There's a new player on the genealogy field, and their launch this week announced a partnership with the foremost resource in the United States. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration announced a major new initiative to scan millions of historical documents and to make them available online. The documents will appeal to many different interests: genealogists, historians, re-enactors, railroad enthusiasts, aviation historians, and many, many others. Approximately 4.5 million pages are available at launch, and millions more historical documents will be digitized and placed online each year.
The project is being launched in a partnership with a commercial firm called Footnote, Inc. The company's new web site went "live" at noon Eastern Time on Wednesday, January 10. I have spent some time using Footnote's new service and thought I would describe my experiences.
Perhaps I should start with a bit of introduction. I suspect that many newsletter readers have never heard of Footnote, Inc. and may wonder, "Who is this new company that is going to digitize millions of National Archives records? Can they really make it happen?"
In fact, Footnote, Inc. has been in business for years under the name iArchives, Inc., and has been involved in numerous genealogical and history-related high-tech projects. The company has been a contractor to several commercial and non-profit organizations, but its own corporate name has rarely been in the spotlight. The company has extensive experience in high-volume scanning of old records.
About a year ago iArchives decided to launch its own product. While preparing for the launch of its huge new database, the company also changed its name to Footnote, Inc., to better reflect the collaborative model of its new business.
NOTE: The name Footnote seems especially appropriate as this site allows and encourages users to add "footnotes" to documents or pictures on the site. I'll explain later how you can add your own "footnotes."
In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I have been watching this company's operations for nearly a year and even had a rather minor role in its new launch. A handful of this newsletter's readers also assisted in the usability studies that helped shape the user interface of the company's web site.
Footnote employees and I visited 16 of this newsletter's readers in their homes and offices last summer and fall in Massachusetts and California. You can read two of my earlier articles asking for usability study volunteers at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2006/06/looking_for_a_f.html and at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2006/09/looking_for_a_f.html.
The volunteers and I had a chance to see a new web site as it was under construction. It was fascinating to watch and listen as newsletter readers gave feedback and constructive criticisms to a room full of software and web developers. I think everyone benefited from the experience, developers and volunteers alike. I learned a lot as well. The user-friendly web site that you see today is based in large part on the experiences of those in-home visits.
Footnote.com is not advertised as a genealogy site. In fact, it is that and much more. Footnote is a web site that makes historical documents available. The word "history" is a big umbrella that covers many interests. Genealogists certainly are historians. I have heard genealogists described as the "historians of the common man" and as "micro-historians" who become experts on specific towns, counties, family groups, or ethnic groups. All genealogists researching U.S. ancestry will find documents of interest on Footnote.com.
Others with history-related interests will also find documents of interest on the same web site. Historians, Civil War re-enactors, Revolutionary War re-enactors, historical society members, railroad buffs, teachers, professors, students, and many more should find this collection of documents to be an excellent resource.
While much is being said about future additions to this site, here is a list of some of the collections that I found available today:
Southern Claims Commission
In the 1870s, residents of the southern states filed 22,298 claims before the Southern Claims Commission (SCC) based on the fact they either:
- were loyal to the Union during the Civil War
- had quartermaster stores or supplies taken by or furnished to the Union Army during the rebellion
Each claimant sought to prove his or her loyalty and loss through the testimony of others. The paper trail the claimants created and the people who came forward to testify, for or against a claimant, provide a wealth of information about individuals living in the South during the Civil War. You often find claims accompanied by affidavits signed by relatives, neighbors, or parents. Many of the claims will provide family information, such as "my nephew John Duke, son of my brother William Duke, sold this horse to me for $75. I later gave the horse to troops of the 42nd Maine Regiment."
Only 7,092 claims (32%) were approved for settlements. However, Footnote.com's database includes full images of all the approved and rejected claims alike. Even the rejected claims can provide a lot of personal information.
Genealogy records in the Southern states are often more difficult to find than similar records for other parts of the country. Anyone researching ancestors in the Southern states in the mid to late 1800s may find information in the Southern Claims Commission records that is not available elsewhere. Surprisingly, many genealogists have never searched the Southern Claims Commission records. I suspect this database is going to become a very popular offering.
Naturalization Records 1792-1966 - Petitions and Declarations for NY, PA, MA
This database contains images of millions of records. The petitions and declarations almost always show the date and place of birth of the individual petitioning for U.S. citizenship. Most include the date and place of entry in the United States, a great help when looking for ships' passenger lists. Many of the applications list the parents and even other family members.
Pennsylvania Archives 1625-1880 (a FREE database)
As the title suggests, this online database contains images of Revolutionary War records, William Penn's records, Muster Rolls from various wars, and much, much more. This database is a showcase for Footnote.com, and full access is free to everyone. It provides an excellent example of how the site operates and the sorts of information available.
Papers of the Continental Congress 1774-1789
This online database contains letters from George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and many others. It includes almost every scrap of paper generated by the Continental Congress and shows the day-by-day business of forming a new country. The contents of this database vary from official state papers to the payment of supplies sent to the army. Did your ancestor sell beef or blankets to the Continental Army? You have a good chance of finding his name and a bit of information about him in these papers.
Papers of the Constitutional Convention 1787
This database contains the Journal of Proceedings and provides excellent insight to history students everywhere.
Civil War Pensions Index 1865-1899
Images of the Index Cards of Union Soldiers
Mathew B. Brady Collection of Civil War Photographs
Brady led a team of photographers who captured thousands of the most memorable images of the Civil War. Almost all of the Brady photographs are online and can be viewed on your screen or downloaded to your computer and saved. You may later print them or incorporate them into your own documents as you wish.
Bureau of Investigation 1908-1922
This is my favorite database on the new site. I could spend hours and hours poring through the documents available here.
The Bureau of Investigation is the name of the original investigative branch of the Federal government. It was later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and was then managed for many years by J. Edgar Hoover. The Bureau of Investigation was the name in the years before Hoover.
The Bureau investigated all sorts of things. It was not strictly a crime-fighting organization. For most of its lifetime, it focused on potential political enemies and almost anyone who possibly had un-American ideas. From 1909 to 1921, the Bureau of Investigation spent thousands of hours investigating and recording the lives of almost anyone of German ancestry. Many Mexicans were also investigated, apparently because of the Mexican Revolution of those years.
In some cases, these investigations even included those with surnames or accents that sounded only slightly Germanic, including people with Dutch, Swiss, Danish, Polish, or Czech ancestry. The Bureau of Investigation documented the lives of most anyone who possibly could have been slightly anti-American. If the mailman or a co-worker or a schoolteacher said, "I'm not sure about Max…", investigators would compile an extensive dossier on Max. Contents usually included his or her date and place of birth, names of all living relatives (and occasionally deceased relatives as well), all acquaintances that looked "interesting," occupation, social organizations that the person had joined, political views, religion, and much more.
Some celebrities were investigated, but the overwhelming majority of Bureau of Investigation case files are about every-day private citizens. Most were working folks, just like the majority of our ancestors.
One record I found is for Carl Eastman who was first mentioned in an "anonymous letter" which generated an investigation. He was accused of the "crime" of taking blueprints home from the shipyard where he worked so that he could study them on his own time.
The 3-page Bureau of Investigation report written in 1917 starts with, "He lives at 1204 Francis Avenue, [Portland, Oregon]; born Lagrange, Illinois, January 2, 1896; he is registered. His father is Gustave Eastman, a music teacher, born in Germany, living in Portland, Oregon; the mother is Marie Austerburg, a music teacher born in Olenburg, Germany. He has aunts and uncles in Germany at the present time. He has a sister Ruth, seventeen months older than himself, and worked for Miss Allen. They have been in Portland since 1901."
The investigator then interviewed the German-born father, Gustave, and gave similar detailed information about him. The investigator ended his report of the father by writing, "I do not doubt but what the old gentleman is somewhat in sympathy with the German cause but is too old to be of any danger to the government."
I think the Bureau of Investigation gives far more detail about these men than I could ever find in vital records! You may find similar information about people you are interested in. The amount of personal information available in the Bureau of Investigation records is amazing. The Bureau of Investigation records have never before been available online. In fact, many experienced genealogists have never heard of these records.
The above databases are all available today on www.footnote.com. As announced in the earlier press release:
"The partnership with the National Archives will expand significantly the content we are able to offer professional and amateur researchers," said Footnote CEO Russell Wilding. "We will continue to add millions of original documents and images monthly."
Navigating through the Footnote.com web site was rather easy. If you have used other database sites, you can use this one. Macintosh users will especially appreciate the "browse window" used to narrow the focus to records of interest. First you pick the title (type of record), then click on subtitle, and then on sub-subtitle until you narrow the search down to the specific items of interest. Macintosh users will all recognize the methodology while Windows users probably have no idea what I am describing. Once you use it, you will see for yourself how easy this is to use.
I was impressed with the image viewer used on Footnote.com. It has perhaps the "smoothest" operation I have seen of any image viewer on a web site. The user can quickly and easily zoom in and out and scroll left and right or up and down. When you zoom in, the image first looks a bit "fuzzy" but then repaints new pixels within seconds, showing a clear image. A filmstrip often appears across the bottom of the screen, showing thumbnail images of the documents before and after the one you are viewing at the moment. Clicking on a filmstrip thumbnail quickly displays that image. Best of all, the image viewer works identically on Windows and Macintosh systems.
I wasn't surprised at the Macintosh compatibility. When I traveled last summer and autumn with the Footnote web developers, I noted that several of them were carrying Macintosh laptops. Casual conversations over lunch often included side-by-side comparisons of the two operating systems and how they were displaying the Footnote.com pages. This web site was built by both Macintosh and Windows enthusiasts. Much of the web site's code was written on Macintosh computers.
One thing that sets this site apart from many of its competitors is the capability for users to contribute even more information. As the name of this web site suggests, site members may annotate, or "footnote," existing web pages or even create their own web pages about history-related material. The material contributed can include text, pictures, or even video. If you have original source images of your own that you want to share with colleagues, classmates, friends and family, simply upload them to Footnote and use the site's tools to make your information searchable and available to others.
Footnote claims that it has something for everyone, from individual history buffs to groups and societies looking for a smart way to make their collections available to millions of people.
Here is a sample of some of the member-contributed pages that I found:
Five Generations of Bells
Abraham Bell > Edward Bell > Willis Bell > Charles Bell II > Roger Bell
George Washington's Acceptance as General of the Continental Army.
Transcript of the appointment and acceptance of George Washington as the general and commander in chief of the continental army.
(February 4, 1906 - 13 April 9, 1945) German Lutheran pastor, theologian and participant in the German resistance movement against Nazism.
HMS Titanic Timeline
The last days of the "unsinkable" ocean liner.
The Signature of John Hancock
According to legend, he signed his name so large and clear so that King George III could easily read it without spectacles. Did John Hancock always sign his name this way?
As you can see, genealogy, history, and biographies of historically significant individuals are encouraged. The web site owners will introduce some controls to reject off-topic pages, so don't try to upload spam-type advertisements for your "fly-by-night" business venture selling questionable products. Those pages won't stay online for long. Pages that are serious about genealogy, biographies, re-enactments, railroads, and more will remain.
Best of all, member-contributed pages can be viewed free of charge.
Annotation, or "footnoting," of existing pages is a great concept. Perhaps you are viewing a document that contains handwriting that is difficult to read. If you can figure out a particular word or phrase, you can "annotate" the screen to add your interpretation of the word(s) in question. This can help future readers of the information. You can also post corrections or additional, supplemental information to the pages. You can even highlight your ancestor's name in a Revolutionary War muster roll.
I am not aware of any other online site that offers similar capabilities to interpret, correct, and add to the pages of information.
The ability to contribute information and to collaborate with others quickly raises questions about privacy. Footnote.com has a rather strong privacy statement available at http://www.footnote.com/privacy.php.
So what does Footnote.com cost?
Basic Membership is available free of charge. The free membership allows you to access all of the Pennsylvania Archives collection and to look at all member-contributed web pages. Finally, you can search through all the databases to find information and to see a tiny thumbnail image of the documents found. To view a full document, however, will require payment of $1.99 (U.S. funds) per image. If you visit the site and simply want to view or print one or two documents, the free Basic Membership is the way to go.
An All-Access Membership allows the user to view, print, and share unlimited images on the site. This includes unlimited full-screen images that you can print or save to your hard drive. The All-Access Member can also create member pages and upload images. A one-month subscription as an All-Access Member costs $9.99 while a 12-month All-Access Membership costs $99.99. Obviously, these prices will be attractive to the person who wishes to use the site more than just once or twice.
Institutional rates are also available upon request. I suspect this web site will become a popular offering in public libraries as well as colleges, high schools, and junior high schools.
In short, I found Footnote.com to be an easy-to-use web site that already contains about 4.5 million historical documents. The images are easy to view, print, and store for later use. The company has just announced a multi-year agreement with the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration to add millions more documents. The site also has an extensive set of documents from one state's archives already and is planning to add many more collections of records.
Site members are also invited to upload their own historical documents, including genealogy information. Genealogy societies, historical societies, and others will find that Footnote.com is an easy way to publish their records. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can view those contributed records at no charge.
On the downside, Footnote.com is a U.S.-centric site. If you are looking for historical documents from another country, you will find almost none at Footnote.com.
If you have an interest in history, in genealogy, in the Civil War, or any of the hundreds of other topics covered on this site, I would suggest that you should sign up for a free membership to Footnote.com. Once signed up, take a look at the collection from the Pennsylvania State Archives that is available at no further charge. You will be able to view full images of that collection as well as all member-contributed pages. Experiment with the image viewer; I think you will be impressed. Once you have a bit of experience, you can decide whether you wish to explore the site's extra-cost features or not.
Will Footnote, Inc. and its site, Footnote.com, survive and prosper in today's competitive world of online access to information? Only time will tell. However, what I see today is a well-financed, well-organized effort that already has 4.5 million historical images online and has just announced an arrangement with the largest repository of historic documents in the United States. I expect this site to grow far beyond the 4.5 million documents that are already available. If that happens as I expect, all U.S. genealogists, historians, re-enactors, and many others will benefit.
For more information about this new entry to the online world, go to http://www.footnote.com.
You can see samples of many of the collections already available on Footnote.com at http://www.footnote.com/nara.php. A free registration is required to view them.