By Carolyn L. Barkley
Every now and then, a resource becomes available that is essential to our research. Footnote.com (“where real history might just surprise you”) is just such a resource. Its uniqueness is its provision of quality digitized original documents, many never before available online, combined with social networking capabilities. Its underlying vision is based on the shoebox – we all have one or more in our attic – that is full of our family’s past: photographs, letters, military medals, Sunday school certificates, etc. Expanding on that idea, the site creates a national shoebox to which subscribers can upload images of their individual items and link them to original documents, thus making their insights and stories available to a much larger universe of researchers.
Relatively new to the list of must-use genealogical online sites, Footnote.com went live in January 2007 with over 5,000,000 documents. Its developers knew the importance of convenient access to original documents “unaltered and unfiltered” by others while recognizing the growing interest in social networking sites. In its inaugural month, Footnote.com announced a partnership with the National Archives and Records Administration to offer access to historical records in the collections of the various physical NARA sites – eventually 9 billion records. Five months later, Footnote became a primary affiliate of FamilySearch™, again providing for the digitization and access to documents previously unavailable online. Many enhancements to the site followed, including an interactive Vietnam War Memorial launched with nearly 1,500 images to which individuals can add photos, comments and stories. To date, there are 47,264,133 documents available with new collections and images added monthly.
At its most basic level, Footnote.com provides online access to quality digitized images of original documents. Examples of collections include the Pennsylvania State Archive’s 138-volume series of essential records from 1664 to 1780 that includes “military, tax, marriage, and land records, as well as documents from American history covering the Revolutionary War and the Whiskey Rebellion;” World War II JAG Case Files for the Army and the Navy; Mormon Battalion Pension Files; Revolutionary War Pension Files (note: these are images of an entire pension file, not just the selected papers found on Heritagequest); Vietnam War Photos – Marines; Papers of the Continental Congress; federal censuses, and much more. Use the search bar at the top left of the main page to enter your query for a global search of all documents. I recommend choosing the advanced search option in order to narrow your entry as much as possible (Example: Edward Albert Smith yielded 146, 394 hits; with Massachusetts added, the number was reduced to 61,073; with Springfield added, the number was again reduced, to 9,896; with 1894 added, the number fell to 302). Even so, you may have to work through a series of entries that do not apply to your individual. When I searched for Charlton Barkley, however, I was immediately taken to his Confederate compiled service record in the 12th North Carolina. Search structure is everything (and perhaps not doing Smith research!)
Access may also be gained by browsing the collections that have been divided into seven historical periods (Colonies and Revolution to 1815; A New Nation 1815-1860; Civil War 1860-1880; Emerging America and WWI 1880-1920; Boom and Bust 1920-1835; WWII 19336-1950; Post war 1950 and After) or in four additional categories (Naturalizations: 1700-mid 1900s; News and Town Records; Photos; and Vital Records). If you click on a historical period, the site then displays the collections within that era. If you then choose a specific collection it will provide you with the ability to browse or search that collection. If you click on the “I” symbol, a pop-up screen will provide background information on the scope of that collection. The vital records, naturalizations, and other category sections are not yet very extensive I checked the Index to Massachusetts State Records 1841-1895 for marriages and found that I needed to know a year range for the marriage before I could access the name search function. To compound the problem, I was looking for a Smith marriage. Even though I knew the date, the groom and the bride, the surname Smith is separated into several groupings. No first name initial range is provided, forcing the searcher to guess and sample several pages prior to finding the correct subsection. Browsing is not the most efficient strategy if you don’t know the year of the marriage. For this index, either use the site’s global search function or search the index on the New England Historic Genealogical Society site. I found this same search strategy to be true in the naturalization section. If you do not know at least the date of naturalization, you will spend a great deal of time browsing for your individual.
The Civil War collection, however, is wonderful. I first found this section – and Footnote.com itself – in the National Archives one afternoon after exhausting my search plans for the trip and its discovery saved my day. For years I have been straining to read Confederate compiled service records on grainy microfilm that produce the ugliest microfilm copies known to any researcher. I can happily report that the images on Footnote.com are wonderfully readable and print out very clearly on 8 ½ x 11 paper. I am now busily purging my files of the folded and crumpled 11 x 17 copies that are barely readable and replacing them with copies of the Footnote.com images. What a wonderful opportunity, one that I will use anytime I have specific dates for a specific event and want to add quality copy of the original document to my files.
Since a wealth of information is being added regularly, this site needs to be visited often to see what’s new. Recently released collections include city directories for Philadelphia, Washington DC, and New York; Confederate service records for Kentucky, Missouri, and Florida; and Cuyahoga, Ohio birth returns. Coming soon are Southern Claims paper records; Massachusetts Vital Records; city directories for Ft. Wayne, Detroit and St. Louis; and Union soldier service records for Alabama, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, and the USCT.
Of particular importance is the social networking aspect of the site that supports our interest in the shared stories and historical details that make documents come alive. This online environment allows you to annotate an entry by dragging a box over a portion of the document and entering an annotation about a person, place, date or other information. This information is indexed and becomes available to others and can yield valuable links to other researchers who may be interested in the same person or event. In addition, you can create a personal gallery that stores Footnote.com images. You can rearrange and rename or describe these entries and you can upload your own images to your gallery. Also check the spotlight pages where Footnote.com subscribers have showcased their discoveries for others.
Footnote Page is a new function, released in September 2008. This enhancement allows you to create a page about an individual, for example, and add images, an interactive timeline, maps, share stories and make connections to related pages or to others with similar research interests. You can invite other researchers to contribute and add their content to your page, or you can add to theirs.
Access to Footnote.com content is very simple with several options. A free 7-day trial subscription provides access to all collections. All-access subscriptions are offered very reasonably at $11.95 per month or $69.96 for an annual subscription. A basic, or free membership, provides searching and browsing capability, but annotations, comments, as well as the ability to print or save images is restricted to the clearly marked free collections. A good comparison of the basic and fee-based subscriptions can be found at http://www.footnote.com/choose-a-plan/. Would you like to have Footnote.com available through your local library? Special discounts are available. Urge your librarian to contact Footnote.com to learn more about how to subscribe. Information about institutional subscriptions can be found at http://www.footnote.com/using-footnote/.
Footnote.com offers a wealth of original documents at your finger-tips. It is an essential site for individuals who research frequently and for all public libraries as an addition to AncestryPlus and Heritage Quest. Take some time to check it out.