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Community-Generated Data - A Case Study.

Local groups can create very useful genealogical records. This looks at one project in Rochester, New York that has been going for 7 years.


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It's truly remarkable when you think of how much we can do sitting at our computers and researching online. Back when I started, there was only the option of actually going to records repositories, writing to them, or trying a phone call in the hope that someone in charge would take pity on you. And this all came with a price, which many of us do not remember.

At any rate, there are wonderful and large collections of data available for a fee through commercial database vendors; there are also (and very gear-grinding to a organizing librarian) many free amateur web sites put together by societies and individuals, of varying content and quality. With the continual unfunding of libraries, archives and the like, it can fall to us, the users, to create (and market!) useful databases and guides.

We know where we live (hopefully). We know what resources are available and how to get hold of them. But we can also create and make available much more than we could just a few years ago.

What I am going to describe is a project that I have been aware of for several years, and that I have actually worked on regularly since I have had more time available. I sincerely hope that others around the country and perhaps other countries will take note and perhaps start their own projects, whatever they may be. I am dealing here with a church records project, but there are many other which could be done: cemeteries, school records, tax and land records, censuses, reconstruction of a town's inhabitants (as one example, see The site is in German, but the link is to the English translation). I will also offer some guidance on creating your own local projects.

What and Who

The Church Records Preservation Committee (CRPC) of the Rochester (NY) Genealogical Society (RGS) first started to discuss preserving local area church records in 2005. This was not only the births, marriages and deaths, but also the photo albums, the weekly service bulletins, and other materials such as church committee meeting and records books. This would safeguard the church records by making duplicate digital copies. These could then be put online for research purposes. This helps church librarians and archivists conserve their non-replaceable records.

Several of the volunteers (there will be more mentioned about this) were engineers with Eastman Kodak or Xerox Corporation. They brought their professional skills to the project, as well as a common interest in genealogy and history. However, this should not be a stumbling block for others wishing to start projects. What is being done is fairly simple and can be learned quickly.

The digitization process is quick (it is not unusual to have four people do 1500 pages of bound material in one three-hour block, and more if items can be fed through a sheet scanner). And we do not limit it to just church records. There are often cemeteries connected with churches. The largest cemetery in Rochester, New York (Mount Hope) has over 330,000 burials. The fist four books were indexed (1838-1906) and published not only in hard copy, but also in an Excel spreadsheet.

While some records are posted on the RGS website, they are privatized (according to NY state law regarding the holdback of vital statistics data) beforehand to comply with that New York state law; that is, births can only be shown more than 75 years after the event, and marriage and deaths must be kept private for 50 years. Your state may be different. I recently have seen online birth records from Minnesota from 2002, and deaths and divorces from Texas from the late 1900s. It all depends on what policies are in effect where you live.

The volunteers have changed over the course of the project. Some have literally moved on, and other new people have joined the effort. To do this though, you have to have a committed core group. Let George do it does not work, if there's no George who is willing to step up and actually do the work. If the scanning itself takes about 3 hours at a time, there is about another 10 hours per week for image cleanup, bookmarking, burning to disk, etc.


So how do you pay for this? In this case, the work of the CRPC is funded through RGS membership dues and donations. Recently, an anonymous benefactor made a generous donation to the organization to further the work of the committee. This money has been and will be used to purchase new camera and computer equipment and software. Several attempts at grants have not been successful, so if you are thinking about doing this, be prepared to get creative with funding, And do not worry if you cannot get a huge project underway at once, or get something done in a hurry. While this effort has done 150,000 pages of data in 7 years, most but not all is online and there is a waiting list of about two years for churches to get in the queue. When you do the work, do it well, and word of mouth will help you get more work, and perhaps even donations such as were just mentioned.

If you do decide to do a similar project, think about what records you know of that are in need on preservation. (Conservation is an entirely different strategy, and the materials necessary to do that can be expensive). It is okay to be enthusiastic, but some planning before work starts will obviate many problems.

For example, take churches in an area. What ones have existed? Which ones merged or became defunct? (There are plenty of ways to find out about these, like old gazetteers, county history books, your local city, county state archives and, of course, any local historians or church historians). Some churches are absorbed or evolve into other churches, sometimes changing names, locations, and even denominations in the process. The CRPC developed two documents that have served as guidelines. These are a list of all the churches in Monroe County and a list of those that had been microfilmed by LDS Church. There has been a focus on preserving the records of the earliest churches in the area.

While it may seem cheaper to microfilm the records, remember that many have been done already by the organizations themselves, by the parent denomination, by the LDS filming of that collection, and even by local libraries and historical societies. In real life, I have been doing that for a historical society as well as the CRPC project. It is probably cost prohibitive to microfilm and then re-print the records in a tangible format.

Be Nice to Your D.O.G.

By that I mean it is a very wise idea to work with a "Deed of Gift." The library where I used to work had a very outdated one from the 1930s - even before Xerography existed. When I wrote one for them a few years ago, it gave the library the right to publish, sell, and change into any format that exists now or may from time to time be developed. Hopefully that will protect them 50 or 100 years from now.

With this group, a document of agreement was written and signed by RGS and the church detailing the procedure for filming/scanning, and delivering to the church an archival CD of all their records. We also obtain permission from each church to post the records on the RGS website. The church determines which of their records they want filmed; we post only those conforming to the New York State vital records guidelines.

The CD contains all the records filmed, and the church keeps that. Since no material is removed from the church, a filming team of 3 - 8 volunteers travels to the site, usually once a week for 3 - 4 hours. Among the challenges has been to find equipment that is lightweight, easy and quick to assemble/disassemble, able to withstand the rigors of travel, and stable once it is set up.

Filming began in 2006, and over 150,000 images have been captured thus far and 50,000 pages have been returned to the churches on CDs. The rest, spanning multiple projects are being prepared for CDs. It is accurate to say that every facet of the project has evolved over the past 5 years and will continue to do so as we discover more efficient ways to preserve the past.


Actually, photographing the images is only a small part of the total time required to post the images on the website and create the CD. Once the images have been captured and securely stored in multiple locations, volunteers do the processing at their homes, using a combination of their own equipment and that of the CRPC. Each image is optimized and then combined with other images into logical sets. PDFs are created with bookmarks and navigational aids, and a CD is prepared for the church. The records are then privatized and uploaded to the website. None of our volunteers comes from a photographic or archivist background so each person is trained according to their interests and our needs. Everybody learns something new and contributes in his or her own way. One benefit for our volunteers is that they often find their ancestors in the records we process.

Following the same procedures we use for churches, we have filmed many documents (plot maps, day books, etc.) belonging to the Mt. Hope Cemetery. This historic cemetery, which opened in 1838 and contains more than 350,000 graves, is a treasure trove of genealogical data.

Ongoing Issues

  • Shortening the time lapse between image capture and the final CD and upload to the website - more volunteers would clearly speed up this process

  • Maximizing control at image capture to minimize post-processing - keeping the target flat

  • Getting the post-processing done more quickly. It does not look good to take years to have a finished product.

  • Lighting the image without shadows - consistency in positioning documents under the camera

  • Training of volunteers for the tasks necessary for the project

  • Shortening and simplifying each step of the process while maintaining the high standards we have set

  • Storing huge volumes of records at the homes of volunteers

Don't promise too much - do genealogically significant items, and possibly, but not always, scrapbooks, pictures, and clippings. This is discussed with the church beforehand, and the agreement is explicitly spelled out in a written document signed by both parties. Remember, that while parishioners might want to have records done, volunteers have to do them, and church councils, trustees and minister have to OK the project.

Other considerations are what format to have the ending data. PDF format for the society to show on the web, raw or processed images for the churches, what kind of storage to have copies copied onto (and how many copies) - all these should be considered before you start clicking the button to make a picture.


The following timeline traces the evolution of the technology used from the beginning of the project to the plans for 2011 and later.

The group started with a Kodak 5 megapixel camera (DX 7590) on a tripod, with images stored on camera card for later downloading to a computer; the books were placed on the floor lighted by sunlight. There was the consideration that room lights and flash produced shadows and hot spots. Switching to flood lights later helped to solve the lighting problem. There is also the use of a flatbed scanner (Epson 3170) connected to a computer for suitable materials such a freestanding sheets

In 2007 the group got a gift from the LDS Church, that being a fixture: tripod and table. No doubt this was the most important factor in our continuing success.

We purchased Canon A640 cameras (replacing earlier cameras) and Canon image capture software allowing cameras to be directly connected with computers; initially computers and cameras belonged to volunteers; experimentation with various lighting schemes, including hanging lights from the ceiling, finally settling on CFL floodlights using the tripod sockets; experimentation with top-mounted and bottom-mounted cameras on the tripod.

From 2008 to 2010 there were changes in techniques, table background and lighting; we purchased compact desktop computers and image capture software; and do training for volunteers in post-processing. Since then the hardware and software have stabilized and there is a two-year waiting period for our services.

Donation from LDS

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) in Salt Lake City donated four surplus tripod fixtures and two tables it had used for holding its microfilm cameras. These have been modified and retrofitted several times for our use. This donation was a tremendous boost to the project and has helped us to continue moving forward with new innovations.

Work in Progress

The work in process includes Mt. Hope plot maps and plot purchase records; St. Luke's and St. Simon Cyrene Episcopal Churches; Salem United Church of Christ; St. Paul's Lutheran; Incarnate Word Lutheran (with predecessor churches Concordia and Zion); Immanuel Lutheran Church (Webster, NY); Third Presbyterian Church; Lakeside Presbyterian Church; and Riverside Cemetery

FGS mentions

The Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) received a nomination for this groups' work. That was awarded to the RGS CRPC in 2010.

Currently, there is a listenable podcast on the FGS web site that talks in general about scanning projects and sharing them.

Some Useful Links - (am allied project)

So in summary, decide what needs to be done in your area. Develop reliable volunteers. Think things though and ask other places such as ours for help and advice. Set a timetable and try your best to stay on schedule. Keep extremely accurate records of what you have done: titles of volumes, number of exposures, when made into PDFs, when burned onto digital media, etc. These can be used to convince prospective churches and cemeteries of your competence and thoroughness. And when all is said and done, make it available.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2012.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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