I recently had a chance to use the world's largest database of images of original French-Canadian genealogy records. You'll have to pardon me if I get enthusiastic. After all, my own ancestry is 50% French-Canadian. Within a few minutes of sitting down at a computer connected to this database, I was able to find many of my ancestors. I suspect I could find all of them within a very few hours. Even though I have researched those ancestors for more than twenty-five years, this new database quickly found numerous records that I had never seen before.
If you have French-Canadian ancestry, you will want to read on. If you are interested in large genealogy databases, you also might want to read the remainder of this article, regardless of where your ancestors lived.
First, a bit of background:
Researching French Canadian ancestry usually is done in a bit different manner from that of researching many other ethnic groups. Generally speaking, the Catholic Church in Canada maintained excellent records of christenings, marriages and funerals. Most of these priests' records have been preserved, and almost all of them from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries have been transcribed and are readily available in many genealogy libraries.
Civil records were also kept but have not been as readily available. The records that genealogists peruse to find English-speaking ancestors in North America are generally not as effective in French-Canadian research. Census records do exist but were not widespread in Canada until 1851. Census returns before 1851 are rarely complete for any geographical area, and most list only the head of each household. In addition, some portions of the 1851 Census have not survived. Tax records are spotty; many have not survived.
Luckily, the Catholic Church's records are excellent. In many ways these records are even better than the various records for other ethnic groups. The transcriptions made by various well-known Canadian researchers (Jetté, Tanguay, Arsenault, and later the Institut Généalogique Drouin) are monumental works. There is but one problem: these transcribed records have a significant error rate. Reading old French handwriting on now-darkened parchment paper that has faded ink can often be baffling to even the world's best experts. These records were typically extracted by skilled experts (often reading the old records by the light of kerosene lanterns or sometimes by candlelight). The handwritten transcriptions were then sent to book publishers, who had typographers read the extractors' handwriting and then set the type by hand to print the pages in these books. More errors were incurred in that process.
Over the years, numerous corrections to the better-known works have been published, but it is believed that many more errors have not yet been discovered. If using copies of the original books, you typically have no access to the tens of thousands of corrections already published.
Many thousands of French-Canadian descendants have compiled extensive genealogy records showing hundreds of ancestors back to the early 1600s, all by using transcribed records and nothing else. As a result, many French-Canadian genealogists have numerous ancestors listed in their family trees that simply are bogus: they are the wrong people! If these same genealogists could only look at the original records, they could prevent most of these errors.
By far the most extensive collection of French-Canadian records is that of the Institut Généalogique Drouin. Some years ago, the late Monsieur Drouin outfitted a number of panel trucks with microfilm cameras and dispatched teams of young historians to make microfilm copies of original records throughout Quebec. These teams also filmed some records in Ontario, Acadia (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island), and even the church records in some places in the United States with significant French-Canadian immigrants, especially northern Maine and Detroit, Michigan. The result was 2,366 rolls of microfilmed records from 1603 through 1942; the exact years vary from one parish to the next.
Employees of the Institut Généalogique Drouin then published the records on microfilm. These publications are available for sale today but are expensive:
The Drouin Internal Files or "Dossiers généalogiques Drouin (notes familiales, historiques et diverses" sells for $15,000.00 Canadian (roughly $12,775 U.S. dollars)
"Québec - Mariages" is published on 32 rolls microfilm and sells for $15,000.00 Canadian (roughly $12,775 U.S. dollars).
The largest collection of all, "Québec, Acadia, West -d'état civil," consists of 2,366 rolls of microfilm and sells for $75,000.00 Canadian (roughly $63,870 U.S. dollars).
Institut Généalogique Drouin also sells printed books of extracted records made from some of these microfilmed records, also at high prices. However, nobody has yet extracted ALL the records in the 2,366 rolls of microfilm. In fact, only a tiny fraction of those records have been extracted so far.
Obviously, only the larger genealogy societies and libraries can afford these microfilms and printed books. The publications of Institut Généalogique Drouin are still under copyright, so they cannot be rented at local LDS Family History Centers. The only method of reading them for most of us to travel to one of the few libraries that can afford to purchase the books and microfilms and make them available for local use.
Institut Généalogique Drouin has recently released digital images of the original microfilms of the records. The 2,366 reels of microfilm have been converted to approximately 3.5 million high-quality digital images and placed on disk drives. The images are in JPEG format; each image is typically 200,000 to 300,000 bytes. As a result, the 3.5 million high-quality images consume a total of 1.5 terabytes of disk space.
For those not familiar with the word "terabyte," I will point out that 1.5 terabytes is 1,500 gigabytes, or one and a half million megabytes. Another method of expressing the same thing is that these images would fill roughly 2,500 CD-ROM disks or more than one million floppy disks.
Let's pause for a second and contemplate the amount of shelf space required to store that many CD-ROM or floppy disks.
I recently had a chance to use all those digital images as they were stored on one hard drive disk array inside one box that was about the size of a breadbox: a cube that measures about one foot on each side. I am not sure how many disk drives were inside the box although it obviously contains more than one drive. The disk array was attached to a file server on an in-house network. There were multiple Windows computers on the same network; each computer can access the information on the disk array. The information is not available outside the building, however.
This huge amount of information is available at the library of the American-Canadian Genealogical Society in Manchester, New Hampshire. I am told that this is the only copy of the Drouin database within the United States although two or three copies are installed at major genealogy centers in Canada. I have not been able to find a list of those Canadian centers, however. Microfilms of these records are more plentiful, although also slower and more difficult to use.
The Institut Généalogique Drouin reportedly does not yet plan to allow this database to be placed on the web although that possibility is often discussed. Until the day when the Institut can either place it on their own web servers or those of a business partner, the only method of using this database is to travel to a library that has a copy of the database or to hire someone to go to that library for you. I exercised the first option and drove to the American-Canadian Genealogical Society (ACGS) in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Unlike the transcribed printed records by Jetté, Tanguay, Arsenault, and others, the Drouin database contains high quality images of the original records: baptism records, marriage records, funeral records, some notarial acts (mostly marriage and pre-nuptial contacts), journals of Catholic missionaries, and a lot of reference materials (old atlases, gazetteers, dictionaries, etc.).
The images have been computer enhanced and are typically much easier to read than the microfilms of the same records. Many scratches and "speckles" on the microfilms have been eliminated on the computer images as a result of these digital enhancements. You can see some sample images at http://acgs.org/research/drouin.html
The Institut Généalogique Drouin supplies only the images. Each library that purchases the database then has to obtain suitable software to display those images to patrons. ACGS uses ACDSee software, an excellent choice in my opinion.
Many words in the old handwriting are difficult to read on microfilms. However, with the ACDSee image viewer, I found it easy to instantly zoom in and out on the digital images to read individual letters within handwritten words. I was able to zoom in to create on-screen images of ten times or twenty-five times that of the original size. It is possible to magnify the image so much that one single letter fills the entire computer screen. Letters are much easier to read at that magnification. Just try that on a microfilm viewer! I also found that I instantly could flip to negative view (white letters on a black background) and back again. The negative view sometimes improves readability.
ACDSee software also allows the user to print images on a local printer in the library. Best of all, I could even save individual images to CD-ROM disks and take the CD disks home with me. I can then later manipulate the images with PhotoShop or GIMP or some similar graphics editing program. I can also enter the images or magnified sections of original records into my genealogy database as source citations. What better source citation can you enter than a magnified image of the original document?
I found the Drouin database with ACDSee file viewer to be easy to use, but preliminary work is required before sitting down at the computer. Keep in mind that the information has never been indexed by name. For instance, there is no method of simply calling up a list of all records for men named Zachary Cloutier. To create a new index will require tens of thousands of labor hours by people who are experts at reading old French handwriting. That isn't going to happen any time soon.
The images at ACGS are arranged first by location (typically by parish), then by year. You have to know where your ancestor lived and at least the approximate year(s) in which to look. In other words, you need to first do some preliminary work with the printed or microfilmed extracted records by Jetté, Tanguay, Arsenault, and others.
You then have to look at the original images for that year, one by one, until you find the information you seek. In most of the smaller parishes, this is not a problem. Smaller churches did not have all that many christenings, marriages, and funerals per year. However, looking at parish records in Quebec City, Montreal, or other locations with larger populations may take some time.
My advice is to do your homework first, then schedule a visit to ACGS in Manchester, New Hampshire, to find the records you seek. The library is open from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM on Wednesdays and Fridays, 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM on Saturdays. Details are available at http://acgs.org/library/.
ACGS charges sliding rate fees for use of the Drouin database. For ACGS members, the price is $5.00 for one hour of computer time if purchased one hour at a time, dropping to one dollar per hour if 80 hours' use is purchased in advance. A dollar an hour is a bargain for access to data of this quality and breadth!
Prices for non-members are exactly double that of members' prices. It doesn't take much time with a calculator to realize that purchasing a membership for $30.00 per year will result in savings for anyone who wishes to use the collection for more than a few hours. Members also receive an excellent quarterly journal and enjoy several other benefits of membership.
I can tell you that I plan to return to the American-Canadian Genealogical Society's library before long, keeping that Drouin database in heavy use!
ACGS also has a research department that will do research for those who cannot travel to Manchester. In fact, having these experts do some research for you might be a bargain even for those who can visit; these experts can sometimes find information quickly, even though it may elude those of us with less expertise. If I get stuck trying to find a particular record, I will quickly pay a few dollars to have one of ACGS' experts find the record for me! Research service prices are shown at http://acgs.org/research.
For more information about the Institut Généalogique Drouin and its many publications, look at http://drouininstitute.com.
For more information about the American-Canadian Genealogical Society in Manchester, New Hampshire, look at http://acgs.org.