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Unburying the dead: Bringing cemetery records to life

Cemeteries Module Think Tank

Cemeteries are being documented across Ontario often in inconsistent styles and platforms which means users can’t find information easily and efficiently. For example, the Chatham-Kent and Oxford County Public Libraries provide limited access to thousands of grave site records created by community members; the Ontario Ancestors also hosts multiple headstone and cemetery recording projects; and OurDigitalWorld has clients entering or migrating cemetery and headstone data into their VITA Toolkit collections. However, the dense data being captured in these and other projects around Canada and the World are disparate, often unstructured, and sometimes only searchable using browser search options.

Thanks to the Government of Canada’s Department of Canadian Heritage First Spark grant, ODW recently co-hosted a one-day heuristic think tank during which, a group of key genealogical, heritage and community members explored the needs and requirements to consider sustainable systems for capturing and sharing cemetery, headstone, and related genealogical resources.

Canadian Headstones site, Ontario Ancestors

The challenge of the day was to:

Using real life cemetery and gravestone records, private and organizational databases, and other international examples, we analysed and discussed best ways forward to capture local cemetery history and content, identify schema and standards that satisfy stakeholders from different disciplines, and what the development implications are for creating solutions.

There was no expectation of arriving at any single solution, rather the group discussion flowed across many subjects, including data input standards (e.g. geolocation/GPS input), multi-lingual requirements, OCR options (i.e. text recognition from headstone photographs), hierarchical and lateral record linking, crowdsourcing options, increasing search and discovery options, and the challenges of preserving and storing the vast quantity of information generated by these projects.

The conversation helped us recognize a few common themes: that user expectations are for in-and-out access, requiring straightforward search and discovery tools and access to actual data like headstone photos, rather than finding aids; that there are opportunities for encouraging or implementing Linked Open Data mechanisms within systems to help with inter-connectivity and aggregation; and, that most existing systems are databases and websites, not archives, so there is an opportunity for wider discussion about preserving the information at a national level.

Thanks to co-hosts Megan Cowan & Andrea Johnson, Chatham Kent Public Library and Jess Posgate, OurDigitalWorld, and our participants: Steve Fulton & Joe Wilson, Ontario Ancestors; Ryan van Leeuwen, Oxford County Library; Jane MacNamara, cemetery and headstone transcriber; and Walter Lewis, OurDigitalWorld.

We welcome your thoughts, please contact ODW for more information.

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