Genealogy & Local History in Buffalo, NY

What Do You Mean, The Past Is Not Online?

"What's on the web is extremely ephemeral. Very little of it was written before 1995."

--Brewster Kahle, creator of the Internet Wayback Machine, quoted in Newsweek, March 29, 2004 p. 58.

"The majority of information lies outside the Internet."
--Jens Redmer, Director of Google Book Search, quoted at Slippery Brick, January 2007

"Five myths about the Information Age."
Robert Darnton, Chronicle of Higher Education, April 17, 2011

It is always cool to find a new online treasure about Buffalo and add the link to one of my pages.  But as a local history librarian, I have to come clean.  What is online, as wonderful as it is, represents perhaps 1% of recorded knowledge about Buffalo.  The vast wealth of Buffalo history is still offline--in paper, on microfilm, in libraries, archives, government offices, and historical organizations.

There are entire categories of records that we all wish were searchable free online but just aren't.  The exceptions are the fragmentary efforts by individuals who transcribe something on their personal homepages, and major institutions who have the funding for digital projects.  Putting stuff online is almost as labor and resource-intensive as putting it on paper the first time.

When history does come online in systematic form, it will be through commercial sites, like Ancestry, and Heritage Quest, who produce proprietary, subscription databases.  Most historical full-text databases will be affordable only by wealthy institutions like universities and large public libraries.

Just as you go to the library now for books you cannot afford, in the future you'll go to the library for databases you cannot afford.  And you'll still go to the library for all the "old stuff" that will never be digitized.

Things That Are Not Online For Free In Any Comprehensive Sense of the Word

What isn't online?  Basically everything recorded on paper for several centuries before the invention of computers, including (but not limited to):
  • Annual reports from businesses, governments, and nonprofit organizations
  • The world's vast output of books
  • Censuses (federal) are online at Ancestry.com, a fee-based site. To be fair, the LDS Church has mounted a free index (no scans of the actual census pages) of the 1880 census. But New York State censuses are not online in any form.
  • Church and cemetery records
  • Court and probate records
  • Deeds, land records, and property transactions
  • Dissertations and theses
  • Immigration and naturalization records
  • Manuscripts, letters
  • Maps and atlases from before the GIS era
  • Magazines, journals, and periodicals from before computerized typesetting
  • Military service records
  • Newspapers from before computerized typesetting
  • Outdated city directories or telephone books
  • Photographs, paintings, portraits, drawings, engravings
  • School records or yearbooks
  • Sanborn (fire insurance) maps
  • Vital records
  • Voter registration records
  • Ward and enumeration district maps

Where do you find these things?  The same places that had them all along before the invention of the internet: Court houses, historical societies, libraries, city and town halls, state and federal archives, and LDS Family History Centers.

Updated 6 July 2011