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Web Site Provides Millions of Military Records

May 25, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Just in time for Memorial Day, a commercial Web site, Ancestry.com, last night unveiled a special collection of war records containing tens of millions of names of Americans who served.

HARRY TRUMAN, Former President of the United States: This is a solemn but glorious hour.

MARGARET WARNER: Spanning hundreds of years and six major wars, the online database includes draft registration cards, unit rosters, enlistment records, photographs and newsreel film…

FILM NARRATOR: … victory ships they call them now…

MARGARET WARNER: … and much more.

FILM NARRATOR: And there they go!

MARGARET WARNER: Ancestry.com says it spent $3 million to digitize military records it culled from the National Archives and other public sources. The collection is by no means exhaustive, and records from some wars are more comprehensive than from others, but users can search for data on a relative by simply logging on and entering the name.

They can also turn up some intriguing documents of famous people. George Herman Ruth’s World War II draft card can be found here. He’s better known as “The Babe.” And one of America’s most celebrated magicians signed his name as Harry “Handcuff” Houdini on his 1918 World War I draft card.

The Web site is touting free access to the database between now and the D-Day anniversary, June 6th, though if you want to see more than the most basic information, you must register and submit your e-mail address. Ancestry.com, which already boasts almost a million subscribers, will require users to sign up for its basic $155-a-year membership after that.

And for more about this military database and how it fits into the growing interest in genealogy, we turn to Tim Sullivan, the CEO of Ancestry.com, in Utah. He previously was CEO of the online dating service Match.com. And Craig Scott, a certified genealogist who specializes in military records, among others, he is president and CEO of Heritage Books, a genealogical publishing firm in Maryland.

Welcome to you both.

So, Mr. Sullivan, how vast, how comprehensive is this database that you’ve compiled?

TIM SULLIVAN, CEO, Ancestry.com: It’s pretty big. We’ve gathered over 700 different database and collections. You know, it’s a very broad collection, 90 million names, hundreds of millions of images. It was very exciting to put it online. It’s probably the broadest collection we’ve ever put online at one time.

Interest in historical documents

Craig Scott
Genealogist
Something that would have taken me a few hours to find in the past I can find in a few seconds.

MARGARET WARNER: So who's in it, who served, and who isn't? Are they just people who served during wartime or all military? And how detailed is the information about the people who are in the database?

TIM SULLIVAN: Well, some of the information is very detailed. It is focused on military veterans, not just from times of war. The military, as we all know, is an incredibly organized institution and took very good records, so some of the information is very detailed.

Some of the information tells us a little bit about our ancestors, what they looked like and physical descriptions, even signatures on some of these documents. So, you know, in terms of who's in it, you have to search and find out. Sometimes there are multiple records for some people and, for some people, it takes a little more digging.

MARGARET WARNER: And who do you think your users will be? Who's the audience for this kind of somewhat specialized information?

TIM SULLIVAN: Well, it's a great question. We have a passionate audience of, you know, almost a million subscribers worldwide to our online services. And we're broadening the appeal and broadening the reach of the category.

So one of the things about military history is it touches all families, and we look to this as something that can bring new people into online history and online family history.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Craig Scott, you're a professional genealogist. How useful is a database like this?

CRAIG SCOTT, Genealogist: A database like this is absolutely fantastic because it allows you quick access. They've done a very good job of indexing a lot of things. So something that would have taken me a few hours to find in the past I can find in a few seconds.

MARGARET WARNER: Give me an example.

CRAIG SCOTT: This afternoon I searched for my grandfather's World War II draft registration card and his World War I draft registration card. I never touched the World War II one before, and the World War I took me at least an hour to find, once upon a time.

MARGARET WARNER: And today?

CRAIG SCOTT: About five seconds.

Digitizing handwritten information

Tim Sullivan
CEO, Ancestry.com
Since these are handwritten records, we actually have to go through and transcribe, in rather laborious fashion, name by name, date by date, and place by place.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, is there new information on this database or are these, from your experience, are these things you could have always found, just more laboriously?

CRAIG SCOTT: There a lot of things that have been on ancestry for some time that are now brought together. There are some new things, especially those relating to World War II. And then there are some pieces that have been in book form for a very long time, and they've digitized it and indexed it and made it more accessible.

MARGARET WARNER: And when you say book form, what do you mean?

CRAIG SCOTT: Well, some things existed in -- their database were originally books, and they digitized them and made them available.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Mr. Sullivan, how did you go about, quote, "digitizing" all this information? Some the images we just showed were handwritten draft registration cards, for example.

TIM SULLIVAN: We have three processes. We digitize and take actual images, photographs of these documents. Sometimes, if they're typeset, we can use some technology we call "optical character recognition" to create digital indices.

But a lot of the times, most of the time, since these are handwritten records, we actually have to go through and transcribe, in rather laborious fashion, name by name, date by date, and place by place. And that's the key part of this, because, as Craig says, many of these records have been available for decades or centuries. But you had to travel to an archive or find the needle in the haystack. By creating searchable digital indices, it's all available in one place, through one search engine, at one time.

Information from government sources

Tim Sullivan
CEO, Ancestry.com
We can actually digitize these materials that, you know, they may not be justified for taxpayers to pay for the digitization.

MARGARET WARNER: And did all the government agencies -- first of all, does all this come from some kind of government source? In that sense it's, quote, "official." And did you ever have difficulty getting the information?

TIM SULLIVAN: No, we have wonderfully cooperative relationships with all kinds of holders of historical archival information. These are groups that have a great mission, to preserve American or state or even international history, and also a goal of making it more accessible. And so this is where the commercial sector and Ancestry.com comes in, that we can actually digitize these materials that, you know, they may not be justified for taxpayers to pay for the digitization.

We can fund a pretty interesting business model, by investing the millions of dollars to put these online. So we have great relationships and great cooperation with institutions like the National Archives and Library of Congress and all kinds of archival holders of archival information.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Craig Scott, is genealogy, is genealogical information like this of historical significance? Does it add to an historian's understanding of a period?

CRAIG SCOTT: Absolutely. Historians look at the big picture generally, and genealogists tend to look at the little picture and focus on the person. Personally, I like to walk the ground where my ancestors were, and I feel good about that. It puts me in touch with them. And there's no better feeling than standing where an ancestor fought at the Battle of New Orleans and got wounded.

MARGARET WARNER: But an historian -- I mean, do historians engage services of genealogists or do they go and do a lot of genealogical research themselves?

CRAIG SCOTT: The marriage between genealogists and historians is sometimes tenuous, and sometimes it's very useful to both sides of the coin. Many historians don't realize how much genealogical material is available, whereas genealogists are sometimes frustrated because they think historians ignore the resources that have been created that are of absolute value to them.

Growing interest in genealogy

Craig Scott
Genealogist
Because it's on the Internet doesn't necessarily make it right, and genealogists are interested in verifying whatever they find, on the Internet or not.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Sullivan, we've read a lot about the growing interest in genealogy on the part of everyday people and, indeed, your Web site is proof of that. What do you think is fueling it?

TIM SULLIVAN: I think the Internet is fueling it. For, as I said, decades and longer, a lot of this information has been available, but it was tedious and difficult to find. Folks like Craig did a fantastic job of making information available to people, putting it online, making it searchable, and building technologies and user interfaces that are kind of friendly and, dare I say, fun, is fueling a lot more of the mainstream interest in family history.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that?

CRAIG SCOTT: I'd add that because it's on the Internet doesn't necessarily make it right, and genealogists are interested in verifying whatever they find, on the Internet or not.

MARGARET WARNER: So you mean, you would still say trust but verify, even with this information?

CRAIG SCOTT: Even with this information.

MARGARET WARNER: If you possibly could?

CRAIG SCOTT: Well, our ancestors lied, too.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that's true, and things they filled out themselves. But do you think that individuals who go on the Internet, again, ordinary Americans, is it just they want to sort of know who they came from, if they're curious about their ancestry? What really drives that, for someone to sit at a computer screen for hours and hours?

CRAIG SCOTT: Do you like putting a puzzle together? It's a big puzzle. And there are people who do it because it's a puzzle. There are people who do it because they want to understand the context of where they came from and what their ancestors were involved in. There are many reasons. I mean, there are actually too many reasons. It just depends on who you talk to.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you for talking to us, Craig Scott, Tim Sullivan, thank you both.

CRAIG SCOTT: My pleasure.

TIM SULLIVAN: Thank you, Margaret.