Old genealogies in the digital age

Henry Stoddard Ruggles
Portrait of Henry Stoddard Ruggles, author of The Ruggles Family in England and America (1898).

For the past six months, I have been devoting much of my time as Metadata Librarian at NEHGS to making older genealogies from our Boston research library available online in the NEHGS Digital Library and Archive. These genealogies, most of them originally published in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are rare or unique to NEHGS, and have not been previously available online.

By adding them to our Digital Library, we hope that we can not only increase access to these hard-to-find resources, but also better preserve the physical books themselves, which are often suffering from the effects of brittle, acidic paper and deteriorating bindings. We have added items ranging from short, privately printed pamphlets – such as the five-page Family and Antecedents of William Henry Rayner and Jeanie Ann Balmer – to longer, more comprehensive treatises, like Henry Stoddard Ruggles’s The Ruggles Family in England and America.

So how do we find rare and unique genealogies from our collection to digitize? In the past sixth months, most of the new additions to our Digital Library came to our attention through a longstanding (if recently restarted) project to reclassify the “Old Class” section of our library and reunite it with the rest of our research collection. Like a lot of American libraries with lengthy histories, our research library has long had “a collection divided”: while the majority of our collection is arranged using the Library of Congress Classification (LCC) – the classification system used by most American academic and research libraries – we also have a large collection of books arranged using an older, in-house classification system, created before the advent of Library of Congress call numbers , which we at NEHGS refer to as the “Old Class.”

No part of our library is more dramatically affected by this divide than our collection of genealogies of American families, on the seventh floor: about 21,000 of these books have Library of Congress call numbers, while the remaining 3,000 sit in a separate section with Old Class numbers. In the past year, we’ve restarted the process of reuniting these two long-sundered parts of the collection by assigning the Old Class genealogies call numbers from the LCC system.

In addition to making it easier for visitors to our library to browse all the genealogies we have on a given family at once, the project also gives us an opportunity to identify rare genealogies from our collection that are not available online from other providers. Indeed, many of these older genealogies – especially some of the shorter pamphlets – were privately published and not widely distributed. As a result, NEHGS is sometimes the only library that holds a copy of the resource. In these cases, we are particularly happy to be able to preserve a digital copy and put it online so that it can reach a wider audience, now and for years to come.

You can browse through all of our digitized family histories in the NEHGS Digital Library and Archive.

About Emily Baldoni

Emily Baldoni is the Technical Services/Metadata Librarian. She is responsible for creating, maintaining, and enriching metadata for NEHGS print and digital collections. Emily is originally from Normal, Illinois, and joined the NEHGS staff in 2013. She has an M.A. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University and an M.S. in Library and Information Science from Simmons College. Prior to joining the staff at NEHGS, Emily worked for Harvard College Library and EBSCO Information Services.

15 thoughts on “Old genealogies in the digital age

  1. Wonderful Emily! I love to hear when NEHGS is using its limited manpower and computer power to bring its unique holdings to its members (rather than add, say, yet another index to a federal census, or a city directory that already exists online elsewhere).

  2. I recall a few years ago when I got some terrific help from Timothy Salls, Manager of Manuscript Collections, in locating a document under the call number “G WHI 6956” (“Whitney genealogy of the brothers Judge Joshua and Gen. William Whitney of Binghamton N.Y.” by Frank Edgar Weeks). It will be great to see these types of documents starting to show up in digital format.

  3. Can you tell me if they have or will be digitizing the Corbin Collection? Many years ago I purchased it on cd from NEHGS but it is no longer readable due to being unsupported on new windows operating systems. I am extremely saddened by the loss of this great collection at my fingertips!

    1. Hi Luanne,

      We have already digitized material on a number of towns from the Corbin Collection, and are in the process to adding it to the Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850 database (http://www.americanancestors.org/search/advanced-search/?database=Massachusetts%20Vital%20Records%20to%201850%20&full=true) on American Ancestors. In general, we have published the largest town collections first, and are working our way down to the smaller collections. Here is a summary:

      Currently on AmericanAncestors.org:
      Amherst Vital Records
      Amherst Cemeteries
      Belchertown Vital Records
      Chesterfield Vital Records
      Chesterfield Cemeteries
      Cummington Vital Records
      Cummington Cemeteries
      Hadley Vital Records
      Northampton Vital Records
      Southampton Vital Records
      Southampton Cemeteries

      To be published in the future:
      Blandford Vital Records
      Brimfield Cemeteries
      Goshen Vital Records
      Hadley Cemeteries
      Hatfield Cemeteries
      Holland Cemeteries
      Huntington Vital Records
      Middlefield Vital Records
      Monson Vital Records
      Norwich Cemeteries
      Pelham Vital Records
      Pelham Cemeteries
      Plainfield Vital Records
      Plainfield Cemeteries

  4. Well! I didn’t really grasp the extent of the project from your previous VB. Excellent! I can now check off another recommendation I made to Ralph C. 15 years – digitize books in the Old Lending Library system, sustaining a value-added benefit for membership. But this leads me to ask: once you’ve exhausted the Old Class of books and 1-of-a-kind items (as they are being folded into the LOC classifications), what will follow being digitized and linked through the Library Catalog?

    (Complete aside: didn’t the LC use to have a name like MHS’s Abigial?)

    1. Hi Robert,

      With some 3,000 genealogies in the Old Class collection that need to be reclassified (and in the process, considered for digitization), we still have a long way to go on this project – but we do continue to digitize books from other parts of the library collection as well. In general, whenever a rare or unique book from the library collection comes to our attention that is 1) free from copyright restrictions, and 2) not currently available online, we consider it as a possible candidate for digitization. So, while we’ve recently focused on books from the Old Class section, we also continue to scan books from other parts of the library (for example, from our local history collection) if they meet this criteria, especially when the original book is in poor physical condition. Additionally, we have begun to post some newer genealogies to the digital library, in cases where the author has donated an electronic copy of their book to the library and given us permission to make the item available online.

      In addition to books, we also have several projects underway to digitize manuscripts, personal papers, and other materials from the NEHGS Special Collections. In particular, we were very excited to receive a grant recently from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) to digitize a large collection of early New England Congregational church records, which you can read about here: http://www.americanancestors.org/About/Press-and-Media/Press-Releases/CLIRGrant/

  5. Emily: Connected but separate question: What’s with the links to Hathi Trust items through the LC? Alicia has mentioned it twice and I did click through one LC link but only got something like the WorldCat listings. If it would be more appropriate to address this “benefits add-on” in a separate Vita Brevis post, please do so. I’ve obviously missed why having an inter-organizational relationship might further assist my own research.

    Thanks in advance.

    1. In addition to items that NEHGS has digitized and put in our own digital library, we’ve also started to provide links to digital versions of books from reliable providers like HathiTrust, Google Books, and Internet Archive. These sites make their ebooks freely available to anyone, so no sign in or NEHGS membership is necessary to access them; when we’re aware that a book from our collection has a digital version available through HathiTrust or someplace similar, we’ve started providing a link to the ebook so that catalog users can easily access the book from home. Of course, since these are all freely available resources, users can also go directly to the HathiTrust website (https://www.hathitrust.org/) and search for resources directly from there, but we provide a direct link from our site in an attempt to cut out that additional step for users who are already searching in the NEHGS catalog.

      An example of an NEHGS catalog record with a link to one of these external ebooks is “Genealogy and family register of George Robinson”: http://library.nehgs.org/record=b1011646

      When you click on the “Online version” link in the center of the record, it should take you directly to the electronic version of the book on HathiTrust’s website. If you encounter any links that don’t seem to be going to the right place, let us know – we definitely want to fix any broken or misdirected links. (In particular, Robert, if you recall the title of the book with the link that appeared to be going to something like WorldCat listings, let me know and I’ll take a look!)

  6. Emily: And why is the platform for delivering these digital images an Amazon one, and not a proprietary one owned by the Society? That is, what are WE giving to Amazon in return for its HOSTING the files?

    1. We do pay for some web storage space provided by Amazon Web Services, which makes it easier for us to provide online access to some of the larger files in our digital library. However, the digital files are still all owned and controlled by NEHGS; we don’t cede control or rights over any of our content to Amazon by using their storage service.

  7. Hi Emily — Is there a way to do a name search within the new digitized files as a whole, or do you need to look through each one separately?

    1. Hi Kristin,

      That’s a very good question. Currently, there is no easy way to search the full text of all the newly digitized genealogies at once. We are OCR’ing all the newly added files, so once you have an individual ebook open (either through your browser or through Adobe), you should be able to search the full text of that book. But at the moment, though you can search the catalog records for all the genealogies digitized by NEHGS (which will contain some brief metadata for the book, including the name of the main family being traced), there is unfortunately no way to full-text search all the ebooks at once.

      However, that should be changing soon: we are currently in the process of migrating our Digital Library collections to a new platform that will allow you to search for names (or other data) across the full text of all the books digitized by NEHGS. As we move ebooks into the new system, we’ll also be OCR’ing many of the older files in the digital library that were previously not full-text-searchable, so this should result in a big improvement in the searchability of our digital collections as a whole. Stay tuned – we’ll be making more announcements about the new Digital Collections platform over the coming months!

  8. You wrote: “a new platform that will allow you to search for names (or other data) across the full text of all the books digitized by NEHGS.” WOW! That IS Value-Added as a Membership Benefit. Light years–billions and billions–beyond the Lending Loan Program (and, yes, I do remember all those boxes between the elevator and the 1st floor exit door).

    Now, can you get Gary’s “Marbury Connection” online and searchable? (Yeah, I know, one miracle at a time.)

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