For about eight months now, I have been a volunteer transcriptionist of early Canadian Quaker documents. I am one of perhaps twenty people (scattered from Arizona to Alberta to Toronto to New York) who became involved with this time-consuming, eye-straining work.
The early settlers of Ontario were refugees from the U.S., driven north because of their loyalty to King George during the American Revolution. It was estimated (by Ben Franklin, I believe) that in 1775 approximately 1/3 of the population of the colonies favored independence from England. Another 1/3 would have checked the “no opinion” box, and the rest remained loyal to The Crown. Quakers, being strongly opposed to war of any kind and being folks who generally did not rock boats, were seen as loyal by the hawks (some of whom were all too eager to confiscate Loyalists’ farms). The accusation was Bush-like: If you’re not with us, you’re with the Loyalists. By the late 1700s, these displaced Quakers were arriving on the north shore of Lake Ontario, clearing land, building homes and meeting houses, and writing “minutes” which recorded their Quaker lives.
They wrote in the elegant (though sometimes palsied) script of the day, using capital letters willy-nilly and completely omitting punctuation. They wasted no paper. Spelling was phonetic: the word “quota” appears as five or six variations ranging from cota to quoto, for example. But they wrote about some of my ancestors, and so with eyes straining at my computer screen split between Word and Jasc Paint Shop Pro I pecked away. It was a labor of love.
I transcribed for selfish reasons, certainly, but I also did it for others. I loved to refer “cousins” to the website where the transcribed work was being posted. People thousands of miles from Ontario were thrilled with the glimpses of their ancestry we were providing, and as time passes, future generations will also be thankful for the preservation of these records.
This weekend we transcribers learned that the Canadian Yearly Meeting (CYM), the owners of the original documents, stepped back from their originally stated position of complete willingness to share our work. Born of paranoia (someone once used information provided by CYM for personal gain, without crediting CYM…), CYM announced that complete, unfettered access to the online transcriptions would NOT be the case. Yes, they will be posted, but not in a format that is user-friendly for the average genealogy researcher. Copyright concerns were the expressed justification for this change of heart. Ironically, Quakers do not use the court system and would presumably not mount any legal challenge to a perceived copyright infringement.
One person, writing for CYM, explained that we are not dealing with HISTORICAL documents, but rather with RELIGIOUS documents. How convenient to wave religion as justification for one’s point of view. Sure, your original documents may be considered a part of your religion, but as I see it, my transcriptions of them are historical documents. If I had thought I was simply doing the work of a religion, I would never have volunteered.
No one “owns” history. The family information in the transcriptions created by this small band of volunteers belongs in the public domain. Most of us who have labored to preserve these two-hundred-year-old documents are not Friends (though we have become friends). There are varying degrees of discontent or acceptance of CYM’s new stance. I personally hope CYM comes to its senses.
I really don’t want to quit this project.
Note: Originally published June 12, 2006