On July 29, 1900, Mary Ayres died of consumption in Cincinnati, Ohio. An Irish immigrant who labored as a cook, Mary was 51 years old and a widow. On her official death record, no home address is given. Presumably when the disease set in, she was removed to the city infirmary. We do not know how long she was there, we do not know who comforted her or mourned at her bedside. The consumption (what we now call tuberculosis) may have struck her quickly or lingered in her body for months or years. What we do know is that Mary Ayres was prepared for burial by the Gilligan Funeral Home and laid in her grave at the New St. Joseph’s Cemetery, located in Cincinnati’s Price Hill neighborhood. In 1900, Old St. Joseph’s was primarily a German burial ground. New St. Joseph’s included the Irish.
These details about the death of a working-class immigrant may seem like a tiny bit of local history. But the card on which Mary Ayres’s details are printed is one of more than 500,000 birth and death records that have been digitized by the University of Cincinnati Libraries. Ranging from 1865 to 1912 and representing the city’s earliest official birth and death records, these cards hold the key to understanding an urban community’s demographics through its citizens, its neighborhoods, its health issues, and its occupations. The key unlocks a treasure house of community life. By digitizing and creating metadata for the cards, the UC Libraries have provided access to primary source documents that are important not only for academic endeavors, but for public research as well.
The birth and death records were added to the collections of UC’s Archives and Rare Books Library in 2003 through Ohio’s Local Government Records Program. Copied from deteriorated ledgers made by the city’s Health Department, the cards are either typed or handwritten. Over the decades they have been used primarily by family historians. Physical access and reference use were problematic. The ledgers are also housed at UC, but their fragility precludes any handling. Flaking and tearing would be the result of even a gentle effort at turning pages. In fact, when the volumes were first moved to the Archives and Rare Books Library in the 1970s, many pages already had pieces missing from them. The cards have become the accepted legal records.
In 2009, the library was awarded a $140,437 digitization grant through the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA), administered by the State Library of Ohio and funded through the Institute of Museum and Library Services. UC Libraries digitized the records and in partnership with OhioLINK will make them freely available over the internet. Access will be greatly expanded beyond genealogy use. Urban studies scholars, epidemiologists, social historians, and public health officials will be able to research this body of original documents easily and effectively. Indeed, an important part of the grant project is to make the records accessible to the general public.
The birth records include name, birth date, race, gender, name and birthplace of the parents, occupation of the father, attending doctor or midwife, and hospital, if the individual was not born at home. The information on the death record provides name, age, date and cause of death, address (if available), occupation, race, gender, marital status, attending physician, funeral home, and place of burial. Each piece of information has been indexed to accommodate multiple research strategies. For instance, if one keys in the word “consumption,” the result will show everyone who died of that disease. The search can be narrowed even further to those who were born in Ireland, Germany, or any other country. To augment the data, UC Libraries have also provided a link to a glossary of medical terms in use during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Any of the index terms can be combined. If a researcher wishes to find all female children named “Smith” born between 1875 and 1900, the database will provide results. Or, a search can be restricted to the children of parents born in another country who follow a particular occupation and are a specific race.
The scanning part of the project was completed in August 2010, and the loading of the records and metadata continues. The Archives and Rare Books Library has received approximately 3,000 inquiries annually about these records, but we anticipate the figure will jump as high as 300,000 when the full set is available. For more information on this project, and to view the currently loaded records,visit Cincinnati Birth and Death Records.
Kevin Grace is head of the University of Cincinnati Archives and Rare Books Library.