A Critical Analysis of the Representation of NARA’s INS Records in Ancestry’s Database Portal / Katharina Hering (German Historical Institute)
In my proposed paper, I will discuss Ancestry.com’s representation of examples of public records, which the company makes accessible to institutional and individual subscribers as part of the public-private partnership that it has established with the National Archives. A particular focus of my analysis will be Ancestry’s collections of digitized microfilm records from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, organized under Ancestry’s header: “Immigration and Travel.” The digitized microfilm records are from NARA’s Record Group 85, the records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and document millions of arrivals at land border ports along the US-Mexican and US-Canadian borders. My paper will include a brief overview of the company’s history, including a discussion of the history and development of their microfilming and subsequent digitization programs and partnerships with NARA. I argue that Ancestry.com‘s interpretive and corporate priorities support a presentation that separates genealogical information that is contained in records from the historical context in which the records and collections of records were created. While Ancestry offers access to large quantities of records, including many records that are in the public domain, the company channels this access through its corporate genealogical lens. Because many of the collections of public records held by NARA and other institutions are currently only accessible online through Ancestry’s portal, the company has considerable influence over the ways in which researchers, particularly genealogists, can discover and interpret public historical records. Ancestry’s discovery portal is molded by the company’s historical narrative, which favors the discovery of genealogical data over the exploration of social historical questions or contextual information about the history and meaning of the records. The portal advances the company’s agenda to secure maximum access to genealogical information for millions of people up to the most recent generation at the expense of ethical and political concerns about the consequences of publicizing personal information contained in many of these records. Ancestry’s lack of transparency about the scope of their collections, appraisal criteria, and indexing practices, cements the company’s power, while undermining the ability to critically engage with the collections that are included in the portal, and holding the company accountable for its decisions. Its partnership with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) also raises broader questions about the consequences of the government’s outsourcing of providing online access to its public records for researchers to a private company. My paper draws on scholarly archival literature about importance of adequately representing provenance and context in digital collections and archives, as well as articles about the history of genealogical databases, including Julia Creet’s recent book The Genealogical Sublime, as well as critiques about public-private partnerships at NARA and other public archives.
Stakes and Challenges of The Cameroon National Archives in the Face of Digitization / Tomla Ernestine Tatah Lukong (Cameroon Ministry of Arts and Culture)
In spite of the age of the digital world, and its positive bearing on the evolution and development of records and archives, its penetration in Cameroon is yet to be complete. The history of the Cameroon National Archives can be traced back to 1952 with the creation of an Archives Service by virtue of Order N°2924 of 28 May 1952. It has undergone varied appellations, legislative and administrative frameworks from inception till date. The current structure was created in 2012, attached to the Ministry of Arts and Culture. Its current organization and functioning were defined in 2014 by Decree N°2014/0882/PM of 30 April 2014 on the organization and functioning of the National Archives. Whatever name and/or administration had been assigned to the institution in charge of historic archives over the years, the content had never been affected. It has always housed records at their third or inactive age. Notwithstanding, it is not easy to estimate the volume of historical records in Cameroon due to a wide range of multidimensional challenges at the human, financial and infrastructural levels. The volume of records in the National Archives of Cameroon as of 1984 when transfer of records was suspended due to the afore-mentioned challenges is estimated at between 10.000 and 12.000 linear meters. A good quantity of records that form part of the national documentary heritage remains stocked in various administrative departments and some in foreign countries. These statistics exclude records produced originally in digital form which the national Law N°2000/010 of 19 December 2000 governing archives in Cameroon recognizes. The capacity of documents at the level of the National Archives duly digitized is about 25.416 GB. The past few years have witnessed an amazing reawakening in the preservation of archives; human, financial and infrastructural resources challenges notwithstanding. In 2011, the then Minister of Culture made an exhaustive presentation on the deplorable state of the country’s records and archives at a cabinet meeting. The Prime Minister, Head of Government responded by signing specific directives on 28 July 2011 in which he requested among others, the urgent elaboration of a digitization archival plan and computerization of their management and studies towards the construction of a modern complex to house the National Archives. Attempts were therefore made at implementing these directives as well as other actions captured in the Ministry’s road map. It was not until 2016 with the effective operation of the National Archives as a separate structure attached to the Ministry of Arts and Culture (MINAC) as per Decree N°2012/381 of 14 September 2012 that transformed the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Arts and Culture with the National Archives as an attached structure to MINAC whose organization and functioning were later determined by Decree N°2014/0882/PM of 30 April 2014 and finally, Decree N°2016/0891/PM of 29 April 2016 that appointed the Director of the National Archives, that purposeful and fruitful actions saw the light of day. Insightful lobbying and advocacy went on concomitantly at the national and international levels for Cameroon to host the annual conference of the International Council on Archives (ICA) in 2018 and for the state of the National Archives to be ameliorated in all ramifications. That is why before the actual historic hosting of ICA annual conference by Cameroon in November 2018, there was the signing of Order N°003/CAB/PM of 17 January 2018 that created, organized and stated the functioning of an Inter-ministerial Committee in charge of restructuring the National Archives. In fact, one of the missions of this committee was to organize the country’s hosting of ICA annual conference, which was well accomplished. This marked a turning point in the affairs of the Cameroon National Archives. Conscious therefore of where we are and why we are there, this paper seeks to answer the following question: How Fast Can the Cameroon National Archives Fully Retrieve and Digitize the Country’s Existing Records? To better attempt an answer to this question, we shall make a review of literature on current trends and on strides made so far by other countries in archival digitization in relation to the efforts of Cameroon. Having identified infrastructural insufficiency as the major challenge, highlights shall be made on how advocacy and lobbying toward this direction has resulted in the ongoing rehabilitation/extension project of the National Archives and the gap the project is expected to fill. This project is actually one of the outcomes of the aforementioned Inter-ministerial Committee. The project is aimed at rehabilitating and extending structures of the National Archives in Yaounde and its annex in Buea. It should be noted that the Buea annex host mainly records generated by British rule in Cameroon. Thus the bilingual nature of the country is reflected in the two structures. It is hoped that at completion, it will go a long way to cover the infrastructural gap the country has been living with over the past decades. The stakes are high that documentary heritage will be preserved and access to them increased in both physical and digital forms. Clearly, non-digital records still have their traditional roles of guaranteeing the authenticity of documents, preserving their integrity and protecting the historical truth. Physical records, if well preserved, stand a better chance of survival, as opposed to digital media that is challenged by rapid technological updates of both techniques and holding devices that can render content useless at the twinkle of an eye. Again, for these traditional roles of paper archives to be effectively played, archivists’ traditional functions remain valid. In fact, they are precursory tasks to digitization and this gives hope to the Cameroon National Archives in the face of an advanced digital world. The findings of this paper can be of great help to: the Cameroonian records managers and archivists that they are on the right track; to the Cameroonian government to double efforts in good governance and to the international archives and records community for assistance.