Give Me Your Wired, Your Poor

PrintPrintEmailEmailAccording to a 1995 poll, more than 113 million Americans are researching their family histories. Presumably, the others are put off by the hobby’s side effects: nausea induced by hours spent staring at microfilm, and vacation time eaten up traveling to out-of-state libraries for research. Now the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation has a way to save them at least one trip and a couple of packets of Alka-Seltzer. To complement the interactive Family History Center in its immigration museum, the foundation will put online in late April (at www.ellisislandrecords.org ) the records of everyone who entered the country through Ellis Island during the peak years between its opening in 1892 and the institution of strict quotas in 1924. Volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ever devoted to genealogy, logged more than five million hours transcribing the tiny handwriting on decaying microfilmed copies of the original ships’ manifests. The resulting database of 22 million names represents 60 percent of all U.S. immigration records.

Genealogists can now at no charge type a name into the Web site’s search engine and retrieve a page containing facts from the immigrant’s entrance interview, including last residence, age, marital status, and date of arrival. Seasoned researchers will recognize a catch: Unfamiliar foreign names were often misspelled by overworked stenographers or Americanized on the spot. So if the correct person’s dossier fails to pop up, the program will find ethnic variants or names that begin with the same letters. Conversely, entering a few pre-search details, like ethnicity and year of entry, can whittle down the number of results for a common name like John Smith.

Of course, genealogical research would be even easier if each ancestor and organization had dutifully archived every scrap of information available. But in reality, preservation rarely occurs before it’s almost too late. The National Archives, for example, didn’t start putting the Ellis Island records on microfilm until 1938, two decades after the technology was developed. By that time, the oldest manifests were 46 years old and beginning to tear. Personal records are no less evanescent: Certificates crumble and rip, photographs discolor and fade. To combat that, the site also contains the Living Family Archive. For $45, users can scan in their family trees and pictures and store them in a virtual scrapbook, which can be open to public view or protected with a password. The archives are saved on the Ellis Island server, where they, like the newly digitized ships’ manifests, are finally impervious to sunlight, basement floods, and young descendants with crayons.