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Let's get digital: Making Alaska's archives accessible

Imaging and indexing project will preserve documents, history

Posted: November 17, 2013 - 1:05am
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Dan Brinkerhoff, of the FamilySearch organization based out of Salt Lake City, photographs pre-statehood family history related public records at the Alaska State Archives in Juneau on Friday.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Dan Brinkerhoff, of the FamilySearch organization based out of Salt Lake City, photographs pre-statehood family history related public records at the Alaska State Archives in Juneau on Friday.

Burgeoning technology may remind us that the future is nigh, but it is also putting the past at our fingertips. State Archivist Dean Dawson is overseeing a four-year project digitizing the state’s vital records. The State Archives is home to government records with permanent historical value, including legislative bills and histories, audio recordings, meeting minutes, annual reports, birth and death records, naturalization records, incorporation records, court and probate, correspondence, publications and other agency-related material, with some records dating as far back as 1874.

The Brinkerhoffs, self proclaimed “records freak” Dan and “genealogy freak” Ruth, are volunteers imaging the state’s vital records, which will eventually be made easily available and searchable online.

There are two major reasons to digitize the records: one is to preserve the documents themselves. The Brinkerhoffs aren’t new to volunteering with records preservation, the pair have spent two years in Ireland, 18 months in Oregon and six months in Iowa, with returns to their home in Fairview, Utah, in between. And now they chose to come to Juneau, where they are scheduled to stay for a year.

Dan worries about records being damaged before they can be preserved through digitization.

“Every time I turn around, something’s wiping out someone’s records,” he said.

Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines was one example he listed, but it doesn’t take a tropical storm to do damage.

“We have a case of water damage in Nome, they’ve got their records stored up there in a morgue in the freezer because they’re soaking wet,” Dan said.

Water damage is a big worry in Juneau. Dawson listed a couple incidents that put records at risk, including water entering the building when the roof of the State Archives building was being replaced and a broken water main. He pointed out visibly patched cracks in a concrete wall leading to the records storage area.

The records are stored in temperature- and climate-controlled rooms for the preservation of the documents. But even safe from the elements, the more a document is handled, the shorter its life becomes.

Digitization would make searching for information a hands-off process, allowing information to be found in a simple online search while documents stay boxed away and safe.

Who wants to get their hands on these old documents? Sometimes state employees, sometimes lawyers, but mostly, Dawson said, it’s genealogists.

The Brinkerhoffs volunteer as filmers through the organization FamilySearch.

“We’re volunteers, we’re called missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, to tell you the truth. We don’t preach, we’re not here to preach the gospel to these people,” Dan said. “We’re here to film the records, that’s what we’re here for.”

The other reason to digitize is for the researchers, especially genealogists.

The State has partnered with FamilySearch to digitize its vital records, a project that benefits the State by having records digitized and preserved, and which benefits FamilySearch by making records of interest to genealogists available.

FamilySearch is a nonprofit, widely backed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, both monetarily and through volunteer service, and is historically known as the Genealogical Society of Utah, founded in 1894. The organization has pioneered industry standards for gathering, imaging, indexing and preserving records, which are available free through the website FamilySearch.org.

FamilySearch offers imaging, digital conversion, indexing, online access and, in some cases, storage of vital records. Volunteers like the Brinkerhoffs, who make up one of more than 200 digital recording teams, and more than 200,000 digital indexing volunteers allow FamilySearch to offer a deal that can’t be beat. Free.

“Our commitment to helping people connect with their ancestors is rooted in our beliefs — that families are meant to be central to our lives and that family relationships are intended to continue beyond this life,” reads the FamilySearch.org site.

FamilySearch isn’t used only by members of the LDS church. The site has had more than 308 million visitors since its launch in May of 1999.

Teresa Campbell is the secretary of the Gastineau Genealogical Society and has been researching genealogy since the late 1970s.

“I do genealogical research for many reasons, really. One is to honor the lives of the ordinary and interesting people who are my ancestors. Naming them and telling their stories keeps their memories alive, and it helps us understand ourselves within the larger human story,” Campbell said. “Of course, I also do it because it’s fun.”

She was interested in family connections from a young age, how people are related in a community, but also the more personal stories of what people have overcome and how that influences people over the generations, she said.

“I think the whole area of family research sometimes can tell us about our own families,” Campbell said. “I think I understand my mother and grandmother better because I know more about the generations before them.”

Campbell is looking forward to the Alaska records being made available for search online. She said she can trace her ancestry back as far as 1630 for one line, when they settled at the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and she can trace family in Alaska back as far as 1898 — they came for fish, not gold, she said.

“They’re open vital records and I already have some of those,” Campbell said, “But I’m interested in being able to look for family members I may not have complete information on at this point.”

In some ways, genealogy can make one feel like a super sleuth, poring over records and old newspapers to discover things previously unknown to the family.

“I actually have several stories, you might call them mysteries or dead ends,” Campbell said of her discoveries. “One great grandfather had a family prior to coming to Alaska, one I didn’t know existed, that my family may not have known existed. That was a bit of a surprise.”

A lot can be learned from those vital records, more than one might guess.

Dan shared a story about all he learned from a document they scanned from some Sitka records.

“There’s a gentleman from Sitka that said his daughter was coming over, Annie Davis is her name, coming over to Juneau to get married, she’s the age of 22 years, it said, ‘but I’m not going to be able to come over ‘cause I’ve gotta go fishing.’ I thought, ‘Boy, he’s got his priorities straight,’” Dan said with a laugh. “Fishing’s important.”

Beyond the cute story, though, the Brinkerhoffs could glean a fair amount of information from that document. They had names of a father and daughter, the daughter’s date of birth based on her age and the date of the document, plus the name of the daughter’s husband — three connections on a family tree.

In their personal research, the Brinkerhoffs were able to trace their lineage and let it take them on a journey.

“We were able to spend some time in upstate NY ... and were able to do some special, specific family history research for Dan’s Brinkerhoff family, who had settled in the area in 1795,” Ruth said. “Because of the things that were available to us there, because of other people’s record keeping, we were able to physically visit those locations where their property had been, where the cemeteries were, where the community was, and got just a real fine feeling for the intimacy, the family feeling, and I think that process was a real bonus.”

Gaye Willis, who teaches genealogy classes at the LDS church, brought up a piece written for the New York Times by Bruce Feiler, who wrote: “After a while, a surprising theme emerged. The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”

The Brinkerhoffs agree.

“It’s interesting to know where you came from. You need to be tied to your family. It’s part of life. It’s part of where you’re gonna go, where you came from,” Dan said. “And I think we’re losing that in this society. I shouldn’t say that, but I think that’s why we’re seeing so much of the problems in our society. I feel that way sometimes, that we don’t have our children tied to us tight enough, that we don’t have that family connection.”

Whether one researches one’s family history for religious purposes or for fun, there are a lot of resources; sites like FamilySearch.org or Ancestry.com are popular — Ruth pointed out that genealogy research is “the second largest use for the internet.”

There are also local resources, like a Family History Center located at the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints here in Juneau. And it’s open to anyone, regardless of faith. Willis teaches classes on genealogy at the LDS church that are open to non-members as well. She said genealogists who aren’t church members show up after the Sunday services to participate in the classes.

Campbell volunteers her time at the Family History Center some Saturday mornings, when she helps people break down walls in their research, she said.

The Family History Library provides access to sites that aren’t as accessible with subscriptions to other records databases, and volunteers can help with microfilm research and tough searches. The Gastineau Genealogical Society meets six times a year, with the next meeting on Saturday, Nov. 23 at 1 p.m. at the Family History Center.

Technology is making genealogical research much easier and faster. For everyone involved.

Research inquiries once handled by U.S. Postal Service are now handled via email, Dawson said.

“We used to write a lot more letters, wait for things to come in the mail,” Campbell said.

Soon, accessing Alaska vital records will be as simple as a researcher typing in a name and hitting the search button.

“It’s helped us immensely, it helps clients get information they need quicker,” Dawson said of the technology. “There is no downside at all to all of this, all of the records they are capturing are open, public records — not confidential.”

There are a lot of records, too. Dawson said he expects a total document volume for this digitization project to be in the range of 750,000 to 1,000,000 — in most cases irreplaceable documents that do not exist anywhere else.

There are a lot of safeguards in place for the records, both original paper and digital, with information stored by FamilySearch, on external hard drives held by the state, and on the state’s server. Dawson said they also have a migration plan for when document types like PDF and TIFF become obsolete.

Not everything found in the archives will be accessible easily online: not the stock certificate from a probate case, the mine claims or the gun archivists found. But an online search is arguably a much better system than waiting for documents to show up by mail — or dog sled.

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