05 April 2013

An Open Letter to the ELCA Archives

To the archivist:

I am grateful that greater access to the microfilmed copies of Evangelical Church in America [ELCA] church records has been made through the ELCA's agreement with Archives.com.

As a professional genealogist and a descendant of many immigrant Lutheran ancestors to the United States, I do have concerns with how these records are being made available to the public. I realize that these concerns may not violate the terms of any agreement between Archives.com and the ELCA, but they are concerns that I feel have not been adequately addressed.

It is not possible on the Archives.com website to "browse the records." One has to search by specific name and, if the name was difficult to read or transcribed incorrectly, searching is difficult. Many early American Lutherans did not speak English as their native language and many pastors of denominations that were predecessors of the ELCA were not native English speakers or writers. Being forced to think what the handwriting looked like and how it might have been read makes searching difficult.

It is not possible on the Archives.com website to determine what records are available for what churches or what time periods those records cover. If I cannot find a record for a relative born in 1893, I do not know if the records have a gap in coverage or if I am simply not searching for the name in the "right way."

I realize that some of these issues may have stemmed from the original microfilming, but the ability to "browse by roll" of film would go a long way to alleviate these issues [note-this sentence was not in my original letter to the ELCA archivist]

The inability to perform specific wildcard searches is another hindrance as well. If I am incorrect and these features are buried somewhere within the site, I would appreciate having that pointed out to me.

With ancestral families who attended several Lutheran churches in Illinois and Nebraska and as a member of an ELCA congregation myself, I was excited to hear about the release of these records. As a professional genealogist and one who wished to use these records, I am disappointed in the way that they have been made available to the public.

Michael John Neill

I encourage anyone else who may be frustrated by these records to visit the ELCA Archives page at: http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/History/ELCA-Archives.aspx and express your concerns. I have no problem with paying for access--that's not the issue.