Thursday, January 10, 2013

Invasion of the Data Snatchers

By Keith McDowell

And so it begins! I’m speaking, of course, of season three – that’s Downton Abbey for those of you not keeping score. Thank God, Lady Mary and Matthew are finally married, although his dithering about accepting the Swire family fortune is, well, entertaining. And that’s the point.

Downton Abbey is an enormously successful television series brought to us by Masterpiece Classic as part of the Public Broadcasting Service. The story captures many aspects of life in the gilded age of early Twentieth Century England by reveling in the upstairs and downstairs intrigues of the landed gentry and their servants. The drama unfolds through excellent storytelling and marvelous acting while set in the rooms and on the grounds of the enchanting Highclere Castle. It’s escapist programming at its best. Even an old goat like me has brandished a tear or two at the drama and snickered at the punch lines from the incomparable Maggie Smith.

But Downton Abbey is more than just a well-spent Sunday evening. It’s a story that reminds us of the comedy and crassness, guts and glory, sorrow and shame, and vagary and vulgarity of one’s own family and ancestors. Who can forget the presence at family gatherings of old Uncle Nick who was deaf as a doornail and sat in the corner with his hand cupped around his ear watching the proceedings and pretending to hear everything? Our how about those stories from grandma describing the nameless uncle who, bless his heart, was a lecherous old fool and womanizer and who reputedly sired numerous bastard children? Oh, the scandal of it all!

Yet, people want to know. Despite the salacious details or the utter banality of someone’s existence, people care about the lives and history of their ancestors. Just ask the folks at, or the librarians who manage genealogy rooms at public libraries, or the clerks at county courthouses, or the archivists at state records repositories. The modern search for ancestral data has exploded in America and taken on a social dimension equal in many ways to that of social media. It’s as though an alien has attached itself to our bodies and turned us into a herd of data snatchers, eager to capture yet one more morsel or tidbit of family history.

And therein lies our story. When and how does the right to privacy trump the right to have access to public records – not to mention all those personal records posted online at or elsewhere, whether letters, Bible records, or pictures of people? And who should pay for the proper archiving of those records and the means of access to them? Genealogy data snatchers want to know!

If you think the right to privacy isn’t an issue, consider the recent brouhaha over a newspaper publishing the list of local gun owners based on a public government database. Or consider the following point: should a genealogist publish a complete family history including the names of living relatives? How does that impact identity theft?

Whether we like it or not, the Internet has brought civilization to a new era where a great deal of information can be accessed about each of us or our ancestors. From the point of view of a practicing genealogist like me, this is wonderful news. After spending nearly forty years trolling through old documents and graveyards, it’s great to access the same information rapidly with the click of a mouse while sitting in the comfort of my own study unshaven and wearing rumpled clothing.

I don’t have a simple answer to the question of privacy as regards accessing or publishing public data including personal family data made public through or other websites and publications. So far, I’ve taken the position that if it is public data, it should be accessible using modern technology – one should not have to visit the county courthouse – and publishable under our nation’s copyright laws. I don’t see how it can be otherwise. But then, I’m a genealogy data snatcher!

Unfortunately, there is more to the story than the right to privacy. All across America, old records are being tossed or shredded for lack of storage space or lack of personnel to maintain them. Even worst, historical documents dating back a hundred years or more are rotting in the corners and on the shelves of unsuitable storage facilities at county courthouses. Every genealogist sooner or later walks into such a facility, notes the black mold on their fingers, or remarks on the blackened ledger book pages and the growing pile of crumbling paper accumulating in the nooks and crannies. If someone doesn’t take the time to photograph these documents in high resolution with a digital camera, the information will soon be lost to all future generations.

I challenge the Gates Foundation, Warren Buffet, and all those other rich Americans with money to spend to put that money to a worthy cause and save American historical documents and records. Let’s immediately commit to having high resolution, digital images taken of all old records. Don’t convert microfilm to digital and accept the loss of image quality. Image the original documents. And if possible, fund a project to transcribe those documents into modern searchable files linked to the original images. What a boon that would be for the data snatchers.

And in the spirit of the website, let’s capture all tombstone inscriptions and cemetery records into one online site. Believe it or not, tombstones are not forever. Thirty years ago, my brother, my father, and I published a pamphlet containing the cemetery records for the Pleasant Union United Church in Randolph County, North Carolina. Today, some of those old tombstones have become so corroded with the passage of thirty years that they are no longer readable. Family history is being lost every day.

But should we, the public, have to pay for online access to digitized public records? Let’s see. I pay a yearly fee for access to records at,, and Mercifully, is free. While I grumble at the total price tag of several hundred dollars, it’s basically a bargain given the pleasure that it brings. Somebody has to pay to archive and provide access to the data.

The invasion of the data snatchers is here and it’s real. Maybe one day, the stories they uncover and reveal will form the script for the story of your family. Will it be one of gated communities and McMansions? Or will it be one of a struggle to survive in a fast-paced high technology society? In any case, plop down in your favorite easy chair next Sunday evening and enjoy the next installment of Downton Abbey. You won’t regret it.

No comments:

Post a Comment