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A Genealogist In The Archives: What Are "Born Digital" Genealogy Records?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

What Are "Born Digital" Genealogy Records?

Most people know that I am a Certified Archives Manager and I am the archivist for the Houston County, Tennessee Archives. I am also an avid genealogist and have been researching my own family history for the past 26 years.

I love discovering new record sources that I can research in for my ancestors. As an archivist, I get very excited when a patron walks in to donate records to the archives because I never know just what wonderful records they are handing over to us.

Lyle Family Records Donation, Houston County, TN. Archives

There is a relatively new type of record source that is being archived in many of our archives and libraries. This record source is called "born digital" records.

"Born Digital" refers to materials and records that originate in a digital form. Most often this term is used in relation to digital libraries and archives and digital preservation. These types of records, most of the time, were never in a paper format but were produced originally in a digital format and saved as such.

Some types of records that are considered "born digital" are:

Digital Photographs: Many archives accept donations of digital photographs and have compiled a database of such photographs that is either on their website or available at the archives on in-house computers.

Digital Photograph of CCC Group Donated to Houston County, TN. Archives

Digital Documents: More and more documents of all kinds are being produced digitally. Many local county offices such as the Register of Deeds and County Court Clerk have done away with paper forms and records and do everything digitally. These born digital records will eventually make their way to the county archives.

Digital Manuscripts: Archives are now receiving personal paper donations that include records and documents that are digital. Just think of all the downloaded records you have in your genealogy database that are not on paper. Well, archives are now receiving the very same type digital records in donated personal paper donations.

Digitized Newspaper Clipping Donated to Houston County, TN. Archives

So, how does a genealogist find these born digital records? A few libraries and archives have put them online on their website. But most of them have them at the facility on in-house computers that you can only access at the facility. Some archives do have an index of what is available on their website and the genealogist can contact the archives and make a records request.

The most important step a genealogist can take is to talk to the archives where you think born digital records could be located. Ask them what they have available for research. Many archivists are ready to be of help and tell you about their records collections. When making a records request, it is very important to be as specific as possible with your request. If the request is too vague or sounds like "I want everything for the Smith family", you may be asked to be more specific.

Born digital records is something that is going to become more and more prevalent in our archives and libraries. Knowing what these records are and how to find them is something every genealogist should keep in mind.



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  1. If I am understanding your definition correctly, none of the examples you show are actually "born digital". They are all made digital by scanning. A "born digital" would be a photo taken on a digital camera or a word document that is my life story. Am I missing something?

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  2. Correct, I do not have any born digital records in the Houston County, TN. Archives, so I could not share any. Born digital are records that were never on paper but produced digitally from the very beginning. Now, with that said, archives have digital records such as I have share on this post that were not given to the archives on paper but sent to us by email as a digital file attachment.