Preservation vs. Access
Where would historians be if families across the country had not contributed their massive manuscript collections to various repositories over the last four hundred years? I wrote a lecture about finding the right repository for your family letters, manuscripts, artifacts and bibles. The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections was and is the starting point to find those collections and repositories. Times have changed, FirstSearch and OCLC are also searchable databases for manuscripts. Literacy rates changed. There are astronomically more potential manuscript files. Technology changed, pens to typewriters to computers. Manuscripts became typescripts and then computer files. Letters became email and texts. Photography changed from cameras that took hours to set up to push button camera phones. Photocopiers changed certified handwritten copies to microfilm or photographic copies and then to digitized copies. Digital cameras and cell phones changed things, anyone can make a copy or photograph on the run. The Internet has changed the way we look at information, the way we search for information, how it is preserved and where it is preserved.
Genealogists need to consider the source, examine the source, rate the source, in addition to the data found in the source. Once genealogists identify a source as weak, full of lies of omission or commission, made up stuff or perhaps just careless copying or record keeping, they know not to trust that source for facts, or at least not to absolutely trust that source and obtain back up sources for all the dates found. The gedcom files on Ancestry are rife with data mistakes and worse melding ancestors with others of the same names. The great majority of those are careless not fraud, but false lines are created and maintained all the same.
Prior to civil government legislation requiring vital records kept on town, county, city or state levels, baptismal records and bible records and letters in manuscript collections were the ideal discoveries for early birth records. The federal population census from 1850 forward was helpful for an approximate year, but for a real date, month, day and year, nothing could beat a letter or telegram announcing the birth, a bible record kept contemporaneously or a baptismal record kept by a minister with legible handwriting. In granting Revoltionary War Pensions, bible records were important sources of marriage dates and dates of children’s births. Some Revolutionary Pension files have torn out pages from family Bibles as part of their docoumentation paperwork. As more and more historical societies were formed, their collections of Bibles grew so that many published books of transcribed Bible records.
Although Bibles moved with families as they migrated south and west, most Bibles do not have a geographical aspect. Births, Marriages and Deaths or Funerals are noted, sometimes with days, months, dates and years but very seldom was the city, county or state an event took place inscribed in the Bible. One hundred or even fifty years ago when Bibles became separated from their families, it was not easy to reconnect them. Check the advertisements in the Genealogical Helper Available from World Vital Records fifty or sixty years ago. There were researchers then as now, trying to reconnect discarded Bibles with their families or extended families. Now with country wide census searches and monumental amounts of information on the Internet, it is easier to reunite Bibles with familiy descendants. I love reading the news stories about those events. See blog about Family Bibles. Bibles were donated to local historical societies or repositories along with manuscript files from various prominent local families. If you are missing an Elizabeth or a Mary in a small town or county, check NUCMC for Bibles and transcribed Bible Records from that area. You may find the one entry with the surname poorly written but identifiable if you know already what it says, but not if you are transcribing it from a century away.
Do you want to:
- Donate or keep the Bible
- Preserve or stabilize the Bible
- Disseminate the genealogical information or keep control and copyright
- Transcribe and publish the family pages
- Digitize and upload the genealogical content
Family Bibles have distinct characteristics, some are huge and need a reading stand to hold them safely in the parlor, others are small pocket Bibles able to travel perhaps even to war and back. Family members used the Bible, they read it and referred to it, they may have annotated it. Certain pages may be worn clear through, maybe a favorite psalm or parable. Using the Bible your ancestors used can be very connecting, just as rocking your child to sleep in the chair in which your grandmother rocked your mother. So is the Bible, as a book, as a artifact handed down for generations. Very powerful. Then there is the genealogical information contained in the center pages, Family Births, Marriages and Deaths, which you likely will want to share with other more distant cousins and perhaps the research community at large. This used to be so much harder. The genealogical significant pages needed to be photocopied. Now with digital cameras, you don’t need special book holders or a special copier. Photograph the title page front and back, then genealogical pages, the inserts, the flowers and the pages in between which they were pressed, the spine and boards if they are attached or separated and add a paragraph of provenance, the chain of custody, why you ended up with the book.
Antiques Roadshow is full of experts, appraisers who say alternately, this piece has so much more value since it is in the original condition and has not been altered and then later in the same show another expert says, the value of this piece will be enhanced by preservation or stabilitization or cleaning (but don’t disturb the patina) or retouching the gilding, or restoration and conservation. I am not in the book appraisal business. I don’t know if you care about the monetary value of the Bible, I imagine that unless one of the members of the family turns out to be the governor, a famous outlaw like Billy the Kid, an astronaut or actress or bishop, it is unlikely that the Bible is worth a ton of money, possibly fifty dollars. Perhaps if the cover is detailed in an exhaustively unusal way, tooled by an expert, studded with jewels, decorated with amazing triple foreedge artwork, or maybe the bible was in a prisoner of war camp with in addition to your ancestor some incredibly famous prisoner who used it for funeral services of another incredibly famous soldier, there may be something in the publication data that makes it special, perhaps it was a run of one hundred Bibles printed in Latvian and English in 1757. Check the edition and publication data to see if it was designed by Bruce Rogers. You may need an expert and a bible expert at that. Find a conservator at your local archives, museum or univerisity library. Many things I have read led me to suspect the original binding in a Bible is not as important as I would have believed and in fact, rebound Bibles don’t necessarily lose value, because so many have been rebound. That seems counter intuitive. Check with an expert or two before you commit to that path.
As a genealogist, I hope that you have made a conscious choice to keep and treasure the Bible, and upon your death made provision for the Bible to be given to a specific descendant, or a neice or nephew that shares that line or a distant younger cousin who will also treasure it. If not, I hope you have located an appropriate repository that will preserve the Bible at the same time as making the content available to researchers.