This article is by By June 13, 2016 at 12:03 PM. The original can be found HEREon June 02, 2016 at 4:31 PM, updated
As a librarian — especially as a local history/genealogy librarian — one of the complaints I hear the most is, “Why isn’t it online?” My reply: It isn’t as easy as it looks.
Digitizing photos or documents serves two purposes: preservation and access. By making a digital copy, people no longer have to handle and wear out the original. And by placing a digital copy online, more people will have access to the information contained within that document.
But digitizing material takes a great deal of time and effort. There are a great many logistical problems that need to be addressed in digitizing records. The physical acts of scanning, cropping and color correction all take time. Working with fragile materials that need delicate handling takes time as well.
Sure, it takes just a moment to snap a picture on your phone and post it to your Facebook or Instagram feeds, but with old genealogy documents, it will take a lot longer. Sometimes, documents are so fragile, or may be so bulky that scanning is out of the question and photographs need to be taken of the documents you’re trying to preserve.
And all this visual information needs to be findable. Looking for your ancestors on a census would be a lot tougher if it weren’t indexed. So every scanned image needs some metadata.
Metadata. The standard description is that metadata is data about data. Think of it this way: When you play a song on your phone, you’re using metadata whether you know it or not. If the data is the song, then the metadata is the song title, the artist’s name, the song’s length in minutes and seconds or the album cover. There’s even some metadata that you can add, like a rating, or genre. When you type a song title into your phone’s search box (or ask Siri or Cortana to play a song for you), it combs through the metadata of all the songs until it finds a match. Adding that metadata for each document is a time-consuming process.
And just because you’re making a digital copy of a document doesn’t mean you can get rid of the original. Keeping the original serves as the ultimate backup. There’s a saying that goes something like this: You can access so much information with the click of a mouse, but you also lose it with the click of a mouse. Keep that in mind.
Digitization is easy for organizations like Ancestry and FamilySearch because it’s what they do. They have an infrastructure set up to handle large — even immense — digitization projects. It’s not so easy for smaller organizations to do because of the personnel hours and money involved in such a project.
But there are ways to help out. You can ask your local historical society or library if they have any digitization projects they need help with. Believe me, they’ll be extremely grateful and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you helped make some document available for the rest of the world.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Danny Klein is a librarian at the Jersey City Free Public Library’s New Jersey Room and a founding member of the Hudson County Genealogical and Historical Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @HudsonGenealogy on Twitter.