Douglas Payne Jr. has been spending this spring meeting and getting to know some long-lost relatives. And thanks to a Utah company, he has never had to leave his computer keyboard for his search.
Using Footnote.com, the Web site of Lindon-based iArchives, Payne discovered his roots by sifting through historical documents some of them hundreds of years old that have been made available through the site. He confirmed a link to a Revolutionary War soldier and ventured back nearly to the Jamestown settlement.
"I joined the Sons of the Revolution, and you have to be able to prove lineal descendents back to a soldier that fought in the Revolution, and they want documented proof," said Payne, who lives in Richmond, Va.
The Footnote.com site "is a huge time-saver," he said. "And you know when you're looking at actual documents that that's probably as good a proof as you'll possibly find."
Through an arrangement with the National Archives and Records Administration, iArchives is helping people gain access to original historical documents that sometimes can be as murky as tadpole water. And users can digitally search those records.
With about 38 million images online and about 2 million added monthly, the site lets people pore over rich troves of documents and photos. They include Civil War photos shot by Mathew Brady, who took his photographic equipment onto battlefields to capture the events. Site users can browse through court records from the trial that stemmed from the 1839 slave revolt aboard the schooner Amistad. Or they can look at John Wilkes Booth's diary, with a June 12, 1864, entry saying "our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done."
The exploits of King George and Napoleon Bonaparte come alive in The Times of London issues from 1785 to 1820 were put on the Web site in November.
People also can search more quotidian documents, such as the 1860 U.S. Census, Civil War pension applications, and newspapers ranging in size from The Chicago Tribune to the Woonsocket (S.D.) News.
Footnote.com also has ways for users to chime in by creating their own "story pages" or an online scrapbook about history or by posting comments about history, relating their own discoveries or asking for help with research.
A special project, released in March, epitomizes the capabilities of Footnote, according to the company. Footnote and the National Archives worked to link an online photo of the Vietnam War Memorial with the military service records and casualty reports for each name on the wall.
Nearly 1,500 photos have been stitched together to create a single, searchable image of the monument, letting users look for names of relatives or friends and add photos, tributes, comments and stories about the people behind those names.
"It's an image with 58,200-something names, but it's also 58,200-and-something separate documents, because we can pull a name and add comments to it and add images to it," Wilding said. "A lot of veterans can't get back to D.C., but now they can find their friends."
Visitors to any of the 14 National Archive branches nationwide can get free access to millions of electronic versions of documents online at www.footnote.com. Folks elsewhere can subscribe to the Web site to see and search the documents through their own computers.
By the end of this year, the company, which offers about 1.2 million images for free, is expected to have a total of about 50 million images at its site, and 75 million by the end of next year.
But don't think it will run out of new material anytime soon. "The National Archives has 9 billion records," said Footnote.com chief executive officer Russell Wilding. New documents are being made available constantly, including census details that are released 75 years after being compiled.
In addition to the National Archives, other content partners are FamilySearch, a nonprofit organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; the Allen County (Ind.) Public Library; and the Center for Research Libraries.
"Those are the first four, and those will probably keep us busy for the next 200 years," Wilding said.
Many images at Footnote have never been online previously, such as many of the 50,000 World War II photos and 50,000 Vietnam War photos. Ditto for documents of the Southern Claims Commission, which handled petitions to the U.S. government filed by Southerners faithful to the Union during the Civil War to recover their financial losses during the conflict.
Case files from the pre-FBI agency known as the Bureau of Investigations also are available, including a 300-page file on William Randolph Hearst.
Footnote officials work with the partner organizations to determine what gets put online, and when. Microfilm images can be added more quickly than those from paper documents, but the latter often contain some of the most valuable content and are deteriorating faster.
"Once you've got it digitized, you've really preserved it, and you can provide access to it," Wilding said. "People don't have to flip through the pages."
Larry Berry of Sarasota, Fla., capitalized on the Web site to look a little further back in time and he found his ancestors' Civil War amnesty records.
"There was some material I tried to get before, but I never could," he said. "I had written (the National Archives) to see about it, and they sent back that they didn't have anything. But I saw it was available on Footnote, and I was able to get it."
He also discovered an American Revolution-era affidavit with information about another person he was interested in, and in The (London) Times, he found some more family history.
"The way Footnote was arranged, I could go in and type in what I wanted, and it would come back very easily," Berry said, noting that names would be highlighted on the newspaper pages.
"When you write the National Archives, you've got to be very specific, and even then, you might not get something back," he said. "With this, I put the names in, and it came back. It was beautiful when I printed that stuff out, going back that far, to see the original document."
Payne said he found details about his mother's side of the family dating to the early 1700s, and he reveled in exploring other colonial records. He found documents signed by one ancestor, "and I was just absolutely blown away by the clarity of the images," he said.
Footnote's roots trace back to 1994, with a company called Automated Solutions Inc., which later, under another name, specialized in digitizing logs of truckers and health-care organizations.
Wilding came on board in 1998, but sold the assets and remade the company. By 2000, the newly named iArchives was moving toward digitizing microfilm newspaper archives. The first project was for the University of Utah's J. Willard Marriott Library, and the company later digitized about 100 years of editions of The Dallas Morning News. The News' parent company, A.H. Belo, is a Footnote investor.
IArchives found people had "tremendous interest" in accessing the historical documents, Wilding said. "We thought, we've built this great factory to digitize content, let's create our own Web site of digitized content."
That was Footnote, which was launched in early 2007, after the National Archives deal was reached. That agreement calls for iArchives to digitize the materials and make it available for free for visitors to National Archives branches, and for a fee on the Footnote.com Web site for subscribers. Subscribers who now total more than 25,000 pay either $1.95 per document view or a monthly $7.95 or annual $59.95 rate.
Under the terms of the deal, five years after the records are first made available on Footnote.com, the digitized documents can be placed on the National Archives Web site.
IArchives has 35 full-time employees in Utah, with most involved in scanning images that are sent to about 1,200 outsourced workers in China, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Vietnam and South Africa for digitization and document classification.
Focus on sharing
Wilding wants visitors to be more than just viewers, by capitalizing on the social-networking components at the Web site. He envisions the site as "the world's shoebox," in which users augment the historical documents and photos with pictures, stories and discussions of their own.
"If they find a family name at the site, they can say, 'OK, I got this far. Does anybody have any additional information about these people, who they're related to or the events that affected their lives?'
"We wanted to create a forum where people could come in and say, 'Oh, yeah. I knew that person; my father served with him in World War I,' or whatever the situation might be," he said. "And we don't want them just talking about it. We want them uploading their photographs and stories."
The part of the site that allows people to upload their own content is free, he said.
Justin Schroepfer already has uploaded photos of his grandfather from World War II, and World War I postcards from his great-grandfather. That's in addition to information about his Vietnam War veteran father. "It goes beyond uploading a photo or a letter. It's really getting people to talk about the stories associated with it, and preserving that, as well," Schroepfer said.
Wilding expects user-contributed content to become more prominent on the Web site, although it may never be the majority of the site's content. He also anticipates that the site will soon have video capabilities.