Microfilm Collections Locked
A number of researchers have been left in the lurch since the LDS operated FamilySearch removed physical microfilm collections from circulation in 2017. After an almost two-year waiting period, many of these same collections were digitized and provided online at no-cost.
However, for researchers with a focus on former eastern German territories such as Pomerania and Silesia, an unexpected surprise awaited them when they logged in.
Long-awaited collections that were digitized were not freely accessible as FamilySearch purported. Rather, they were locked for access pending specific conditions. Upon discovering this, I reached out to the LDS Church for clarification on this.
The problem with this answer? Read on to find out.
Family History Centers and Costly Alternatives
The general response had to do with contractual restrictions keeping FamilySearch from publishing the collections outside of a Family History Center. While Mormons and patrons at local FHCs could garner access, the ease of research at home seemed to be stifled. As will be examined later in this article, there appears to be no legal or contractual issue barring users from being able to access the collections online.
When attempting to access locked collections from home, family historians were met with a message asking them to sign in. I was personally informed that the reason I must not be able to see these collections was because I was not logged in. The reality was that I was logged into the site.
Then, I was informed I would need to be present at a Family History Center. I visited several times, able to access Pomeranian and Silesian images from Belgard and Falkowitz without issue. Collections of civil registers from Holzheim in Hessen also appeared to be intact and available. I waited for the church books to become available.
When the Holzheim church books did finally become available, I planned my trip and showed up at the closest Family History Center to my home–about a half-hour drive from my home with light traffic. I logged in, clicked on the collection, and was still shown a “locked collection” screen.
I inquired with the staff. No one there knew what to do. Not only that, nobody there knew who to contact to solve the problem. I opened a chat window and waited. The person on the other end was puzzled that the volunteers couldn’t put me in touch with the center’s director. After an hour of back-and-forth, I was finally handed a phone number of the previous director. No help was provided on that front either.
After a series of phone calls, I was informed there was no way I could access the collection. Allegedly, it was locked to anyone who was not an LDS member due to restrictions. Those who have followed my research know that I am highly critical of how Germany has handled record access. The cruel irony was that the same church books that should have been available and were previously available on microfilm were no longer accessible whatsoever outside of church membership. Period. Fortunately, (and please note the sarcasm), those exact same church books were and are still available through Archion’s expensive services.
So what’s the complaint? Archion charges users outrageous fees for access to their digital collections. Archion has free registration–but that’s where the advantages end. Registration only creates an account but does not give access to the records–wholly misleading. One month costs 20 Euros. It’s comparable to Ancestry. My complaint is not with the actual fees, but with the limitations that come with its services. Where Ancestry allows for unlimited downloads (the perfect situation for a serious genealogist), Archion severely limits the end-user’s ability to save records for future reference. The limit for one month is 50 downloads, something I’ve easily surpassed in a day of research, especially in a smaller village where all of the people are related to each other; especially when each family member had more than ten children. A month-long pass that allows for 175 downloads is 70 Euros–quite the steep price increase.
How is this relevant to our research? A similar thing is happening to Pomeranian records through Ancestry. Collections remain inaccessible on FamilySearch, but are readily available on Ancestry. The catch-22 is that both sites use the exact same images.
No Contractual Restrictions, Polish Archive Says
So while I could bellyache about the limitations the German system has imposed on family research, the focus here is on the Polish archives. I have great respect for the work that is being accomplished in major Polish cities to preserve the history that is left from their territories. It is commendable. With that being said, let’s focus on the previous FamilySearch response to my inquiry.
FamilySearch strives to obey all laws and restrictions regarding records. The goal is to make records available as widely as possible, within the limits of contracts with record custodians and applicable laws. FamilySearch periodically reviews its contracts and current laws to ensure that we remain compliant. In many cases, such reviews result in images becoming available that were previously unavailable, or in increasing access to images. In some cases, we may determine that a contractual or other legal restriction requires more limited access, such as requiring access in a family history center. When such conditions are found, FamilySearch updates the access to the images accordingly.
The problem with this response? There are NO COPYRIGHT RESTRICTIONS on Polish civil records.
I was combing through different mailing lists in my inbox and stumbled upon someone’s post about FamilySearch. This person wrote the head of the state archives in Warsaw to gain more insight into the situation. Here is the response, translated from Polish:
I do not know the access barriers that you have encountered. Certainly, this is not the copyright you indicated in your speech, because the record archives (civil records) are not protected works, regardless of the fact that archives usually do not have such rights, and even if this is the case – they are not enforceable under the law.
There is also no question of withdrawing the consent of the archives for the provision of microfilms or digital copies, because such consent has never functioned – especially not as a condition for the public availability of this type of information. Despite the stalemate in the negotiations on the new agreement that has been ongoing since 2006, the state archives did not oppose the use of Mormon collections by interested researchers. They expressed reservations about the public availability of record data on the Internet, but did not impede individual searches.
Work on establishing new cooperation rules is underway, but I cannot ensure that they will bring the expected results in the near future. In addition, there are differences between the two sides on the issue of the collection organization model search system, as well as the scope of electronic communication means. At the same time, I am convinced that these are not circumstances that would negatively affect your research into the history of the family.
If you would like to present specific cases in which you encountered access obstacles, I would try to explain what the difficulty is and may also help to remove it. It would be useful in this regard to determine to whom you asked for information, which archives and archival materials were sought, as well as who informed you about the alleged withdrawal of consent to share copies. The Mormon partners cooperate with the Polish state archives in a conscientious manner, however, there could nevertheless be a misunderstanding or distortion of the message.
Chief Director of State Archives
On February 10, I followed up with a FamilySearch chat agent. I probed about contractual agreements and re-negotiations that might have impeded the ability to access locked Pomeranian and Silesian records. I notified them of the letter that was forwarded to me from a fellow Silesian researcher.
I tried to dig even deeper to understand what might be the cause of collections being locked from the public, given that no legal issue exists barring access. I asked if it was possible to get in touch with their legal team to understand what was happening and voice my concern. The agent told me to forward a copy of the letter to them and they would be able to forward it to the proper entities.
The next question was in regards to FamilySearch’s involvement with Ancestry. It is no secret that FamilySearch and Ancestry have partnered up to digitize records. The question at hand is whether Ancestry and FamilySearch have an agreement that if Ancestry helps digitize the collections, FamilySearch will keep them locked. Currently, this explanation is speculation at best, but there is considerable evidence to come to this conclusion. Both would stand to benefit from such an agreement. Ancestry would be able to profit from the added collection. FamilySearch, owned by the Mormons of the LDS Church, would continue to maintain relevance to their Family History Centers, as patrons would have to once again be physically present to view records, despite the move away from microfilm and despite internet access making digital images significantly more accessible worldwide. This hypothesis was neither confirmed nor denied by the chat agent.
After sending the letter from the Polish State Archives, I received an automated response a few days later on February 25.
Thank you for contacting FamilySearch. You expressed your concerns about the inability to view images/information after a search.
We apologize for that. That appears to be a system wide problem. The engineers are working hard on resolving the issue. We do not know when it will be resolved.
We suggest you take the following steps.
- Clear your temporary files and cookies. See Deleting temporary files and cookies from browsers with keyboard shortcuts (53752).
- If the problem persists, try a different browser. Please make sure you have the most current version or the most recent past. FamilySearch no longer support Internet Explorer. Additionally, Edge does not work well with attaching sources.
- Please remember you need to sign in to view the images.
- If the problem still persists, wait a few minutes, and try again.
- If the problem still persists, at home or at the Family History Center, please reply to this email. Please include a screen shot, operating system (OS), collection name and film number.
Thank you for using FamilySearch.
I replied to the email promptly but did not receive any response. On February 26, I followed up through FamilySearch chat once again to make sure my letter was received. I was informed, “Your previous case is set as Researching so it is still in the process of being Researched for an answer.” There was no timeline given for how long it would take for this issue to be resolved, though a note about my follow-up was placed on my case number.
Current Progress and Resolution
So far, no progress have been attained on this homefront. However, as of March 3 (though possibly earlier), there is a new message for users when they try to access a locked collection. Viewers are currently greeted with a generic, nondescript “image unavailable” warning.
March 7, 2019: I reached out again to FamilySearch. I was later emailed this response:
We have been instructed to have you contact the Archivist and ask them to request this. It has to come from the record keeper. You can give them the information for the title and records specifically that you want released but he [sic] could include any others that he [sic] sees when looking at the catalog that he [sic] is over.
It appears that we are still at a standstill in terms of FamilySearch taking an active roll in restoring access to these vital collections. The ball was thrown back in our court, and I have inquired promptly as to why FamilySearch declines to advocate for researchers in our area.
March 11, 2019: I received an email:
It has been suggested to have you scan the letter you have received and attach it to an email through Send a Message under the Contact Us in help. That away it can be sent to our legal department. They are the only ones that can change the status and only deal through email.
The problem with this is that an email was previously sent with the letter as an attachment. This was further confirmed today through FamilySearch’s live chat. I was again notified that it was being researched (so why instruct me to send a copy again?), and there was no time frame for when the research would be completed. I was assured that collections that show an “unavailable” message should still be accessible from a Family History Center. The reason for this change was: “We constantly [sic] changing the way records are handled. The programmers make their decisions on the ease of use.”
When pressed again about the exact same microfilm copies (literally, the exact same scan) being open on Ancestry, I was told: “We as representatives of Family Search are not privy to the agreements between Ancestry and our site.” I asked about an address to direct a letter to for further inquiry.
March 23, 2019: I received further communication on March 13.
We discussed this with a supervisor. The supervisor stated that FamilySearch only published copies of records after gaining permission from the original record custodian (generally a government agency) and faithfully abiding by all of the stipulated conditions and applicable laws.
As of this last update, there has still been no resolution to the problem with viewing records online. They are still inaccessible.
More news will be updated here as it is received. While we are always happy to see volunteers at FamilySearch help move the needle for Pomeranians, we will also continue to seek transparency and consistency with how restrictions are being applied.