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The coming genealogical dark ages

Published: Thursday, July 29 2010 9:00 a.m. MDT

PROVO, Utah — With all the genealogical information being made accessible on the Internet, some might think this is the golden age of family history. To Curt B. Witcher, however, we may be entering a new dark age where vital records and the memories of people alive today are lost forever.

"At the same time we have more (technological) ability we are losing interest and focus on keeping the thoughts and the words for future generations," Witcher said.

Witcher, the manager of The Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Ind., was the plenary speaker at BYU's Conference on Family History and Genealogy on Wednesday.

"I believe we have a crisis in our midst," Witcher said. "We have left the care of our written records largely in the hands of disinterested strangers." He said these records include everything from birth records to tombstones — and more and more they are disappearing.

Libraries are limiting hours and public access to materials. Courthouses are engaging in "radical sampling," where they take a few samples of large collections of old records and destroy the rest. "This is going on now," Witcher said.

Witcher gave several specific examples of the problem. The Ohio State Library gave away all its genealogical materials to a local library. The Library of Michigan was getting rid of genealogical items that are not directly related to Michigan. The Boston Public Library is contemplating making its vast collections of newspapers inaccessible to the general public. Seventy-nine percent of reporting U.S. Federal agencies believed their records were at high or great risk of being lost.

"At every turn there is a threat," Witcher said.

Records are also disappearing on a personal level. "Who is writing letters anymore?" Witcher asked. "When was the last time you received a letter?"

But even if letters are a thing of the past, Witcher worries about e-mail. "Do you organize your e-mail well? All those Christmas greetings? All those family stories that have been exchanged through e-mail? How are you doing with that file management? It's a part of living history."

To counteract the trend, Witcher encouraged people to write. "Write as you never have written before." This writing can be about memories, describing a family photograph or center on themes such as a family's rituals.

After something is written, Witcher said to share it with others. Otherwise, he said "many of those precious pieces of living history go into landfills."

Witcher said to publish — locally to family or even on a website such as werelate.org. Just be careful with personal information of living individuals. The object is to create a record that will be there for descendants.

"We have an awesome responsibility ahead of us," Witcher said. "In so many ways, we have history in our hands. What are we going to do with it? If we wait, if we relegate for someone else to take care of, we are endangering that history — that history may be lost."

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com

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