Perhaps this volunteer extracted names from the marriage records a clerk long ago hand-copied into huge red leather books at a local probate office—in a building that has since burned. Perhaps he extracted infant mortality information from pocket-sized booklets kept by a local physician who would eventually destroy them to make room in his file cabinet. Maybe she mined the birth, marriage, and death dates from old family Bibles that later disappeared when the owner’s heirs “cleaned out his junky attic.” Or they might have transcribed tombstones that have since become unreadable in a local graveyard.
Several of our state’s genealogical associations have been in constant operation since the 1960s. Many new ones have surfaced in recent decades. In addition, local historical associations often do similar work, interpreting the contextual history of Alabama’s families and capturing information before it is lost to us. Though it is difficult to keep track of these groups, an estimated one hundred genealogical and historical societies remain in operation around the state today.
Some of the societies’ extracted records—particularly census records—have since been digitized and put online. But many treasures still lie in society journal pages, waiting to be found. Some will be found nowhere else. Getting to those treasures, though, can present a challenge.
First, a lot of our societies no longer hold full sets of their published journals. Our archives and libraries, when they hold these publications, often do not have every issue. The difficulty multiplies for publications of those societies that have disbanded. Some volumes will never be recovered.
Second, even if a journal has survived, today’s genealogists might never find the publication. Descendants of Alabamians live all over the world now. Let’s say an Australian genealogist knows his ancestor lived in Alabama. But which of the hundred publications would he search, and how would he search them?
Finally, in many cases, access to the journals does not readily lead you to the information you need. Not all societies chose to index their journals, and fewer still created cumulative indexes. Finding ancestors can be the metaphorical needle in a haystack.
Does this mean that the efforts of those hard-working indexers with their boxes of cards have nothing to offer their twenty-first-century descendants? Are the publications they created useless to a world too busy to search haystacks? Fortunately not.
Alabama's genealogical organizations' journals are now eligible for free digitization thanks to a database being created by the Alabama Bicentennial Commission that will be housed at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
With the wonders of the modern age, we can take the publications these volunteers created with such care, lift them from the shelves where the remnants hide, and offer them to the entire Internet-connected world, even Australia. We can make the documents searchable, to the extent possible. We can give them a new life and enrich family history research in remarkable ways.
The Tuscaloosa Genealogical Society volunteered to go first, allowing its Roots and Branches to become our prototype. We have begun to digitize sixty years of publications from the Alabama Genealogical Society. The Shelby County Historical and Genealogical Society has its publications ready after that. And a solid line forms behind them. A real asset is emerging.
I encourage the state’s genealogical and historical societies to gather your publications and join the project. You will retain the copyright, and every page of your materials will be labeled with your society’s contact information. This will be the pathway that brings Alabama’s descendants to your door.
Donna Cox Baker has served as editor-in-chief of Alabama Heritage since 2002. She co-chairs the Statewide Initiatives Committee of the Alabama Bicentennial Commission and hosts the Golden Egg Genealogist blog (gegbound.com). If you have questions about the Alabama Family History and Heritage Project, email Donna.Baker@ua.edu.