In 2002, the husband-and-wife team of Ron Filion and Pamela Storm launched their website SFGenealogy – a labor of love that showcases their passion for genealogical research and San Francisco Bay Area history.
Filion describes the primary purpose of the site as providing free online access to content relevant to genealogists (such as information from birth certificates, marriage announcements, telephone directories, and obituaries) that might otherwise only exist in hard-copy in multiple locations. He is quick to add, though, that the content they have sought to feature is “not your normal resources; it’s a hodgepodge of interesting things,” including a wide range of full-text materials related to San Francisco history. They receive support for the project in the form of a sponsorship by the California Genealogical Society and Library, Google ads on their site, and single-dollar donations. Many volunteers from around the world also assist by doing transcription.
Storm and Filion seek out new sources of content such as school yearbooks, club membership rosters, maps, and other emphera at estate sales. They have also been known to use less orthodox materials, such as a pot holder they once discovered that featured a political advertisement. After digitizing or transcribing the content, they offer the originals as a donation to archival repositories such as the California Historical Society or the San Francisco History Center.
Their site features Web 2.0 functionality in the form of bulletin boards. This enable users to post comments, questions, or upload content that they themselves have transcribed. One volunteer, Cathy Gowdy, has posted transcriptions of over 12,000 Marin County obituaries. These contributions point to areas of users’ interest that have sometimes surprised Filion and Storm – such as spirited discussions about San Francisco’s defunct Mannings Cafeteria.
SFGenealogy also features a variety of databases that Storm and Filion have built – including the California Birth Index (1905-1995), the California Death Index (1940-1997), and San Francisco Mortuary Records. These databases offer examples of content that in some cases is only otherwise available online through subscription databases.
In addition to providing content from other sources, Storm and Filion also develop original articles and maps on topics of interest to them – such as ships buried beneath San Francisco’s streets, or the story of their investigation of a nineteenth-century photograph they had once discovered in the Argonaut Book Shop, or locations around San Francisco’s Civic Center to conduct genealogical and historical research. One of their more ambitious projects was the 1906 Earthquake Marriage Project, in which they investigated the suprising record number of marriages that took place immediately following San Francisco’s greatest natural disaster. The project, which involved conducting oral history work as well as archival research, culminated in an exhibition at City Hall in 2006.
A wide range of cultural heritage institutions have been digitizing content from their historical collections for online presentation for many years. Standards and best practices for how to scan materials (such as the California Digital Library’s Guidelines) and to provide “metadata” or descriptions of those materials (such as the Library of Congress’ Thesaurus for Graphic Materials) have been long established. In more recent years, some institutions have been moving from presenting their online content only on their own website to also presenting it on third-party hosts, such as Flickr, the Internet Archive, and the Hathi Trust – in part to be able to aggregate their content with content from other repositories (one example of a project to aggregate digital content from multiple repositories is the Biodiversity Heritage Library). Whether the work of making historical content available online is done by major institutions like the Smithsonian or by private individuals like Storm and Filion, questions about the best design formats, venues, and search functionality will persist as we all continue to explore how to make historical content as accessible as possible.