Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The End of the Roll

I recently received this comment from MikeF in response to my coverage of David Rencher’s BYU keynote.

Dear Insider,

I have a question that I don't think has been addressed, although perhaps I missed it here or in other posts. This is about microfilm ending its lifecycle. While I can see the reasons for that, and indeed twice this month two state archives have told me that they no longer offer duplication services, what is the plan for replacing microfilm and on what time scale?

The way I understand FS indexing, which I participate in, the indexes will always be free but the images generally hosted by a commercial fee-based company, which is fine (to me at least because I don't expect the LDS church to be an image farm for genealogy past its other enterprises). So when will I not be able to order the court minutes or deed books on microfilm for Any County, Any State? And what will be the alternative? Will Ancestry, Footnote et al. really be up to hosting such county level records? Or will the FHL image those microfilms and distribute same on DVD or peer-to-peer download at a FHC?

Also at the end of your post in the part on collaboration, you list 1999 as the year when film goes to public libraries. Does this mean that film can be ordered via interlibrary loan from the FHL to any public library, or only those public libraries that incorporate a FHC somehow? I specifically asked one of those state archives which does lend to public libraries in other states, whether that included FHCs. I was told that the FHL does not loan to them and they don't loan to the FHL.

Thanks,
MikeF

Dear Mike,

As far as I know, no plan or time schedule has been announced for the replacement of microfilm other than Record Search. Fortunately, I’m not party to internal knowledge on the topic, so I’m free to offer you my speculation on what will happen. Remember, I don’t and can’t speak for FamilySearch.

Collection Hosting

What you describe with FamilySearch indexes and third-party images is known as the Records Access Program (RAP). As we saw in my recent post, “Take Me to the Pilot,” RAP collections are only one of several types of collections that are being published on Record Search. In some cases, both indexes and images are published for free access on Record Search. And in some cases, images alone are published on Record Search, making it possible to distribute microfilm via Record Search.

Do I believe Ancestry.com is capable of hosting images? You left out the related question, “Do I believe FamilySearch is capable of hosting images?” If I interpret things correctly, they seem to be using opposite approaches to their hardware architectures.

Back in January when Ancestry.com hosted a few, lucky writers, we got to see the Ancestry.com data center and hear a detailed description of their architecture by senior vice president, Mike Wolfgramm. If I understood correctly, Ancestry.com is using thousands and thousands of low-cost servers to host thousands of separate databases. This explains why Ancestry.com uses the technical term database as the name for a collection: each collection is a separate database hosted on one of many independent database servers. Wolfgramm explained that their “Ra” server management software monitors the health of each server, automatically pulling servers offline as necessary. Each server is general purpose and can be assigned to a group of databases according to shifting usage by users. Extra servers can be assigned to handle popular databases. This explains why a single Ancestry.com database or group of related databases can be unavailable while the remainder can still be used. Ancestry.com’s architecture is proven and scalable.

Contrast this with the architecture we inferred from the FamilySearch employment listing earlier this month. The job ad listed mainframe class servers, enterprise databases, and massive storage systems. Apparently, FamilySearch intends to use a few, extremely expensive, highly technical, massively capable, centralized systems. Monolithic architectures are also proven, coming straight out of the 1960s. But I have concerns about huge, monolithic systems. Interdependencies create long deployment delays. Deployment, administration, and maintenance costs run high. And I worry how scalable the system will be. Maybe New FamilySearch forces this architecture on them. But maybe not.

If I’ve got this all wrong, maybe FamilySearch will host a bloggers day like Ancestry.com did, invite me in, and explain the big picture.

Speaking of Microfilm

Getting back to your questions, short of Kodak suddenly pulling the plug on microfilm, I don’t see FamilySearch allowing a gap between microfilm availability and digital image availability. We might see film rental costs get awfully expensive first. We might even see a non-Record Search, interim solution (although I would be very disappointed in FamilySearch if it came to that).

The real bug-a-boo with the switch to digital is legal. The contracts FamilySearch/Genealogical Society of Utah has with record owners allows distribution of microfilm to family history centers (FHCs), but didn’t foresee digital distribution over the Internet. Can it be done within current contracts? At the 2005 FGS conference FamilySearch’s Ransom Love stated that they would be going back and renegotiated contracts. That’s not going to be a short process for 2.5 million rolls of microfilm.

And not every record owner will give permission. For example, in his keynote Rencher pointed out that the General Register Office for Scotland (GROS) has thus far refused permission to move the Scottish parish records onto Record Search. As I understand it, FamilySearch did the indexing for them. Volunteers who did the work are forced to use CD-ROMs made back in the days of DOS to gain access to the fruits of their labors or pay GROS fees to access it on ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk.

FHL Microfilm Circulation

To answer your question regarding Interlibrary Loan (ILL): no, FHL microfilm is not available via standard ILL. However, a public library, archive, or genealogical society can request FHL microfilm circulation privileges. There are over 130 institutions today that do. An authorized representative should contact Family History Center Support at 1-866-406-1830 for more information. (Say hello for me if you speak to my Uncle or Aunt.)

According to FHL policy, “To be considered for Affiliate Library status and film circulation privileges your facility must:

  • “Be open to the public and not discriminate against any patron,
  • Make films available for use by all patrons,
  • Benefit the genealogical community,
  • Be open during hours the nearest family history center is not,
  • Have staff that is knowledgeable in genealogy,
  • Be a nonprofit organization, and
  • Provide your own microfilm readers and equipment.”1

Thanks for your comment and questions, Mike.

Sincerely,

— The Ancestry Insider


Notes

1. “Affiliate Library Overview Jan09,” PDF attached to Knowledge Base Document #102698, FamilySearch.org (unpublished document : accessed 23 August 2009); edited for length and punctuation.

2 comments:

  1. Dear readers,

    Speaking of libraries with film circulation privilege, the Henderson County Library in North Carolina announced today that it has been granted that privilege.

    -- The Insider

    ReplyDelete
  2. Insider,

    Thank you for a very thorough response to my questions. However although you demonstrated that FS does have the ability to host images as is obvious from the Record Search Beta site, is my understanding correct that they do not plan long term to host images, but rather forsee the commercial partners doing so?

    The legal angle is actually kind of worrying though. The question is do existing agreements allow digital distribution of imaged microfilm to FHCs even if they don't allow distribution via the internet? That is, is creating a CD or DVD version of a microfilm consistent with current contracts, so that if a repository does not allow internet distribution digitally, such distribution can still be made otherwise. Of course in the case of the SRO, at least the information is available somewhere, even if for a fee. Which is fine with me because the "genealogy must be free" mantra is off base from reality.

    One last issue that I have harped on with Ancestry's folks on their blog is that I believe if some repositories are being totally uncooperative with either FS or various commercial providers, then nothing seems to be lost in naming them. The genealogy community needs to know who is denying access to records for other than privacy concerns, which themselves are often overly paranoid.

    Thanks again for answering my questions so well.

    MikeF

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