The War of 1812 Pension Records are perhaps the most at-risk documents in America.
Over 100 years old and full of invaluable genealogical and historical information, these last vestiges of America's "second revolution" are so heavily used they're rapidly deteriorating.
It's a plight of precious historical collections around the county. Many institutions are struggling to make the historical content of these record sets accessible without permanently damaging the documents themselves.
Those faces with such challenges should take not of the War of 1812 Digitization Project. The group has taken an effective approach to solving this problem: Their digitization efforts have simultaneously increased access to the valuable content and helped preserve the physical documents from deterioration.
The price of popularity
The War of 1812 Pension Records are among the most heavily requested items at the National Archives, and it's not hard to see why.
Military pension records are extremely valuable to genealogists - they often contain detailed narratives of the soldier's service, as well as names of next of kin, widows (including their maiden names), marriage dates and more. Many of the War of 1812 pension applications contain letters from witnesses, newspaper clippings and other pieces of evidence of service.
One of the keys to success has been the project's effective fundraising approach.
Historians working to preserve the memory of soldiers who fought in America's most forgotten war find this collection essential. The documents are also valuable for historians to assess the evolution of the America's relationship with veterans - still an important issue today.
But as many have benefited from the 7.2 million pages in 180,000 pension records, the documents themselves have suffered greatly from constant handling.
A damaged Pension Record
Fortunately the War of 1812 Digitization Project is now more than half way to addressing both sides of this difficult dilemma - how can we save the pensions while maintaining access to their content?
Finding a feasible solution
The solution is simple, yet seemingly impossible at the same time: Digitize the pension records.
Digitizing the War of 1812 Pension Records allows anyone with internet the ability to access the records for free, and leaves the paper documents free to enjoy a nice, well-deserved retirement.
The rub - proper digitization is expensive for large record sets. The digitization is done with digital cameras and light stands, according to professional industry standards. Metadata is added to the images so they're able to be retrieved, and all files are stored on a secure server that is accessible to the public for free.
The dollar for dollar matches amplify the effect of contributions from individual people and genealogy societies.
The really amazing thing about the project is their approach to raising the funds to make it all happen. At 45 cents per page, the cost for saving these documents will be well over $3 million dollars.
The group's creative approach has drummed up support simultaneously from the bottom-up and the top-down, providing a unique fundraising blueprint that relies on contributions from public individuals and private companies.
Ancestry.com has agreed to match contributions dollar for dollar, and the Federation of Genealogical Societies routinely offers matching incentives as well. These matches help amplify the power of small individual donations.
For instance, this year at RootsTech, FGS agreed to match dollar for dollar if individual donations surpassed $5,000. After raising $5,222, FGS' match brought the total to $10,445. With Ancestry's match, $20,891 in total was raised at the conference.
The approach of larger organizations matching a robust grassroots fundraising campaign is paying off - the project just saw the 4 millionth image digitized - 59% of all the records.
One of the most impressive things about the success of this project is that it requires minimal use of tax dollars.
There are billions of valuable pages out there that need to be digitized or they will be lost forever - if we're going to save them, it's going to require efforts like these to get it done. Hopefully many others will emulate the success of this project.