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Threat to records preservation

Worldwide community of volunteers may be the answer

It may seem ironic, but in this, arguably the golden age of information technology, archives around the world are in jeopardy. They are victims of a scarcity of government funding as lawmakers lack a vision of the importance of records preservation and accessibility.

That is the dire message of Ransom H. Love, director of strategic relationships for FamilySearch, who also sounds a note of optimism by saying the solution is found in the concept of a worldwide community of volunteers who can help rescue the records from obscurity or even destruction.

Brother Love spoke July 28 at the Conference on Family History and Genealogy at BYU.

"You can, if you will, see the Lord's hand in some of these what would appear to be negative situations," he remarked.

Ransom Love, director of strategic relationships for FamilySearch, speaks of the threat posed to records preservation worldwide from lack of funding and resources of archives. He spoke at Conference on Family History and Genealogy at BYU on July 28.
Ransom Love, director of strategic relationships for FamilySearch, speaks of the threat posed to records preservation worldwide from lack of funding and resources of archives. He spoke at Conference on Family History and Genealogy at BYU on July 28. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

In trying to preserve and index the records of the world, the Church deals with three categories of archives: government, library and religious.

"Across all three groups, the challenges they face are pretty overwhelming, and in almost all cases, it's lack of resources," Brother Love said. He explained that the areas where governments tend to cut funding the soonest are those that have the least voice and are easiest to target. "In that case, archives are the easiest to target because they have no voice."

He added that archive budgets "are being cut 20, 30, 40 percent all over the world. In the United States, Latin America, Europe, Asia — all across the board archives are being cut back."

In many cases the archives are down to skeleton crews and cannot even afford the administrative structure to supervise volunteers who are willing to come in and help.

Compounding the problem is that there is currently no real solution for long-term digital preservation, as digital media typically have a life expectancy of 30 years.

Brother Love said FamilySearch — the genealogy organization established and run by the Church — has consulted with advisory committees in different parts of the world. "When we shared with them what we're doing for digital preservation, they almost unanimously said, 'We believe you can preserve our data digitally, but we have zero confidence our legislature will support anything even remotely close to what you're proposing. So what we're going to do is continuously take digital and put it back to microfilm.' "

That's a huge problem, Brother Love said, because the most expensive part of digitizing records is indexing the metadata associated with it. Preserving digitized records on microfilm at least ensures their perpetuation, but all the work of indexing is thus destroyed.

Brother Love posed the question "What about born-digital data? Millions of records are being produced today digitally. There is no paper copy. There is no backup. Well, they've got to figure out how to deal with that, faced with zero funding and zero commitment."

Lest he leave a pall of "doom and gloom," Brother Love said that technology can be an enabler. "And I believe that many of these forces that are at work are enabling major changes that, frankly, the Lord wants to have happen to make this work come about in the way He wants it to come about."

What he sees as a key solution to the challenges can be summarized in one word: community.

"If we pull together, collectively, our resources, our time, our talents, our interests, and we begin to help and surround these records with our talents and resources, we will begin to see things come to fruition. We'll start seeing these records emerge in a greater scale."

For one thing, technology can help archives communicate with one another, "oftentimes just pooling their own resources and their own knowledge," Brother Love said.

Technology can also help communicate the need to potential volunteers. "We need to be aware of records that are coming up and be able to assist both the digitization and the capture," he said. He asked his audience, "How many of you would be willing, if you knew that a particular record set was pertinent to you and your family, to help sponsor the digitization of a collection that you know your family records are in? ... I think every one of us would do that."

He said FamilySearch is trying to help. It is considering the use of less-expensive cameras and scanning devices with which a volunteer force can be equipped to go into archives to photograph paper copies of records. FamilySearch's indexing program, whereby volunteers worldwide view copies of microfilmed records on their home computers and help index them, is another means of approaching the challenges, he noted.

Brother Love said hosting is yet another means to help preserve records. Under this concept, computer software and other tools are offered by FamilySearch to archives so they can set up their own records preservation and indexing efforts, in turn making the results of their efforts available to FamilySearch to augment its worldwide reach.

"The reality is it will not be done by one organization," Brother Love remarked. "There's absolutely no way that FamilySearch or the Church is going to do this alone. The size and scope of the task is almost overwhelming."

But he feels that getting others enthused about this effort as part of a worldwide community will be part of the scriptural vision of turning the hearts of the fathers to the children.

"The good people of the earth will respond to these needs and will link arms with us all over the world to make these records available," he said. "They may not join the Church, but they will join this effort, and they will become some of the most stalwart, wonderful people you will ever want to meet."

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