Minutes from the April 23rd Researcher Meeting

The minutes from the Researcher Users’ Group meeting on April 23rd (PDF) are now available on the Archives.gov page for the Researcher Users Group at the National Archives in the Washington, DC Area.

Please join us for the next meeting on Friday, May 21, 2010 at Archives II in College Park (lecture room C). What topics would you like to see on the agenda? Please let us know here on NARAtions and we’ll pass your ideas along to Diane Dimkoff, Nancy Fortna and the Customer Services Staff or you can contact Nancy directly at nancy.fortna@nara.gov.

11 thoughts on “Minutes from the April 23rd Researcher Meeting

  1. I was at this particular meeting and expressed my concern about the way NARA is now publishing, on their own website, the gross misrepresentations of the “partners”–saying that the various NARA microfilm sets are “100% complete” as far as digitization is concerned. This implies that a subscription to these services will get the researcher all of that particular microfilm data set from their home computer, does it not? We all know this is positively not the truth.

    It is bad enough that the “partners” are falsely advertising, why is NARA now helping them do it, with this list of “100% complete”? I spend many hours explaining to clients that I need to check for a pension file, even though they didn’t find one online at the “partner” sites. I also have to explain to them how I was able to find a Confederate service record or a Southern Claim when they couldn’t find it online where it was supposed to be. This is all wasted and uncompensated time that I spend trying to explain the sloppy work of others, and correcting the faulty impressions that my clients have been given. If NARA can’t audit the partners and give a true percentage of what’s in those databases, then that “percentage” column needs to disappear from the list completely and immediately. You are telling my clients that I am wrong about it being incomplete, and I don’t appreciate it.

    Here is what FamilySearch is “educating” the general public with. This is from a press release that they put on their website on 23 October 2007, announcing their “partnership” deal with NARA, apparently with NARA’s blessing. It can still be viewed at their website if you go to the list of press releases and find “U.S. National Archives and FamilySearch Team Up to Digitize and Index Mountains of Historic Documents”: Here I quote from the press release verbatim:

    “Almost all of the records in the National Archives currently are not readily accessible to patrons who visit the National Archives or one of its regional facilities.”

    Is this the truth? Can any NARA staff person explain to me exactly which records are not readily available for me to see in person when I visit NARA? Which records are only for the eyes of the FamilySearch volunteers? They are telling people that FamilySearch has access to more than what I can get for them when I visit in person, and I want to know how they can get away with this kind of false advertising, and why NARA is now helping them do it?

    In the meeting, I was told that I needed to compile lists of corrections to give to Mary to pass along to the “partners” to fix. It is outrageous to ask other professionals to spend their valuable time auditing databases that look like they were put together by fourth graders, so that NARA doesn’t have to audit their own contracts or admit how sloppy the work is that is being done. Is NARA going to give us paychecks for doing this? How about a finder’s fee? The partners probably don’t have enough personnel to correct everything that I could come up with!

    History is being lost forever, left behind because it was too dark or too light to be readable at 300dpi black and white, so we’ll just pretend that it doesn’t exist and say that the data sets are 100% complete. Am I the only one who finds this unacceptable?!

    At the meeting, when I brought up the fact that T288 is still only about 70% complete, despite making NARA aware of this again and again, I was brushed off and told by Mr. Hastings that “this has already been dealt with”. It has been mentioned before, for sure, but it definitely has not been dealt with.

    The source citations for some of the NARA databases at the “partner” subscription sites are often incomplete or completely wrong, and NARA should be embarrassed to endorse this kind of sloppy work. Teachers, reference librarians, scholars, etc…have no way to know that those citations are wrong, and they are going to look pretty foolish putting some of those wrong citations into their educational material, doctoral dissertations, etc… NARA needs to start being honest with the taxpayers who are getting duped. Meanwhile, ancestry has prime-time commercials telling people: “You don’t need to know anything”. How true this is! Because if you DO know something about research, you won’t like what you see.

    Who is in charge of the auditing and accountability of the partner contracts? The partners are obviously not doing any proofreading of their own. The other day I actually searched on a surname at ancestry and found 6 soldiers who didn’t even have a name, there was only a widow’s name! When I clicked on the image, the person who scanned the cards had cut off the top line where the soldier’s name is written! There were six of them for that surname. Clearly, this was intentional. The person entering those cards into the index would have had to leave a field blank in order to skip to the widow’s name, instead of sending someone back to do it again and do it right.

    Is NARA proud of the work that the partners are doing? Are any audits being done at all, and where are the results of those audits? They should be available as public record, just like the contracts themselves.

    There is no point for serious researchers to attend any more “researcher” meetings if they are going to continue to be patronized and put off, in favor of letting the partners run loose without a leash to continue to make history disappear and generally make a mockery out of serious research and serious researchers.

    Peggy Reeves

    1. Peggy- Thanks for sharing your concerns with us. I am passing them along to the staff who work with our digitization partners so we can respond more fully to your concerns.


  2. Please do not brush off the concerns expressed by Peggy. There are many researchers who are agreement but not many who are willing to stand up and tell the truth. If these points create discomfort for some it is quite likely because the problem is being ignored due to its enormity. If nothing is done, it continues to grow.

  3. As a serious archival researcher, I share Peggy Reeves concerns about the uneven (sometimes horrible) quality of digitization work produced by NARA partners. NARA should insist that all digitization work be checked by a second person for errors and data loss before it is uploaded. It is much more efficient for the partners to quality check their digitization before the original documents are returned to storage than for researchers or the general public to notice gaps, request a do-over, and wait to see if that ever happens. IMHO, NARA needs to audit, and take responsibility for the quality of the work it contracts out to its partners.
    Dr. Michael Cunningham

  4. Peggy has revealed some serious flaws in the microfilm preservation program and they need to be addressed in a professional way.

    However, the Chief Archivist has kept his word and opened up a channel of communications for us to “tell it like it is”, and knowing Peggy, I’m sure that she will continue to be one of our watchdogs with a strong voice and computer fingers.

    We are at a new stage in our relations with the Archives and we must give it time to grow, and to work out the bugs in exposed problems.

    However, we should not be afraid to ask for progress reports and accountability where there are obvious flaws that need to be corrected.

    Thanks, Peggy. You are now our “Paul Revere”. Sound the alarm whenever necessary.

  5. I have been informed that a second person is supposed to check all digitizing. If such a procedure is in place, it is not working. Accountability would be enhanced if: (1) all digitizing work included the name of the original scanner, and the supervisor, at the bottom of the document, (2) significant financial penalties are imposed on the scanner, supervisor and NARA partner for poor work such as cutting off names, skipping a page, copying in a manner that is too light or too dark to read, etc. (3) both the scanner and supervisor were pre-screened for conscientiousness and intelligence before being given the job. This is not the sort of work that can be effectively performed by volunteers or minimum wage workers.

  6. I would like to thank NARA again for this blog where things can truly be “transparent”. It was a great idea, and we are so pleased at the positive changes that we are seeing with our new Archivist.

    Dr. Cunningham points out the usual process for employers to screen their employees for competence, and then hold them responsible for accuracy, and this is what is usual and expected.

    FamilySearch has their recruiting policy out in the open. It can be viewed on the main page at their website. The main page has a menu item that says: “help create free public access to U.S. Census indexes”. When you click on it, the box at the side shows you their 3-step process. According to that, they gather original records and digitize them, then people volunteer to index them from home, so that “everyone gets free access to the indexes at FamilySearch”.

    Census has been microfilmed and scanned and indexed and widely available for a long time, so what are they REALLY talking about?

    How do Ancestry and Footnote make their indexes to the NARA records that they digitize? Are they using the FamilySearch volunteers recruited from that website? Let’s have full disclosure of the relationships between these “partners” who are involved with the NARA records, because it is important when it comes to accountability. It is not the least bit acceptable to say that some major errors on a data set happened “before they were partners”, so we just have to accept it. These are records that are supposed to be preserved. What is NARA going to do about it?

    I realize that NARA cannot give a competency exam to all of the volunteers that these companies use, but the companies certainly can, and there needs to be serious financial penalties for “losing” history because of the kind of incompetence that we are seeing.

    The partners are now scanning original documents, where we will have no way to know what is missing once they say they are “complete”. How can we trust them?

    Peggy Reeves

    1. Hello everyone – We have a new post on the blog about the issues you have been raising in your comments. The information in the post comes from NARA’s Access Programs office and NARA’s Digital Strategies and Services Staff (which is my office). We have also shared the concerns you have raised with Ancestry and Footnote.

      – Rebecca

  7. Thanks for sharing your concerns with us. I realize that NARA cannot give a competency exam to all of the volunteers that these companies use, but the companies certainly can, and there needs to be serious financial penalties for “losing” history because of the kind of incompetence that we are seeing.

    1. Neil – The original records in NARA’s custody continue to be preserved by NARA even after they have been digitized. The digitized records on Ancestry and Footnote are only one source for research. Researchers can also use microfilmed copies of indexes and records. Additionally, NARA staff will check the original records for a researcher if there is a reason to believe that records are missing from a microfilm publication or a partner’s web site or if microfilmed or scanned records are illegible.
      – Rebecca

  8. Thanks for informing about NARA (National Archives and Records Administration). It was really a complementing article about the digitalization. But at the same time, it is embarrasing on the part of NARA that they are ignoring such important issues like T288 which are still lying on just 70% completion. I hope they will soon realise what is the necessity of their work and actually completion of their earlier projects.

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