Many genealogy enthusiasts were very disappointed last month when the Arizona Genealogical Library was closed and the more than 20,000 documents that made up the archives split up and distributed between several different locations.
“We were shocked when we heard that the genealogy library was closing down,” said Suzanne Brayer of the Family History Society of Arizona (FHSAZ). “After trying to get answers from the Secretary of State as to why this move was being considered and receiving none, we committed to helping organize and move the library.”
Although the most popular items in the collection were transferred to the Polly Rosenbaum Archives and History Building downtown, the majority of the items were divided between various genealogical societies with only a fraction of the collection available online. The closure was certainly an inconvenience for researchers, but State Librarian Joan Clark felt that it was the only reasonable option.
“The larger portion of the researchers were already going to the archive building so from the perspective of usage and ease of access it made sense to merge the collection, eliminate the duplicates and make it one-stop shopping for those doing genealogical research,” Clark said.
By some accounts the genealogy library averaged only a few patrons a day and was not enough to justify its continued operation, yet, there was still concern that important materials would be made less available to the public. That was a concern that hit Dennis Meldrum as unacceptable.
Meldrum worked for the records division of FamilySearch, the largest genealogical organization in the world and the genealogical arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. FamilySearch also operates its own website, FamilySearch.org, which makes almost a quarter of a million books and records available to the public via its online archive with over six billion searchable names.
Hearing about the plight of the Arizona genealogical community, FamilySearch volunteered to provide its services by digitizing 5,000 of the records that were not available on any online resources, a task that would be impossible without them, according to Clark.
“If we were to have paid for this process, in labor alone it would have been a project that we would never be able to do,” she said.
The process of actually transferring the collection would itself be a monumental task with members of FHSAZ and other organizations putting in over 1,000 hours to move the collection out of the old genealogical library, which was to become a new office for staffers from Secretary of State Michele Reagan’s office.
Those items that would be digitized by FamilySearch would have to be transferred to their headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, and were chosen because of their perceived importance to Arizona researchers.
“Books about Arizona families were the highest priority along with books depicting local histories as well,” said Paul Nauta, manager of public affairs for FamilySearch. “Most of the books in the collection include family histories and locality books from other parts of the country, resources that will help patrons identify the migration patterns and histories of their ancestors leading up to their presence in Arizona.”
According to State Librarian Clark, the process should not take long and, most importantly, the original copies will not be lost to researchers.
“(FamilySearch} told us it would probably take about six months to get everything completed, and once they are finished digitizing the items they will send them back to us and we will have them available at the state archives building,” she said, assuring the concerned researchers, “we will get the physical collection back.”
Once the material is fully digitized it will not only be available online, it will also be available in searchable format that should prove to be a useful and time-saving tool for genealogists.
“With a printed book, you have to painstakingly comb through every line on every page to find the ancestor or event you are seeking,” Nauta said. “Our technology enables our online patrons to do name and word searches across the entire volume in seconds and take you to the page where the references are found.”
Although some researchers including Suzanne Brayer expressed concern over the transfer of the collection out of state, doing so will make the books and documents available for free to a multitude of researchers, said Clark, who might otherwise would not have access to the physical copies.
“This is a treasure trove of information that will soon be much more widely available and accessible, and also helps those who might not be in Arizona learn more about the rich history of our state,” Clark said. “I cannot stress enough how important this collection is and how important wider access to this collection is.”
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