Thursday, August 13, 2009

Apples and Fraktur

One of my college classmates loved to pontificate on any subject. He fascinated me, because I hadn't met too many people like him before those days. Of course, he irritated me a great deal, too. Over the years, though, one of his rambling commentaries has returned to mind many times - his "Apple Argument." He contended that most Americans had no idea what a wonderful thing an apple could be. The only apple we'd ever eaten was a Red Delicious, with an occasional adventure with a Jonathan or a Granny Smith. (This was in the days before most grocery stores added Gala and Fuji to their limited collection.) There were hundreds, if not thousands, of tastier apples in the country, but we never saw them because they didn't ship or store as well. Big business was destroying quality and variety in apples simply to make money. On the other hand, I replied, big business was providing people with inexpensive apples year round. That couldn't be all bad, could it? I'm not sure I agree with my early self now. How many of these apple varieties have you tasted? How many have you even heard of? Isn't there some way to have both quality and availability? And what does this have to do with genealogy?

Late last year, a controversial post by Peggy Reeves on the APG mailing list started a discussion that carried over to several other lists and blogs. Like Peggy, I have found missing records in many Ancestry databases, and we all have stories of horrendous indexing errors in all the major subscription databases. Many of the responses to Peggy's posts boiled down to this: "Okay, there may be problems, but we should be grateful for what we have. Look at how much better access is now to these records." True, but will we have access to these records if they're not digitized in the first place? Do we have access if there's no index or finding aid? How do you look at a record, if you can't find proof it exists?

I took comfort from the fact that the Archives would be there for us, but in gossiping with some of the reference people on my recent trip, I discovered that the Archives really is planning to retire digitized records from "active reference," and there are rumors of plans to replace the microfilm reading room at Archives I with a museum store. Microfilm, like text records, could be requested, but self-service rolls would be limited. Records no longer considered active reference could be requested, but usually only when your need to see the original is demonstrated. Consider also Peggy's comment that the companies digitizing NARA's records weren't even taking advantage of modern technology. That brings me to the fraktur in my title. If you can't look at the original, which image would you rather see? This fraktur image found on Footnote, or this image found on NARA's Flickr site?

Isn't there some way to have both quality and availability? Whose responsibility is it to see that we do?

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