October 6, 2011

Entra chats with Ancestry.com

Talking about our September/October feature on dealer Cynthia McKinley's collection of portrait miniatures got us thinking more about the importance of visual clues to our past. Family photographs and portraits, if we're lucky enough to have them, offer a means of better understanding ourselves today -- where we are in our lives, and how we got here. But it's not just faces that tell the story, it's hand-written passenger lists, images of the ships that carried our families, certificates of marriage (sometimes beautifully illustrated, sometimes simply typed), and old maps with long-forgotten town names. It's a fascinating -- and absolutely addicting -- kind of research, so we sat down with (well, from our respective computers in San Francisco and Los Angeles, anyway) Ancestry.com's content team and asked a few questions about how they're making the most of digital images.

Ancestry.com's roots are in publishing in the 1980s, but it went online in 1996. Since its launch, how has the addition or use of digital images changed over the last few years?
The image component has exploded. Initially, Ancestry collections were electronic databases, and then more and more images were scanned from microfilm. In 2006–2007 we were producing millions of images, and now we’re producing tens of millions of images per year.

What kinds of images are available on the site, and where do they all come from?
Most of the images on the Web site are of historic documents, including census records, birth, marriage, and death certificates, passenger lists, and military records. In addition, our subscribers have also added millions of their own unique images from family collections that often include portraits, letters, and personal documents. (Members can also share the images. For example, if you find your great-great-uncle pictured in another member’s tree, you can save the image to your own account.)

An added element of fun? Celebrities! Above is Ancestry.com's digital capture of the late Elizabeth Taylor's birth certificate.

How have other historical databases added to Ancestry.com’s visual offerings?  
Although we have no formal relationship with the Library of Congress, we have published portions of their publicly available historic photo collection, which includes over 340,000 photographs from eleven separate collections held by the library’s Prints and Photograph Division.

Sites like ancestryimages.com offer an vast selection of historic maps, like this engraving of Cambridgeshire published in London in 1837, or a Russian map from circa 1863 (detail below). They can be used simply for free online research, or reproduction prints can be ordered for a nominal fee. 

What can people learn from family portraits, or what does it add to a family tree?
There is a lot to be learned from family portraits, as they can add much more than smiling faces to a family tree. Especially in the case of older imagery, a portrait can identify the size of a family or specific members, a location, and even a timeframe. This information can be extremely useful, especially if there is a lack of paper records for the family members. Most of all they can bring ancestors to life by adding a face to a name you have heard over the years.

What’s ahead for members? Will they be able to upload home movies at some point?
We currently allow members to record audio onto the site. We are continuously looking for ways to improve the user experience and add features that improve the ability to preserve family history. As for video there are no immediate plans, but it is definitely a possibility in the future.

And what else do they have planned for the future? Another season of NBC's Who Do You Think You Are, airing this coming spring, and including actress Marisa Tomei.

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