I’m a genealogist. I love to digitize things. So, as a hobby I digitize old family papers as well as relevant historical sources. The impetus came originally from the need to share family history with far-flung cousins, and gradually morphed into the desire to do something with at least a little scholarly value. Call it local history.
An side effect of publishing this stuff on the web was that it acted as a honeypot to attract genealogists interested in the same families; several previously-unknown distant cousins have contacted me after finding my website. More unexpected was the contact from a scholar for whose research I had some relevant documents. Her book on the steamboat Bertrand, now published by Kluwer, has a brief chapter on my great-great-grandfather William McCoy Wheatley. He was a passenger on the Bertrand, which sank in the Missouri River in 1865 and was quickly silted over, preserving its contents until they were excavated a century later. Since that experience I’ve been in contact with a few more scholars who were working on topics about which I had what seemed to me to be useful materials, and I hope to score a couple more footnotes as their research gets into publication. If you’re into genealogy, you’ll understand how rare and exciting it is to talk to someone who’s glad to hear from you.
But there’s so much more in our family papers for scholars to exploit. Who will put William’s sexually explicit 1873 letter to his wife Mildred into its appropriate socio-historical context? Inquiring minds want to know. To get stuff out there where researchers might find it, OAI is the answer.
So, a few months ago I installed phpoai2, a PHP package written by Heinrich Stamerjohanns and released under the GPL. The OAI Metadata Harvesting Protocol allows you, the “content provider”, to expose your metadata records on the web in such a way as to make them easy for others (“service providers”) to harvest, so that they can index them with other harvested records and make them findable. The protocol was designed to have low barriers to implementation, and it does: it’s easy.
My server currently has one simple Dublin Core record in it. Some OAI links into it:
Once I get my MODS editor working (the subject of another posting), I’ll start creating MODS records for everything I digitize. I’ll then use a crosswalk to derive DC records from the MODS, and offer both formats from my OAI server. When I can offer respectable metadata I’ll offer my service to the harversters.
The question then will be, will anyone come?
OAI, Genealogists and Librarians
My hobby projects are of course far from unique: the web is full of genealogical projects that publish primary sources. Some are of interest solely to genealogists, others have considerable potential for scholarly research. Some are personal projects like mine, others are the work of volunteer organizations; genealogists are among the foremost exploiters of the web’s potential to create collaborative virtual communities.
What these projects lack is metadata and the infrastructure for sharing it. OAI and Dublin Core ought to be the lifeblood of online genealogical projects. Librarians ought to be helping genealogists to make it happen. If I had time, I’d do it myself.