I received an email message from a newsletter reader expressing dismay with the procedure being used to digitize books at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. I answered the message and then decided to share my answers here with others in case anyone else has similar concerns.
I suspect this person is not happy with my reply.
At the request of my correspondent, I have deleted the person's name. I also edited the message a bit for brevity and also to delete a couple of identifying comments. However, I do believe I have captured all the concerns that were expressed.
Here is the (slightly edited) message I received:
I have enjoyed your Online Newsletter for many years and appreciate your keeping us informed about genealogy happenings around the world.
I am writing to you today because I recently returned from a wonderful time researching in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. While I was there, I learned some disturbing news concerning the library's book digitization process. They are digitizing the books in the Family History Library so that people all over the world will have access to them. This is a noble gesture. The part that bothers us genealogists who travel to Salt Lake City and enjoy researching in the Family History Library is that after digitizing the books, they are not placing them back on the shelves.
According to the library staff, they take the books, slice off the spines, digitize them, wrap them in cords, then place them in a storage room, not to be returned to the shelves. When I was there last week, they had already removed all the family histories from the first floor and replaced those empty shelves with Canadian books.
They are also treating the foreign books with the same process and at a rate of 100,000 pages of digitizing a day, it will not be long before they reach the third floor books for the United States.
Needless to say, we were shocked and filled out numerous comments to the Family History Library objecting to their intent not to place the books back on the shelves. They MUST find a way to either digitize the books without tearing them apart, or find a method to rebind them and replace them on the shelves. Otherwise, why would we want to travel to Salt Lake City to look at films and their computers and not have any books to hold in our hands? Searching digitized books is a very time-consuming and often frustrating process when you know that you could have gone through a stack of books in a short length of time. Also, it is always fun to browse the stacks.
To be blunt, I do not share your concerns. I am delighted with the present book digitization process.
First, like you, I am glad that the Family History Library is digitizing books wherever possible with the intent of placing them online, available to millions of people around the world. I believe that is one of the most noble and effective actions that FamilySearch could ever undertake.
I would fully expect the Library staff to cut the spines as that is the only practical and cost-effective way to accomplish the job. Most organizations that digitize books do the same.
There is one notable exception that I know of, and there may be a few others: Google Books does scan books elsewhere without cutting spines because of contractual requirements with the libraries that provide the books. However, scanning books without cutting the spines is much more labor-intensive and expensive. I believe it costs Google millions of dollars to do so. The Family History Library apparently is well-financed, but not to that level.
Next, even the (expensive) scanners that scan the books without cutting spines are not perfect. The people who use these scanners have told me that the mechanical components of these automated scanners are prone to paper jamming and occasionally will even rip pages out of a book or damage it in other ways. They don't trust these scanners enough to use them with any books that are rare or are in fragile condition.
The only way to scan old or fragile books without cutting the spines off is for a human to scan each page, one at a time, using manual techniques. This both slows down the project tremendously and also causes expenses to skyrocket. Such techniques would never allow the Family History Library to digitize 100,000 pages a day. In short, such a process is not practical.
If I was in charge of the Family History Library, I would probably make the same decision.
Thirdly, we all should realize this is not really a new plan. In fact, it is an updated process of something that has been happening for 30 or 40 years. The Family History Library has never been large enough to physically hold every book that they wanted to make available. For decades, decisions have been made as to what books to store on the library's shelves versus what was destroyed or stored in non-public areas. Lesser-used books were never made available to the public on the shelves.
When you visited the Family History Library in the past, you only saw a very few of the compiled family history books that have been received over the years. In effect, you saw the “tip of the iceberg,” not all of the books. You never saw the thousands of compiled family history books for which there was insufficient shelf space.
The only books being digitized at this time without being re-shelved are the compiled family histories. Other books, such as local history books, have not yet been affected, although I suspect even those books will face future decisions.
What many people do not realize is that, due to space requirements, the Family History Library has NEVER had the room to store all the compiled family history books. For years, only the more popular books were placed on the shelves. The books of lesser interest always had the spines cut off, were microfilmed, and then the originals were THROWN AWAY. Yes, destroyed. At least the new process is preserving the spine-less books, even though they are being stored in a non-public facility some miles away. Today, ALL the digital copies that are out of copyright or for which the Family History Library has permission to share, are either available now or will soon be available to everyone, in the library itself as well as worldwide.
The new process is digitizing both physical books and the microfilm copies made years ago. Luckily, microfilm is easily converted to digital by running the microfilms through scanners designed for the purpose. Scanning the microfilmed books is a smaller challenge than is scanning traditional books.
The only books in question here are the much smaller number of physical compiled family history books that previously were stored in publicly-available shelves in the Family History Library.
Next, the Family History Library has always been constrained by available space, the same as most other libraries around the world. By not re-shelving the books, the Family History Library gains a lot of floor space that is available for other uses. Once the books have been scanned, I see little need to store DUPLICATE copies on the shelves. I'd rather see the Library use that space for other, non-duplicated purposes. The Library has always been squeezed for space and really needs that space for other purposes.
A visitor to the Family History Library can easily retrieve and read the books in the same manner as a remote user: by using a computer. Why would any organization want to bear the expense of providing duplicate access? I do not foresee a multi-million dollar expansion of the building that houses the Family History Library, just to store duplicates of books that are already available online.
Next, I will disagree with your comment of "Searching digitized books is a very time-consuming and often frustrating process when you know that you could have gone through a stack of books in a short length of time." In fact, my experience has been exactly the opposite.
To be sure, sitting in front of a computer screen and "turning the pages one at a time" by clicking on a mouse certainly is slower than doing the same thing the old-fashioned way by turning pages in a physical book. But why would we want to do that? Instead, if the books have been OCR'ed (processed by optical character recognition), as I believe is planned, isn't it much faster to search a book, or hundreds of books, or thousands of books at once, looking for every occurrence of a word or phrase? I do that daily. I can search "through a stack of books" electronically in seconds, a much shorter length of time than I can with books published on paper.
The OCR search being used by the Family History Library is really good, better than most other OCR products I have seen. In many, many cases, I can quickly find references to individuals in electronic copies that are never mentioned in back-of-book indexes. The only way to find them before digitization was to slowly read each page, one at a time. Of course, it is easy to miss something when turning hundreds of pages slowly. Searching electronically is far more accurate.
In fact, why do we sit with books in our hands and turn pages? I will suggest that we do so simply because it is what we have been taught to do. When we were children, there was little choice. We used physical books because it was all that we had. We became comfortable with the methods we used.
As we grew older, we continued to do what we had always done, simply because we were comfortable with doing so. We did so only because we were used to doing so, not because it was easier. It only SEEMED easier because we are creatures of habit.
In fact, searching for words, phrases, or concepts actually is easier and faster when done electronically. The only problem is that the older generation is not accustomed to such searches, and therefore we feel uncomfortable.
For proof, check with any high school student or most anyone else under the age of 25. In short, check with anyone who grew up using computers. Most of these youngsters do not see any need to use physical books. Most of them prefer to search for things and to even read novels electronically, because of the speed and ease of doing so. For proof, check the sales statistics for Kindles, Nooks, Apple iPads, and similar e-book readers. The younger generation also prefers to look up facts in Wikipedia rather than in a paper copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica, simply because it is faster and easier to do so. The same is true of most all other books.
I always thought that novels would be the last thing to be converted to e-books. However, Amazon says the company now sells more novels in e-book format than on paper.
Any change brings discomfort. Perhaps it is time for us "old dogs" to learn some new tricks.
I am now switching to all electronic books at home and in my motor home. And, yes, I have gladly cut the spines off a lot of books and magazines that I own. Once I switched to all electronic books and magazines, I found it easier to find whatever I was looking for than it ever was before. If I happen to own both a physical copy and an electronic copy of any particular book, I always reach first for the electronic copy. It is easier. I don't ever want to buy another bookcase as long as I live!
You asked, "Otherwise, why would we want to travel to Salt Lake City to look at films and their computers and not have any books to hold in our hands?" but I think you answered your own question. Millions of people would love to access those books but cannot afford a trip to Salt Lake City or have family or work commitments that prevent the trips even if they do have the finances. Which is better: satisfying the preferences of a few hundred well-heeled individuals who can afford to travel to Salt Lake City in person or meeting the needs of millions of everyday folks around the world?
I think the answer is obvious.
Another fact surprised me and a lot of other people as well: the managers at the Family History Library originally assumed that as more and more information was placed online, the number of visitors to the Library would decrease. In fact, experience has proven the exact opposite to be true. As more and more people obtain access to online genealogy materials, more and more of those people are motivated to travel to Salt lake City to visit the Family History Library in person. Visitors to the Library are now at their highest levels ever and continue to increase every year.
I still suspect the number of visitors to the Family History Library will start to drop off someday as more and more material becomes available online. However, I don't think that will happen within the next decade, perhaps not for two or three decades.
Nothing is ever perfect. We cannot "have our cake and eat it, too." However, given the choices available, I believe the folks at the Family History Library have made the wisest choice possible. They have elected to make thousands of books available to as many people as possible in the Library and all around the world, even if it does not meet all the personal preferences of a few of the people who visit in person.
I commend the decision makers for offering the books to as wide an audience as possible. I hope they continue to do the same until all books are available to everyone online, even if they cannot satisfy all the people all the time.
“Books aren’t going away, paper is.” -- Scott Ginsberg
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