Something is weighing on me. It is the loss of resources, especially on a local level. Genealogists can do something to prevent that loss. We need to speak up.
My website maintains a list of local history resource links. Each link has the potential to help someone with their research, or to help preserve local history through sharing resources. When a linked resource disappears, I contact the hosting organization to see if it moved to a new location on their website. In the past few years there is a worrisome trend. Some organizations are tossing local history databases aside, often when they rebuild websites. I have also observed this on higher-level library and archive websites. New websites arrive, and there go unique databases. Today, though, I am focusing on local level losses in places where we each have a voice and a personal research interest.
Here are a couple examples from my county. The Waukegan Public Library website once hosted a “Cemetery and Obituary Records Index.” I emailed the library in 2017 to ask where that resource went, as my link no longer worked. The responding reference staffer said that the library no longer maintains the index, but they provide microfilm research assistance. Without that index, which microfilm would you like me to ask you to search? I understand no longer adding to a database, but what harm is there in leaving a simple completed database on a website? A similar response came to me from Mundelein’s Fremont Public Library this June. Fremont’s website formerly had a local history section including, but not limited to, “Mundelein Newspaper Indexes” and old telephone directory extracts. Those original works, which only that library held, represented countless volunteer hours. Fremont’s assistant director replied to my missing database query. They no longer maintain the newspaper index because the indexed newspapers are available on the library’s subscription sites, and the index did not link to the digital editions of the newspapers. Guess who needs a Fremont library card to use the newspaper databases? Everyone. Guess who needed a library card to view the indexes that volunteers crafted? Nobody. Guess how many local phone directories are in those subscription newspaper databases? Zero. The library said the databases were too difficult to maintain when they moved to a new platform. Fremont offered local history searches to those who request them. I considered responding to explain why the missing databases had value, but I wanted to mull it over. Mulling tells me that my voice alone is not loud enough.
Both representatives were professional in their replies. Solutions offered promised to put more work on staff because the public no longer has access to resources allowing them to make specific requests. Removal of volunteer-created databases discourages volunteers who see their efforts evaporate.
The problem is clear. Our libraries, genealogical and historical societies, and governmental agencies simply will not keep stuff on their websites if there is no interest in it, or if there is no evidence of interest in it. We need to tell our repositories when we appreciate the resources they are providing us, and let them know when we miss things that are no longer there.
Your mission today is to access the website of an organization local to your research interests, one that preserves and provides local history information in the way of a database or a digitized resource. It might be a library, a historical society, or the county clerk. Send a Thank You for their efforts to preserve local history. With fingers crossed, I hope that your databases survive.
The Discarders of Databases take action on our silence.
P.S. Feel free to comment with recognition to a local organization that has preserved something useful to your research or made a local history preservation effort. My shout-out and thank you go to a small township office in Lake County, Illinois. The Fremont Township office has digitized annual town meeting records from 1850 to 2013, Board Meeting Minutes from 2012 to 1972, Fremont Highway Commissioner Meetings from 1884 to 1890, and Fremont Highway Treasurer Reports from 1883 to 1906. These records are cool to look at even if you didn’t have anyone there!