As a librarian, historian, genealogist, or archivist, you want to make items available in a safe and responsible manner to the benefit of the most number of users.
Digitizing and publishing is the way to go - the wave of the future. As well, we all know the money is never enough to do the right things. It is incumbent to try to do the best that you can with what you have. But if historical materials are to be used, other than just collected and stored in a dark corner, then innovative ways of preserving, copying, and accessing them must be found. My examples tend to be from my own part of the country, as that is where I have worked my whole career. You can find similar projects by asking in a number of online lists, such GENEALIB and D-LIB.
Any specific pages or companies mentioned here are not meant to be ringing endorsements but rather examples of what's being done in real life.
How one might work with local historical and genealogical societies
You can include local historians and local libraries in your area. Our library is the large central research facility, but there are more than twenty surrounding towns with their own libraries, and not surprisingly, their own local history collections. Each town has an officially appointed historian. And there are several historical societies in the county as well. What you can do is to offer to cooperate on the reformatting (generally digitization) and provide referral services to microfilming companies with whom you have done business successfully. Also, you might offer your expertise in the design of advertising materials for these libraries and collection, to increase their usage of such materials.
You can give tours of your facility, if you have one, showing what you have done and how you do these ventures, hoping to inspire others to follow. For example, we have digitized a local town newspaper as well as a large amount of historical materials for another library, and are getting organized to work with a local town library on reformatting their materials. That third library has borrowed from a successful advertising brochure for historical research that we have done, and that should inspire even more use of their collections.
One of the most popular reasons for forming a genealogical society is to do family history. Becky Latulipe, president of the Bombay (New York, Franklin County) Historical Society, commenting on organizing the Bombay Genealogical Society, gave the explanation that the genealogical society would be able to serve the public, under the umbrella of the historical society. She said, "We want people to be aware of the pioneer families and community members that have lived here, but it will take some time and research." The point she makes is that genealogy is 90 percent of what the Historical Society is all about. It seems to be a common theme in most historical societies. [From the blog "UNYG Blog" 9 Oct 2010]
Here's an example.
The Rochester Genealogical Society (RGS) has been in existence for 70-plus years. For 20 of those years they have had an active computer interest group (CIG). Over time, the focus of that computer interest group has changed from learning how to enter data into a family history program, to selecting records that need to be preserved, and finding the wherewithal to do so. A few years ago, members of the RGS decided that while there were plenty of church records available for research that had been filmed by the Latter Day Saints church and were on microfilm, there were also churches that had not been filmed. Names and dates of people are important for family history, of course. But oftentimes these same people are the movers and shakers of a community. If they are not of that social stratum, then they may be of interest as immigrants. Their lives can chronicle social movements, labor movements, woman suffrage, etc.
The RGS-CIG formed a committee to investigate copying these semi-lost records and making them available. They approached the public library, which has a number of high-end digitizing machines like the Kirtas 1200 and the Indus 5500. It was decided that the library already had many items on their to-do list; but also affecting the decision was the fact that the building is only open certain hours. Volunteers from the RGS-CIG are generally retired people with no fixed hour jobs to get to, but the library does have staff on duty during fixed hours, and outside people cannot get access to the building during the times that the building is closed.
As a starting point, the RGS-CIG managed to get equipment such as PCs, scanners, and cameras. In the intervening time since the project was started, the group has acquired better equipment and developed a core of volunteers to meet weekly and do more inputting of data. At the time of this writing, they had just received a large donation from an anonymous donor that enabled them to buy better equipment and get a steady workload set up. The point is, first attempts might not work out but plugging ahead can.
By getting this project off the ground and sustained, the community has benefited by having early church records preserved in high quality digital format, while the churches themselves have received copies of the work that has been done. It also has been put on the RGS website free access to the community and the world. The upshot of all this work and collaboration is that about 50,000 pages of otherwise fragile and disintegrating records have been preserved.
Copies that appear on the Society web site are also given to the church that allows filming and to the public library. Everyone has benefited from this. The links to their project are: http://nyrgs.org/churchRecordsPhoto/chRecIndex.htm and http://nyrgs.org/churchRecordsTrans/EpiscopalIndex1820_51.pdf.
Working with historical societies is also a way to get material preserved and used more than they are now. The Rochester Historical Society sold their original location and moved into the Rochester Central Library's building in the summer of 2009. While they have been in existence from the late 1800s, they have been on the move to develop their usage. The Rochester Historical Society web site explains what they have in their collection. What organizations can do to work with such societies is to meet with them on a regular basis to see if various projects can be shared, and investigate if either has resources that can be used for the benefit of both parties. The library where I work does scanning of the Society's materials on an as requested basis. Such materials can then be sold or otherwise used by the Society, and again, everyone benefits as the community's storyteller (the Historical Society) is able to make items more widely available.
Another group that is doing preservation and presentation of local materials is the coalition known as FLAG Heritage. This stands for Finger Lakes and Genesee Heritage and is a digital collection contributed by many local societies and libraries with detailed information about their collections. As of this writing FLAG Heritage has decided to join with a statewide consortium of historical agencies know as the New York Herigage Digital Collections. This is a research portal for students, educators, historians, genealogists, and others who are interested in the Empire State's history. Since it is primarily digital and online, this means that materials in it can be made available to interested users 24/7 - 365 days year, in a cost effective manner.
For examples see the following:
These collections are genealogically important because many times people will have pictures of their relatives in storage in their homes, etc., and others might find them useful for research. While there isn't a problem with commercial sites making a profit, certainly some things should be available for free in a better organized manner than just some random, personal web page.
There is another way of partnering with groups and making more information available for researchers, through the American Association of State and Local History, and their IDEA (Internet Digital Encyclopedia Alliance) interest group. Online encyclopedias offer the opportunity to make various kinds of records available 24/7, and offer some sort of control on what appears online. They can be far cheaper to distribute and update than expensive printed copies (although there are always the startup costs). For more information see: merican History Central: Overview of the Encyclopedia Content Management System (eCMS), and as examples: http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org; http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/; and http://www.ctheritage.org/default.htm. While not strictly genealogical information, these kinds of groups can make more historical information and explanations available to researchers.
One can also find items that could not only provide research information, but perhaps raise a few dollars for the organizing group – and possibly be used in scholastic endeavors as well. Our library participates contractually with Kirtas Technologies, and several hundred of our titles are available to purchase right now (eventually we will have 3,000 titles available). As an example of what could be genealogically significant, the standard county history is now available digitally, on our web site, and also to purchase through KirtasBooks. What I see as valuable in this cooperative is that more people can get more information on their families and have it right in their house is they so choose.
The next instlallment will discuss other preservation activities, overcoming liability and invasion of privacy issues, as well as other partnership and marketing opportunities.