ICHORA 2020, DAY 4: Katharina Hering, “NARA’s INS Records in Ancestry’s Database Portal”

Note: This presentation was part of a two-person panel entitled “Digitization Under Duress.”

In “A Critical Analysis of the Representation of NARA’s INS Records in Ancestry’s Database Portal,” Dr. Katharina Hering (German Historical Institute and Independent Researcher) examines Ancestry.com and its digitization agreement with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), an agency of the executive branch of the United States government. In particular, Hering focuses on digitized Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) documents, including immigration records between the United States and Mexico, and the ethical issues related to a governmental agency effectively selling this personally-identifiable data to a private company.

Hering presents a brief background on the history of genealogical research in the United States, which began to be popularized during the Centennial celebration after the Civil War. The early efforts in the 1880s of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) to encourage the practice of genealogy among its members helped to spread the hobby of ancestry tracing to other Americans. Through the work of the church, by the 1980s the Mormon holdings contained over 1.4 million linear feet of microfilmed genealogical records.

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Ancestry.com is the result of the merger of Ancestry, Inc. and Infobases, which was founded by Paul Allen and Dan Taggart, who also happened to be members of the Mormon church. One of the first sets of records that Ancestry.com made available online was the Social Security Death Index in 1996. In 1998, Ancestry.com began to digitize microfilm records it had purchased from NARA. 

Yet an entirely new relationship to the digitization of federal records emerged in the first decade of the 21st century. Hering discusses the five-year digitization agreement signed in 2008 between NARA and Ancestry.com, which included immigration and military records. To facilitate this project of collaborative digitization, Ancestry.com placed scanners and staff in the National Archives to digitize records that they then placed online for access almost always through a paywall. These digitized records were also available in NARA research rooms throughout the United States. In 2015, the agreement was renewed.

Looking at one example of NARA digitized records on Ancestry.com, Hering examines INS records, which included card manifests of border-crossings between the United States and Mexico from 1895 to 1964. These manifests include PII and sometimes included fingerprints. Most records date from the period after the 1903 and 1907 Immigration Acts. Ancestry.com’s collection includes 74 rolls of microfilm, which contain almost 5000 card manifests of border crossings in Nogales, Arizona, from 1905 to 1952. Hering highlights the fact that non-genealogical research on Ancestry.com is impossible as filtering searches do not give users the ability to search anything outside of these parameters. 

Hering questions the context of these records as they relate to archival theory and the consequences of these records being in the hands of a private company. Many of these collections are only accessible online through Ancestry.com’s portal. Herring argues that access of these INS records are “at the expense of ethical and political concerns about the consequences of publicizing personal information contained in many of these records.” In terms of archival context, the digitization of these records did not include NARA’s descriptive information, such as series numbers, and finding aids are only located at the beginning of the microfilms (or their digitized surrogates). Hering ends her presentation by posing the question whether there are alternative ways to allow access to digitized historical documents online while also maintaining historical and record contexts.

Natalie Worsham, MLIS, MA

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