completely ruin historical and genealogical records.
The Philippines, for example, face a constant flooding danger. Ouimette told how he visited a village where the cement pillars showed darkened, high-water marks indicating the depths of previous floods.
The village’s archivist, whose office was on the second floor above the water marks, lamented the fact that a 1985 flood destroyed his records. A central archive in Manila regularly maintains a second copy of local records because they often worn-out from overuse. The archivist received a government grant to make copies of his records; however, his village office ran out of money before the task was completed.
A Priceless Gift
While at this Philippines registry office, FamilySearch employees signed in to the FamilySearch website and found the archive’s missing records online. A FamilySearch team had microfilmed these records before the 1985 flood.
Ouimette described the conversation that followed: “[We] said [to the archivist], ‘Did you know that there is a copy of everything you had before the flood?’ He was totally unaware. Many registrars had preceded him, and over time this was forgotten.”
The FamilySearch employees offered to give the registrar a copy. “He followed us down the stairs when we left, saying, ‘Are you sure? You are willing to do this for us?’” A few weeks later, FamilySearch sent him a free hard drive with a copy of the records he was missing.
How You Can Gain Access to Preserved Records
To accomplish this nearly impossible feat of preserving the entire world’s genealogical records, FamilySearch volunteers, contractors, employees, and sometimes archive staff operate up to 330 cameras in about 50 countries around the world. They capture as many as 40 million digital images of historical records annually. These records are accessible in FamilySearch’s online catalog and historical record collections. Those digital images contain 3 to 4 billion names of individuals, which, when indexed by FamilySearch’s online volunteer community, will be added to FamilySearch’s existing online database of 6 billion searchable names.
How You Can Make a Difference
FamilySearch is enlisting the help of people in select communities to do the following:
- Discover information about records. Visit target repositories and create a basic inventory of records.
- Connect with key people. Connect with record custodians and other key people who can influence decision makers or who can grant permission for FamilySearch to digitize records.
- Take digital pictures of records. Operate digital equipment provided by FamilySearch to take pictures of select records.
To find out more about potential opportunities to help, call toll free 1-844-326-4478 or email preservation@FamilySearch.org.
If you are willing and able to help and you want to contribute financially to the cause of preserving at risk records around the world, visit www.familysearch.org/donate.