Provincial Archives project to give genealogists, others fast access to 'goldmine'

Hundreds of Anglican Church registers dating back to the 1790s will be a lot easier to access after they are scanned and put online in a project underway at the Provincial Archives.

Archives are digitizing 650 Anglican registers from Fredericton diocese dating back to 1790s

One of the 650 Anglican Diocese of Fredericton registers to be digitized to make research easier. (Vanessa Vander Valk/CBC)

Hundreds of Anglican Church registers dating back to the 1790s will be a lot easier to access after they are scanned and put online in a project underway at the Provincial Archives.

The goal of the project, undertaken with the Anglican Diocese of Fredericton and the New Brunswick Genealogical Society, is to make it easier to access some important records housed at the archives in Fredericton.

The registers include information about baptisms, marriages and burial dates and locations.

Joanna Aiton Kerr, the archives manager of services and private sector records, called the records a goldmine for genealogists.

"They do go further back than … when it became law to record vital statistics, so these can fill in lots of blanks for people," said Kerr.

She said she had wanted to do further digitization of records at the archives — many of the vital statistic records are already in a digital format — after a monumental request from a man researching his family tree.

If you are looking for information about your great-great-grandparents, or perhaps the original spelling of your name, chances are they have what you need at the provincial archives. Right now, you still have to comb through the records. But Joanna Aiton Kerr, manager of services and private sector records, says that's about to change, thanks to a major digitization project. 8:04

"[He] said that he had a great-great-uncle, who he thought probably lived in New Brunswick, but he wasn't sure, was probably an Anglican and likely lived near the water," Kerr said. "He was probably born in the early 1880s. His last name was Hansen but he was not sure of his first name. It was either John or William.

"That didn't give me really anything at all to go on … it's not a matter of just typing names into a database … that one request really sort of put my plan in motion."

Luckily, the archives recently received some new digitization equipment and after discussing the project with the diocese staff were ready to go.

Archivists have been sending the scanned pages of the registers to a group of genealogists, who are going over the scans and transcribing the data so it can be searchable.

Before the project, a genealogist who wanted to view the documents would have to physically go to the archives, housed  at the University of New Brunswick, and look through the registers.

After the project, all the information in the registers will be put on the archives' website.

People would also have the ability to search through the data, such as searching for a last name, making the process a lot faster than flipping through potentially hundreds of pages.

Not just the family tree

Joanna Aiton Kerr, the archives manager of services and private sector records, said the records have been used for much more than just researching family trees. (Submitted by Joanna Aiton Kerr)

Many people use these records for researching family histories, Kerr said, but the data they contain have more modern-day uses as well.

"If somebody is getting married today in the Anglican or in the Catholic church often the proof of baptism is required," Kerr said.

"Lots of people call us, very often in May, right before wedding season, and they say, 'I can't find my baptism record' or

Once material is digitized you're looking at a lifetime of maintenance issues that are far more complicated than simply putting the physical records into a cold storage vault. - Joanna Aiton Kerr, Provincial Archives

'My mother lost my baptism record.' With these records, we are able to produce a copy."

The records can also be used to clarify vital statistics and have even been used in helping secure passports.

"They're also used on a fairly regular basis if someone is looking to apply for a passport, for example, and they discover that their official record from vital statistics, perhaps their name is not spelled the way that they have always spelled their names," said Kerr.

"For example, their name is Ann, they don't spell it with an E, but their vital statistics record has an E. So we can go back, and if they were baptized in the Anglican Church we can check to see how it was spelt then and that sometimes can help clear up a bit of confusion."

No end to physical records

“These records are historically significant and irreplaceable,” said Kerr. The records will be kept after they are digitized. (Vanessa Vander Valk/CBC NB)

While the digitized records will no doubt make it easier to research familial history, Kerr said this does not mean the end of physical records and the archives aren't giving up their physical copies.

"These records are historically significant and irreplaceable," said Kerr.

"We are digitizing them to make them more readily accessible and to reduce the amount of physical handling they will have in future, not to 'save space.'"

Other than the historic value of the physical records, Kerr said, digitization of records is complicated and requires a lot of continuing work to remain usable.

Available early next year

"Contrary to popular belief, digitization is not a one-time deal," said Kerr.

"Once material is digitized you're looking at a lifetime of maintenance issues that are far more complicated than simply putting the physical records into a cold storage vault. You're looking at ongoing expenses for digital storage, ensuring the formats stay accessible, ensuring that software that can read the digital material is available and sustainable, and so on."

Kerr hopes that some of the digitized records will start to be made available in the new year.

With files from Vanessa Vander Valk and Shift