digital media

Public domain at a premium price

I recently shared some important documents with my distant cousins who happen to be among the few relatives I know who actually have an interest in our family history. The files were scans of our ancestors' burial records, which I found during last research trip to England. Since these cousins have provided me with phenomenal ancestral artifacts, I had no qualms about sharing my findings with them. It also inspired me to scan more of my precious discoveries, instead of letting them remain dormant in a folder and allowing my poor predecessors to be forgotten by their own flesh and blood.

Only after sending out the emails, did I realize my foolishness. I committed what is considered to be a sin in the world of intellectual property: giving away my work for free. It's a common mistake for us genealogy folk, and I don't really think any of us consider the results of our actions.

While genealogical records are essentially free or inexpensive for anyone access, I had made a considerable effort to unearth them, an effort that required both time and money. While anyone can walk into the Berkshire Record Office in Reading, getting there takes a bit of investment. I gave up a valuable week of vacation time to cross the ocean, and beg my British friends to drive me around the English countryside. Every purchase I made was in pounds sterling, which at the time was double the cost of an American dollar. It was like being on one trip for the price of two!

With this in mind, my thoughts turn to putting some proprietary control on my findings. Not on the records themselves, but on my research. My concern isn't with sharing an important find with a fellow researcher, it's what that fellow researcher does with the document. Digital files are like rabbits - in the right situation, they can multiple rapidly and prolifically. My generous exchange with a distant cousin suddenly allows future generations to freely benefit from my thousand-dollar research trip.

The best solution seems to be putting a watermark on any digital files that I share, and to make the files as low resolution as possible. If someone wants a high-resolution file without the watermark, then they will have to pay me for it. If they don't want to pay, then they can go get the document from the source themselves, "for free".

This attitude sounds a little greedy, doesn't it? Here I am, taking exclusive control of public records. The truth of it is, these records aren't free. And if my relatives, no matter how close or how distant, are willing to share the financial burden, then we all will benefit (this is starting to sound a lot like the American public healthcare debate). After all, charges a hefty fee to use their services, so why shouldn't a small time genealogist? Or even a hobbyist for that matter?

Now, there is an added benefit to putting a watermark on these files. Because copies can be made and shared so easily, the added text will actually help keep track of who found the document to begin with. So often I see fellow family researchers emailing or posting documents and photos with no mention of the source. And if you ask, they frequently have no idea of where it came from. There is an original copy out there somewhere, but nobody knows where it is. This is Genealogy 101, people! Cite your sources! This is going to be crucial as we move into the digital future, where paper becomes a thing of the past (I do believe that paper records will go the way of another type of record - vinyl - and live on as a precious premium item).

Of course, I'll only do this on documents that I know no one else has. Common things like census records and certain photographs won't matter as they've already been widely distributed. And if I do charge a relative for the cost of doing our shared family research, then that will add value, in their eyes, to the document and make them think twice before giving away their purchase for free. It's simple economics.

The same goes for my professional genealogy research. Since one person is actually paying me to research their family, the watermark will help them keep tabs on their investment, should some ignorant or unscrupulous relative of theirs decide to freely distribute a valuable document.

Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.

Corporate Diaspora

As the cooling economy has slowed down human migration this past year, it’s worth reflecting how intense relocation has been during the past few decades. Historically, humans have always migrated for job opportunities, but usually for just one move per generation. Today we see families relocate multiple times as a result of the Corporate Diaspora, where distant job opportunities liken white-collar executives with nomadic migrant workers.

The end result will be a genealogist’s nightmare. How do you track a family that jumps from Cincinnati to Silicon Valley to suburban Connecticut, all within a decade? Without wars, famines, religious persecutions or gold rushes to help a historian pinpoint the movements of a twentieth century family, the trail becomes muddled. When the census records finally get released, families might have moved several times between surveys. They might even end back in the town where they began, burying a significant story in the cracks of decentennial paperwork.

With any luck, our descendants will have better access to information about our lives than the generations before us. But should the data of today get lost in the digital dust, it will be no easier to map the life of a twenty-first century office worker than that of a seventeenth century peasant.

The new Dark Ages

With the quickly-mounting death toll of newspapers, I wonder how the daily news is going to be archived. Surely, we can't rely solely on digital files.

One of the joys in reading an old newspaper is to see how an entire page paints a portrait of an era, from the articles to the ads and everything in between. The same can't be said of internet news. A single web article from will lose its context once the "related links" go dead and ad space draws a blank.

As much as we're witnessing a technological revolution, I fear that we may be entering another Dark Age in the eyes of future historians. The Dark Ages as we know them (AKA medieval times) are called that due to few surviving records from that time. Is that because the majority of people didn't read or write back then? Or did they, but the means to archiving their daily affairs failed miserably?

As saturated as we are these days with digital media (including this blog), I have little faith that any of it will endure for future generations to peruse. Nor will its validity. How do you carbon date an HTML file?

Farewell, newspapers!