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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Michael Clegg, associate director at the Allen County Public Library, points out a few genealogical periodicals.

PERSI scopes out genealogy journals

Index developed at ACPL gets to root of the issue

– In the mid-1980s, Michael Clegg noticed that people using the Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center, which he oversaw, were like fast-food consumers.

“They came in and tried to get as much information as they could get as quickly as they could get it,” Clegg said.

Which was fine, except that the library had a collection of thousands of genealogy periodicals they were ignoring because there was no way to know what the collection contained.

“The people in this quick snatch and grab were missing a lot of material,” he said. “So I thought, ‘The only way they’re going to use it to have an index. So how are we going to do that?”

People who did research before the Internet may remember the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, which indexes major news magazines and journals, creating a subject reference. That let people search hundreds of sources at once for whatever they were interested in, then retrieve only the particular issue of the magazine with the article they needed.

Clegg, now the associate director of the library, wanted to create something similar for all the genealogy publications the library subscribed to, which ranged from polished, national magazines to newsletters mimeographed in someone’s basement. The Allen County Public Library seemed to be the only one in the nation collecting them, and each contained information someone might be looking for, but there was no way to find it.

About the same time, the library created a foundation and received a $60,000 bequest from a woman in Chicago. Library officials decided to use the money to create an index, then sell the index to other libraries to replenish the fund.

So in 1986, “Percy” was born. Technically, the index is PERSI, an acronym for PERiodical Source Index, but under Clegg’s loving care it seems to have taken on a life of its own and is often referred to as if it were Clegg’s offspring.

“When he takes a nap in his office, he wraps up one of the books in a blanket and sleeps with it,” ACPL Director Jeff Krull jokes.

The first volumes were printed as books, and at the same time staff began indexing current periodicals, they also began going backward through the collection. Eventually, they produced about 30 volumes that went from 1996 back to 1847. Then, they began publishing on CD, which dropped the price dramatically – and thus the income – but also made it affordable to individuals and the increase in sales made up for the lower prices.

About the same time, the library began working with what was then a small startup company called Ancestry. Ancestry.com is now a powerhouse in the industry, but PERSI was Ancestry’s first product. Ancestry paid ACPL for the index, then charged its customers for access to it. ACPL used the money to keep the indexing going – which is no small operation, as the library receives about 6,000 different genealogical periodicals and is always looking for more. The index includes another 6,000 or so periodicals that are no longer published but remain in the library’s collection.

“It gives our accounting department fits, because each one of these is an individual subscription,” Krull said. “Most libraries have a limited number of vendors. We have like 15,000 vendors.”

The library’s collection is so big, the index now contains about 2.5 million citations, and ACPL adds about 100,000 more a year.

Eventually, the deal with Ancestry ended, and the library contracted with Heritage Quest. Now that relationship has ended and ACPL is working with Brightsolid, an online publishing firm in the United Kingdom. Not only does the contract keep the index going, but Brightsolid hopes to do something no American firm has been able to do: Link the index to the full text of the article.

Because of copyright laws, providing the article would require getting permission from every publisher, difficult at best. But Clegg said Brightsolid has been able to do it in the United Kingdom and believes it can use its model to do so here. The best part, Krull said, is that Brightsolid does all the work.

Clegg and Krull are proud of PERSI but note the goal is just to provide access to the information the library has in its collection, and anything that does that furthers the library’s mission.

“We are the guide to periodical literature for genealogical history, and family history as well,” Clegg said.

dstockman@jg.net

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