By Angelyn Hutchinson
From London to Berlin to St. Petersburg and everywhere in between, World War II rained death and destruction. Civil unrest is just one threat to genealogy records in archives worldwide.
It’s no accident that World War II opened a presentation that David Ouimette gave on the preservation of the world’s historical genealogy records. Ouimette manages the global Content Strategy team at the nonprofit FamilySearch International, the world’s largest genealogical organization and a premier records preservation company.
If your job was to help digitally preserve the world's historical genealogical records, and your resources were limited, how would you go about it?
The FamilySearch Global Content Strategy team creates its record strategy by prioritizing localities and identifying the record collections with the greatest genealogical value. Prioritizing the record collections that should be preserved first—based on how long the records will be available—is an additional factor to the content strategy.
It's an ominous thought that untold amounts of records—and the stories they tell—are lost yearly. It's like trying to save passengers on a sinking ship and realizing your rescue vessel can save only a fraction of them. Which do you save? Although Ouimette's team is not saving lives, they are saving memories—historical documents that may be the only remaining witness to the existence of the individuals cloaked in their pages.
A Call to Act
Near the dawn of the war, before Hitler’s troops invaded Poland in 1939, Archibald Bennett, the secretary of the Genealogical Society of Utah, the predecessor of FamilySearch, issued a plea to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to preserve “priceless original records containing genealogical data [which] can now be reproduced accurately and in completeness at a very nominal cost.”
Bennett continued, “In view of the perilous state of world affairs, it seems that we must not delay in availing ourselves of every reasonable opportunity for securing the precious records so necessary in our work.”
In his May 12, 1938, letter, Bennett urged preservation by a relatively new capability in the genealogical preservation arsenal—microfilm. The Utah genealogical society had been dedicated to records preservation since 1894, but the advent of industry-wide microfilming greatly expanded its vision of preserving and sharing genealogical resources.
“Microfilming essentially started in 1938 in the U.S. and in 1945 in England after so much had been destroyed in World War II,” reported Ouimette.
Now, eight decades later, the medium has changed from microfilm to digital preservation, but the mission remains the same. FamilySearch has made it a policy to identify the genealogy records throughout the entire world, decide which are the highest priority, and use its resources to preserve what it can digitally.
FamilySearch volunteers, contractors, employees, and sometimes archive staff operate up to 330 cameras in about 50 countries around the world. They capture up to 140 million digital images of historical records annually. These records are accessible in FamilySearch’s online catalog and historical record collections. Those digital images contain 3–4 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.
Five Greatest Threats to Historical Records
“It doesn’t take a world war to put the world’s priceless records in harm’s way,” Ouimette emphasized. He listed five of the greatest threats to genealogical records.
1. Poor archival storage conditions. Daily, many records decay from mold, mildew, rain, sunlight, and insect infestation.
This photo from the National Archives in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Kinshasa emphasizes the perils. In the cement-block building where they are stored, 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.
2. 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, underscores his point.
A member of Ouimette’s team once returned to another archive a couple of years after rioting and found smoke damage still remained on the walls.
3. 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,” he said.
The Ghanaians use the census statistics for military conscription, which is 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 intent on destroying these records because they are going to do another census and won’t have room for these [older] records,” Ouimette said.
The biggest single destruction of valuable genealogical records, however, occurred with the British-India records. “They took nominal censuses (a census that names every individual in the household) like they did in England and destroyed them every decade, and not just in India but in surrounding countries, too,” he said.
When the British Empire fell and India gained its independence, India continued the same practice of destruction. India now digitizes good material from the censuses, but by law the census is not available and will 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.”
4. 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.
5. Substantial risk of natural disaster. Floods, hurricanes, typhoons, fires, and earthquakes are natural disasters that 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 maintains a second copy of local records because they often are shredded from overuse. The archivist received a government grant to make copies of his records but ran out of money before the task was completed.
A Priceless Gift
While at this Philippines registry office, FamilySearch employees logged on to the FamilySearch.org website and found the archive’s missing records online. A FamilySearch team had microfilmed these records before the 1985 flood.
“So, 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,” Ouimette said.
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 gave him a free copy of the records he was missing.
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 historic genealogical records.
Ancestral homelands in high demand for family history. Ouimette says the FamilySearch Global Content Strategy Team determines a country’s priority partially based on demand. They look to older records where people have many ancestors and newer records where people are doing genealogy where they live.
FamilySearch also considers global growth patterns in Church membership to help it prioritize which records its expanding membership will need to build their family trees.
For example, FamilySearch preserves a lot of European records because of the genealogical ties of the Church’s membership and users of FamilySearch.org who are citizens of the United States and Canada. However, “Latin America is coming alive with genealogical interest,” according to Ouimette, so FamilySearch has increased preservation efforts in that area of the world to provide easier access for people doing research.
Records with broad population coverage and great genealogical value. FamilySearch identifies the records, such as censuses, that cover the greatest percentage of the population. FamilySearch also finds the record types that contain the most genealogical information so an ancestor can be uniquely identified. This information includes names (the name of the primary person and the names of relatives), dates, and places for vital events in a person’s life, such as vital records (births, marriages, deaths). FamilySearch seeks a combination of government and church records from a country to create a wide range of genealogical information that will provide researchers the greatest opportunity to make family history discoveries.
Gaps in the best record types are filled and research is deepened with additional record types that provide either broad population coverage or genealogical value, such as immigration records; naturalization papers; probate, land, tax, schools, military, and pension records; orphan records; prison records; and city directories. The history of a country, migration patterns, and record keeping practices in each country help FamilySearch determine which records will be the most beneficial for research. The record types to be preserved are determined by locality.
Records at risk of destruction. Ouimette also sees a budding interest in genealogy in Africa. FamilySearch has increased its budget to preserve more oral histories from African countries before they are lost. He reported that work in Asia is happening at a slower pace than Africa, although it offers a wealth of genealogy to be gleaned in the future. In China, for example, some clans keep records that go back 4,000 years.
FamilySearch seeks to know a country’s records, especially those at risk, and find ways to save them. This effort has fueled the expansion and acceleration of oral genealogy acquisition and publication in Ghana and other African countries.
“Many records aren’t the best records (those having the highest genealogical value, such as civil registrations of births, marriages, and deaths; church parish registers; and census records) because no such thing was available back in the early years,” Ouimette reported.
In France, for example, the Catholic parish records from 1600 to 1800 provide a good snapshot of the nation’s Catholics, giving information about them during that period. However, later, at the end of the 18th Century, Napoleon created a civil registry (requiring the documentation of births, marriages, and deaths) that expanded available information to include the entire population, not just Catholics.
FamilySearch’s 15-Year Plan
People access FamilySearch’s free online services from all over the world. FamilySearch is expending efforts and resources to bring records to everyone everywhere—not just in highly developed countries, but in other countries as well.
Archive agreements made with FamilySearch open the doors to preserving and expanding access to many of the records, such as an agreement with the Italy National Archives (see the Italian-Ancestors Project) that is bringing millions of free records to online researchers.
The Hunger to Know Will Continue
Individuals around the world seem to be driven to discover their roots and make family connections. Millions of consumers are now turning to search engines and DNA in earnest to answer questions about their family tree. As internet archives and innovation continue to expand, family trees also grow, and descendants around the world continue to find each other. And behind that movement, nonprofit FamilySearch is found, determined as ever to continue to play an integral part in facilitating those joyful discoveries and reunions.
How You Can Make a Difference
FamilySearch International 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 or 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.
1From a letter sent by the secretary of the Genealogical Society of Utah, Archibald Bennett, to stakes of the Church on 12 May 1938 about microfilming records at risk.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Angelyn Nelson Hutchinson is a resident of Missouri and volunteer features and news writer for FamilySearch. Now retired, she was a reporter, city editor and assistant managing editor at the Deseret News.
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