Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Surviving an Avalanche of Genealogical Data

I belong to a rather exclusive club of those who have survived being carried down a mountainside in an real avalanche. So I know first-hand how it feels to be swept along at high speed and be completely out of control. I am also in a position to know, first hand, about the avalanche of genealogical data that is sweeping all of us down my present metaphorical mountain.

I survived my real avalanche experience due, in small part, to some advance knowledge and preparation. But I am not yet sure if I am going to survive the information avalanche or anyone else will either.

Most people do what all sensible mountain climbers do when faced with an avalanche danger, they stay out of the mountains. Most genealogists do exactly the same thing: they ignore the reality of the amount of available information and spend their time picking at the sides of the flow or standing in valley and watching it from a distance.

OK, enough of that analogy and its metaphors. Whether we like it or not or even realize it, we are daily being presented with a huge amount of newly digitized genealogically pertinent data online. But that newly digitized data is only a small part of the huge collections waiting to be added to the pile. I was talking to one of my friends yesterday (yes I do have one or two friends left after writing online for years) about the U.S. National Archives and all its branch archives around the country. Like any other government agency, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration keeps track and reports about its holdings. Unfortunately, they only report from time to time and the current report is now six years old and dates back to 2010. But even this antiquated report can give us an idea of what they have and what has been digitized. I realized that one way to get an overall idea of the data avalanche was to take a snapshot of one of the largest information institutions in the world: the United States Government.

The statistics from the U.S. National Archives are on linked on a webpage entitled, "Statistical Summary of Holdings." I pick on this one archive for two reasons. One, the U.S. National Archives is huge and two, they do a miserable job of making all their stuff available. What do the archive statistics show?

Before looking at the data and to understand what the statistics are saying, you need to refer to a page of abbreviations (really acronyms) called, "Abbreviations Used in the Statistical Summary of Holdings." This points out an interesting point. Many people visualize the National Archives as the building in Washington, D.C. with the Declaration of Independence. This list, however, paints an entirely different picture.

Units of the Office of Records Services--Washington, DC

NWCT1 Textual Archives Services Division--Archives I
NWCT2 Textual Archives Services Division--Archives II
NWCS-C Cartographic and Architectural Records
NWCS-M Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Records
NWCS-S Still Picture Records
NWL Center for Legislative Archives
NWC Access Programs
NWME Electronic and Special Media Records Services

Units of the Office of Regional Records Services

NR Office of Regional Records Services
NRABA National Archives and Records Administration - Northeast Region (Boston)
NRAN National Archives and Records Administration - Northeast Region (New York City)
NRBPA National Archives and Records Administration - Mid Atlantic Region (Center City Philadelphia)
NRCAA National Archives and Records Administration - Southeast Region
NRDA National Archives and Records Administration - Great Lakes Region (Chicago)
NREKA National Archives and Records Administration - Central Plains Region (Kansas City)
NRFFA National Archives and Records Administration - Southwest Region
NRGDA National Archives and Records Administration - Rocky Mountain Region
NRHLA National Archives and Records Administration - Pacific Region (Laguna Niguel)
NRHSA National Archives and Records Administration - Pacific Region (San Francisco)
NRIA National Archives and Records Administration - Pacific Alaska Region (Anchorage)
NRISA National Archives and Records Administration - Pacific Alaska Region (Seattle)
Other Units of the National Archives and Records Administration
NL Office of Presidential Libraries
NLDDE Dwight D. Eisenhower Library
NLFDR Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
NLGB George Bush Presidential Library
NLGRF Gerald R. Ford Library
NLHH Herbert Hoover Library
NLHST Harry S. Truman Library
NLJC Jimmy Carter Library
NLJFK John F. Kennedy Library
NLLBJ Lyndon B. Johnson Library
NLMS Presidential Materials Staff
NLRNS Richard Nixon Library
NLRNS Richard Nixon Library - College Park
NLRR Ronald Reagan Library
NLWJC William J. Clinton Presidential

Affiliated Archives

USMAU.S. Military Academy, West Point
USNAU.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis

For those of you genealogists out there who are experienced in "working in the National Archives," how may of you have visited all of these facilities and done research in each one? Do you realize that each of these branches has its own unique records?

Now to the numbers. Oh, before we get to the numbers we need to recognize that the records are held in "Record Groups." Here is a list of the Record Groups.

Record Groups 001 - 100
Record Groups 101 - 200
Record Groups 201 - 300
Record Groups 301 - 400
Record Groups 401 - 500
Record Groups 501 - 581

The links for each record group will take you to the webpage for the statistics for that group and there is more.

Alphabetic Index of Donated Materials Groups
Statistical Summary of Donated Materials Collections

One other thing I need to mention, all of the statistics from the National Archives are in cubic feet of records, not the number of individual records. How may records are there in one cubic foot of records? Here is the answer from the National Archives.
The quantity of records in the custody of each unit.
  • The quantity of paper-formatted textual records is expressed in cubic feet only.
  • The quantity of microfilmed textual records is expressed both in cubic feet and in items (number of microfilm rolls, according to size and polarity; number of microfiche cards).
  • The quantity of nontextual records is expressed both in cubic feet and in items appropriate to each medium.
  • The quantity of artifacts is expressed both in cubic feet and in items.
Now do you really expect me to add up all of the numbers? Well, I am not going to. But I can give you an example of one tiny part of the list in one tiny section of the National Archives.

0015 Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs
TOTAL: 82,094.647 cu. ft. 246,570 items

By the way, these records are summarized as follows:
A record is evaluated. The creator of a record proposes to the National Archives how long it should be kept. Some records are destroyed (for example, a receipt for the purchase of pencils), while others are kept permanently in the National Archives (such as executive orders). Records schedules are set up to determine how long all Federal records are to be kept by the Government. Only 1–3% of all records are kept permanently, but the total number of documents in the National Archives number in the billions, and the number keeps growing.
How many of these records are available online? The list is actually available and is current as of January 11, 2016 on the page entitled, "Microfilm Publications and Original Records Digitized by Our Digitization Partners." The actual number of digital records is a vanishingly small percentage of the total number of records but the list is very long.

Now, think about it. This is just one archive. There are hundreds of archives across the United States and thousands around the world. There are tens of thousands of libraries, universities and colleges with record collections. There are thousands of private collections of documents. There are billions upon billions of records online and more going on each day. 

When you are in an avalanche, can you really say you have looked at every snowflake? Please do not tell me you have searched everywhere for your ancestors. You have no idea how many records there are in the world, much less the United States. 

Can we survive? Well, the answer is yes as long as we don't get hung up on riding along at high speed. Perhaps I can help and maybe those who think they know it all can take a step back and admit that they are just barely able to focus on one small part of the total number of records and get on with doing more research. Perhaps, the next time you hire someone to do "research for you in the National Archives (or anywhere else for that matter) you realize that they are probably only talking about the main Washington, D.C. facility and would need more money and more time to search everywhere else. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Comments on the Changing Times of Genealogy

Our main focus as genealogists is information. We gather, evaluate, disseminate and store information. It seems to me that if what we are doing is working with information, we should be very much involved in the technological changes involving manipulating and working with our subject matter. In other words, we should be actively embracing the information revolution.

Current online and computer technology is part of what is now referred to as the "Information Revolution." Quoting from the University of Missouri article entitled, "The Information Revolution:"
The Information Revolution is a phrase we use to refer to the dramatic changes taking place during the last half of the 20th century in which service jobs (ranging from high technology, highly skilled professions to low-skill jobs like short-order cook) are more common than jobs in manufacturing or agriculture. The product of skilled professionals is the information or knowledge they provide.
I am perfectly familiar with selling information. I was hired by thousands of clients who paid me for what I knew. All I ever produced were words and ideas; hundreds of thousands of pages of the stuff and years of speaking.

Now I find myself immersed in the very narrow and specialized area of genealogical information. What I see is that that genealogist are "way behind the curve" in adopting and adapting to the new technology. Part of what I write about in this blog is how the new technology is evolving and how the changes in that technology impact genealogy and genealogists. It is not just important to use the technology: it is also important to understand how it is affecting and will affect what we do as genealogists. I am often reminded of the the Bob Dylan song that I have quoted before, "The Times They are a Changin'"
Come gather 'round peopleWherever you roamAnd admit that the watersAround you have grownAnd accept it that soonYou'll be drenched to the boneIf your time to youIs worth savin'Then you better start swimmin'Or you'll sink like a stoneFor the times they are a-changin'
I realize that the context of the song has changed dramatically, the message is the same. We either keep up with the changes, in this case, technological changes, or we lose out and metaphorically, sink like a stone.

Because of my technological background, I am constantly seeking a faster and more efficient way to do my work. Over the past two years, with the fastest Internet connection in the country, Google Fiber, and now one of the fastest computers available at a reasonable price, I have been looking to streamline my information handling methodology to match the technology. My attention has focused on three devices (all Apple by the way): my iPhone, my relatively newly acquired iPad Pro and now my very new iMac.

Part of my focus has been on integrating online resources into my work flow to avoid moving paper as much as possible. Ideally, I would like to go from original source documents, through all the steps of analysis and evaluation to integrating the newly discovered information into my database without once touching paper (unless the original is on paper or whatever).

Why is paper a problem? That question addresses the crux of the issues involved. In our existence on earth, we find ourselves in a web of family relationships. For thousands of years communication has been limited to people being present or the written word. Today, after a hundred years or so of technological development. I can sit at my desk and essentially write to the entire world in an instant. If I were limited to writing on paper, that could never happen. It would take a huge production and distribution industry for me to be heard.

Now match that with genealogy. Genealogists, until very recently, worked on "their" family. That concept has now changed. We now work on "our" family. There is no "my" family or "your" family. We are all part of one huge world family and the technology lets us see and experience those worldwide relationships instantaneously. But for the most part, the genealogists do not grasp this expansive view of our interrelationship. They still have their noses firmly glued to paper or what is worse, its electronic equivalent. So far, genealogical processes and methodologies have been focused almost entirely on reproducing paper technology. We need to start swimming in the world of online, completely collaborative, expansive and progressive technology and stop trying reproduce our paper world in a digitized format.

Here is one example concerning the genealogical work flow. In searching for information on a specific ancestor, I identify a place where that ancestor lived or some other event occurred. I begin to search for possible source documents that may have originated at or near the time my ancestor lived in a specific location or the event occurred. With those limitations in mind, I begin to sweep online and in catalogs to locate anything that might relate to that date and place. I then begin to methodically review every single source of every kind that might contain the information I am seeking.

On a very local and personal basis, I can go to the section of the Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library and search the shelves, looking at each of the books and pulling everything that might be relevant for inspection. When I did this recently, I found a book that had transcribed the court records of one of my ancestor's probate case. I walked over to a table with the book and pulled out my iPhone and took a photo of each of the pages where there was information about my family. I also took a photo of the cover and title page of the book. I then used the iPhone to upload the images to my Google Drive account. Google has 1 Terabyte of storage for free. When I got home, I downloaded the images from the Google Drive and then created a source citation in the Family Tree program and uploaded a copy of the information in the probate file to the Memories program. That information then formed the basis for adding a source citation to that ancestor's Detail page.

The key here was the ability to move the images of the book pages to the "Cloud" or Google Drive directly from the camera (my iPhone) to my computer and then into the Family Tree. This is the type of methodology I have been focusing on. In a true sense, the information that was locked up in a few copies of that book has been liberated and is now part of an online stream that can be viewed, evaluated and integrated by anyone in my family who cares or is interested.

Part of this process is severely limited by the availability of online, digitized sources. Obviously, if I had the probate files available online, there would be no need for the trip to the Library or searching the stacks. There are background issues of file format, file size, data transfer speeds, file quality transferability and other issues, but these are some of the same issues we have with all online files.

What makes this possible is the ability to move information digitally. But at every step of this process, we have impediments to moving the information. We have genealogists who claim ownership to their jointly held family information, we have governments that limit our ability to gather information about families. We have prejudice and other issues that block us from gathering information and we have a whole world that seems determined to destroy our families and prevent us from finding our information. We cannot own information we can only try to control it. We can persecute those who want it. We can destroy records but we have no real ownership over information. Why then do we, as genealogists, think we own the information about our families?

Right now, information about my ancestors, my part of the human family, is spread all over the world in bits and pieces. The real effect of the information revolution is that more and more I am able to find and incorporate all those bits and pieces into an organized whole that can then be viewed, corrected, analyzed, evaluated and disseminated to everyone.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Note on the Copyright Issue

In my last post, I quoted a restriction I found on a book in the Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library. Here is the quote again for reference.
No part of the publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means whatsoever, whether electronic, mechanical, magnetic recording or photocopying, without prior written approval of the Copyright holders, excepting brief quotes for inclusion in book reviews. Privately printed in the United States of America.
As an afterthought, I decided it might be helpful to point out some of the reality of making a statement such as this. First of all, the book was nothing more or less than a direct transcription of old mid-1800s Vermont probate files. There was nothing added, no comments, to explanations, nothing. There is now question that once a work is in the public domain, there is no way you can impose your own copyright claim on the once-public domain work. The word "work" in copyright law includes this book. See Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code, Circular 92 Chapter 1: 101. For an excellent summary of the entire copyright law see Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.

The next, more serious issue is that the statement made in this book is inaccurate, misleading and just plain wrong. The Doctrine of Fair Use cannot be abrogated by a written provision in the publication. Taken literally, this provision would not allow you to read the book. Arguably, your brain is a retrieval system. This is type of ignorant overreaching that gives researchers fits and gives copyright law an even worse reputation than it already has.

Just so there is no misunderstanding. The book is nothing more than a copy of a public domain document. There is no legal argument at all that would produce copyright coverage for this book.

When will genealogy move into the 21st Century?

So far, technology has had little impact on genealogical research. We are still well mired in a paper-based mentality and embroiled in archaic methodology. We like to pat ourselves on the back because we take advantage of digitized records, but then we treat those records as if they were paper and create digital forms that duplicate what we have been doing since time immemorial. Paper is two dimensional and our digital forms mimic their dimensionality. 

This fact was brought home by a simple question posed to me last night and some time I spent looking at books. A patron came into the Brigham Young University Family History Library and asked me how to represent that some German children had been adopted by their grandparents using the Family Tree. I immediately showed him how the program would allow the user to designate the relationship of a child as biological, adopted, guardianship, step or foster. In this case, during the wars in Europe, these children had been born out of wedlock and there was no record of their fathers' identities. Accordingly, the children were "adopted" into the family by the parents of the daughters with out-of-wedlock babies, i.e. their grandparents. This whole relationship was completely obscured by the program. No one looking at the program, unless they looked very carefully at the type of relationship, would know of the circumstances. When the child was listed as an adopted child of the grandparents, the Family Tree had a warning message that said that the child was born after the mother (now the adopted grandmother) could have children. 

Today, we have very three dimensional families. We have couples with children from several different marriage relationships and many where marriage was not an option. There are a few programs that try to represent these "non-traditional" family relationships in innovative ways, but then the innovation is lost as soon as the data is loaded into one of the online family trees or shared with someone who does not use the same program. 

If I move to, I have even more options to categorize the relationship of the children: biological, adopted, step, foster, related, guardian, private and unknown. What is a "private" relationship? How do I represent that parent-child relationship if I move my data to the Family Tree?  Why am I faced with a loss of data if I move the information from one program to another?

This example deals with some Western European relationships. If I move to another culture in a non-European setting, I will see even more anomalies in the representation of the data. If I come from one of these countries and use the online and desktop programs, I am forced into the European relationship mold.

Now, my second experience. Last night at the Library, I was doing some research into one of my New England ancestors with a fairly common name. I ran out of online sources and found a reference to a book that might have helped me with my genealogy. I went to the Social Sciences section of the Library downstairs from the Family History Library section and began searching for the book. That book did not turn out to be helpful, but as I mechanically searched through the books on the shelves, I found several books of interest. In fact, I found a book containing the probate record for my ancestor. The book had the following notice:
No part of the publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means whatsoever, whether electronic, mechanical, magnetic recording or photocopying, without prior written approval of the Copyright holders, excepting brief quotes for inclusion in book reviews. Privately printed in the United States of America.
Hmm. According to this notice, I could not copy down the information about my ancestor's probate with a piece of paper and a pencil without violating the authors' copyright claims. What good is all these authors' work to me or anyone else. Why does the Library keep a copy of this book if it cannot be used for any purpose except a book review? Why write a genealogically valuable book and then tell everyone not to use the information? Exactly. 

Perhaps you can see that these are both the same problem. We make an effort to extract and store information and then make it impossible to share what we find. Whether this occurs as a result of lack of communication between computer programs, a design flaw that obscures valuable genealogical information or an overly broad claim of copyright, all of these issues put us back in the medieval days when books were chained to their shelves and only the rich and powerful could read them. 

You don't own your ancestors and yet you cannot use the information found by your own relatives or stored about your own family because of archaically inappropriate restrictions. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Critically examining a Will -- Genealogical Viewpoint -- More about Will Language

As I have observed previously, it amuses me to see people adding ancestors to their family tree before about 1500 A.D. I suspect that there is a very limited amount of actual research that has been done. Few of the entries I see have any source references to documents or books that would date back to this time period. In addition, few people recognize the linguistic and orthographic challenges of doing research into manuscripts from this early time period.

To start this discussion, it is important to have a general knowledge of the history of the English Language. It is also important to remember that many ecclesiastical and even civil documents were written in Latin as late as the 17th Century. English is most commonly divided into three general time periods; Old English, Middle English and Modern English. All of the other modern languages spoken in Europe (an for the rest of the world for that matter) can also be divided into distinct time periods based on linguistic change but I am focusing on English because of our English Common Law heritage in the United States.

In addition to Old English and Latin, the inhabitants of the British Isles spoke a language that is referred to as Anglo-Norman or French beginning with the Norman Conquest in 1066. French was dominant in the ruling classes into the 14th Century (remember that the 14th Century is the 1300s etc.). Here is an English Language Timeline. The earliest Old English inscriptions date from about 450 to 480 A.D. Some of the oldest Middle English manuscripts date from about 1150 A.D. Henry IV became the first English-speaking monarch since the Conquest.

What does this mean for genealogists? Modern English or New English began in the late 14th Century and was roughly understandable by modern English speakers in the mid-16th Century. Modern English is dated from a linguistic phenomena called the "Great Vowel Shift." See "What is the Great Vowel Shift?" As genealogists, we may not be overly concerned with how these earlier forms of English sounded, but we need to realize that they had a profound effect on vocabulary and orthography.

Here are examples of the three phases of English.

Old English

Medieval Manuscript composed in the 11th Century
Middle English

From the first page of Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Tale
Here is another example of a Middle English manuscript from the 15th Century.

A page from a fifteenth-century Middle English manuscript.
A page from British Library MS Cotton Caligula A.ii, in which Middle English tales of Libeaus Desconus, Sir Launfal and Saint Patrick's Purgatory are also found

Beginning Modern English

Titlepage and dedication from a 1613 King James Bible, printed by Robert Barker.
When genealogists venture into the world of old manuscripts for wills and probate actions, they soon find themselves embroiled in the issues of language and writing changes. 

Here is a continued example of the transcription of the will I quoted in the first post in this series.

In the name of God Amen ye 11 day of April in ye year of
thirty fourth year of ye reign of o'r Soverereign L'd Charles ye second by ye grace
of God of England Scotland ffrance & Ireland King Defender of ye ffaith £c
& in ye year of o'r l'd God 1682 I John Walton ye elder of ye p'sh of
Kirtlington in ye County of Oxon yeoman do mak being very sick &
weake but in perfect memory do make & ordaine this my last will
& testam't in manner & forme following first I bequeath my soul
into ye hands of God my maker & my body to be buried in my p'sh
curchyard Item I give to my three daughters Margaret Dorothy &
Anne ten pounds a peece to be paid to each of them at illegible
Michaelmas next ensuing ye date hereof. Item I give to my wife
Judith my best cow, & my heifer. Item I give to my son Abraham to
five pounds to be paid at Michaelmas next ensuing ye date hereof. Item
I give to my wife Judith all ye corne now growing upon ye land belonging
to her. Item I make my illegible sons John & Abraham Joint Executors
of this my last will & testament, & w'ch goods I hav & mony I have to be
equally divided amongst betweene them, after ye five p'ds given to Abraham
is deducted & ye other Legacies
Witness my hand and seale ye day and
year above written
John Walton

Sealed and delivered in ye
presence of
Richard Tabor
Robart Slaughter
Thomas Walton

Probat' ... 15'o die Julij Anno D'ni 1682
cor' ..................................
.......... per jur'to Joh'is Filij .... Ex'torum
(resta? p'tate alteri) Cui comissa fuit ...........

The language of this will dates to the time of transition between Middle English and a more modern variety. When you get to this level of research, it is time to get out dictionaries. I will get into explaining the language and the law in subsequent posts in this series. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Observations on libraries with some implications to genealogy

The Pew Research Center issued a report on a study on Libraries and Learning posted on April 7, 2016. I think the post has some interesting observations on the current trends in library's usage in the United States, but I think the findings also add some very interesting implications for genealogy and genealogists. My attention was drawn to this topic and the Pew study from reading an article in the Brigham Young University school newspaper, The Universe, dated May 17, 2016 entitled "BYU students checking out fewer books as electronic reading options rise."

The BYU Universe article observed,
Twenty-eight percent of Americans didn’t read a single book in the last year. More then 50 percent didn’t take one step into a library, according to Pew Research. 
Compare that to about three hours spent by the average person watching television or movies and nearly five hours spent using cell phones each day. 
Library usage rates continue to drop across America, including at BYU. The checkout rate last year was about 40 percent less than what it was in 2009, according to the library’s website.
The article reports that the BYU Libraries now have almost 3 million books online. As an interesting side note, even though I volunteer in the Library, I am only allowed to check out "paper" books. I do not have access to the online collections unless I access them in the Library. Even if I were to become a "Benefactor" of the University Library and donate at least $1000 a year, I could still not check out ebooks from the BYU Library. Circulation of ebooks is limited to employees and students.

This example points out a very interesting issue with Libraries across the country. They are all jurisdictionally and geographically restrictive. This is natural because the libraries derive their support from the local community and so restrict their collections to the local community, just as is done by BYU. They are also face the monumental restrictions imposed by copyright laws.

This said, they also fail to recognize that they are in competition with online digital book suppliers. Suppose I wanted access to the BYU Library ebook collection and had $1000 a year to donate. Why would I do this just to read ebooks? I might donate for other reasons, but if I wanted to read ebooks, I could get access to many online ebook services for far less than my donation to BYU. For example, Kindle Unlimited gives you access to over a million books for $10.00 a month.

Now to genealogy. Genealogists are subject to the same limitations and market forces as the general population. As I have been writing recently, my own observations are that genealogical researchers use few books. There are exceptions, but they are not common. There are some large online collections of genealogically significant books, but each of the collections has its limitations. It is also unlikely that a researcher would sit down and read a book from cover to cover just on the chance that it had some mention of an ancestor. The most significant advance in this area is the initiative started by to add almost a half a million genealogically relevant books to its advanced search capabilities.

I do not see fee-based systems as a problem. What I do see as a problem is that the fragmentation and restrictions imposed by those who are digitizing the books makes them hard to use with the exception of the initiative started by The courts in the United States have made some small inroads into making this vast amount of information available by ruling in favor of in its book efforts, but I still see the general population turning away from libraries and books simply because they are not as conveniently available as other forms of entertainment and reading. I am aware of many people who have moved entirely to reading books online. Articles, such as the BYU Universe article always quote someone who "loves to use paper books." But this is a cop-out. If so many people love paper books, why aren't they going to libraries to check them out? The answer is one word: convenience.

Some more examples from the genealogy world. has a big collection of digital books. I just checked and they have digitized 279,467 as of today. But their collection is neither visible on the website nor is it easy to use. It is also not integrated into a search for sources in the Historical Record Collections. My experience is that very few users of the website even know of its existence.

Another example. How many digital genealogy books are on the website? After searching in the card catalog, the best number I can come up with is 23,537. If you are looking for an ancestor on have you searched the books? Did you know they existed? Have you added a book source to one of your ancestors? If you look closely at the list of "books" however, you will discover that some (many?) of the "books" are actually indexes to books and the books themselves are not available.

Are the local libraries in your community making it easier for you to gain access to their collections online? Or are they like the Utah Pioneer Digital Library here locally with fewer books than the average high school library for an entire state?

The challenges: fragmentation, lack of availability, copyright and other restrictions, inconvenience, and many others.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Challenge of Innovation and Change in the Genealogical Community

People, in general, do not adjust well to changes. Over the past few years, the genealogical community has finally adopted some of the major developments in technology. In addition, they are faced, with the rest of the world, with dramatic changes in the basic social fabric of our society. Resistance to these changes is not only evident in the older segments of the genealogical community but are more than evident at all age levels and in all of those, even the developers and companies involved.

This reminds me of my re-entry into full-time participation in my law practice. While I was very much involved in my law practice, I also began to be involved in a number of computer businesses starting about in 1982.  Later, in 1992, for a period of about six years, I "retired" from actively practicing law and ran some computer-oriented businesses, including a computer store, a graphic design company and a software development company. Ultimately, I returned to the full-time practice of law at a larger law firm with approximately 20+ attorneys.

In 1998 when I returned to full-time law practice, my life had changed considerably. I had spent a tremendous amount of time involved in computers, I had become a certified computer technician for multiple companies including Apple and Hewlett Packard, I had helped publish several software products for the Macintosh computer market and had been involved in teaching computer information systems at a college level.

Between 1982 and 1998 when I returned to full-time law practice, the "personal computer" industry had undergone huge changes and the Internet had become a fact of life. Despite these sweeping changes in technology, I found that the majority of the lawyers in my law firm had almost no experience in using computers. At the time I returned, the most innovative part of the new technology adopted by the law firm was a minimally useful system of word processing. Some of the attorneys did not know how to type and most had now interest in using computers at all.

When I retired from the practice of law in 2014, 15 or so years later, there were still some of the attorneys that were not comfortable with computers and did most of their work essentially by hand. This time period saw the computerization of the law firm go from word processing to complete electronic, online case filing systems instituted by the courts.

During all this time, I was also very active in genealogical research and witnessed its very basic beginnings with a few attempts at computerization to its present almost total involvement online. Remarkably, I see exactly the same resistance to computers that I saw with the lawyers in my law firm.

My children, who are all married and have families of their own, all grew up with computers. There is not one of them who can really remember when computers were not an integral part of our home life. They have now been exposed on a day-to-day basis to using computers since the early 1980s, for over thirty years. All of my children and grandchildren use computers almost constantly, some are directly employed in computer-related jobs at a very high level. If I picked up my phone and sent out a text message right now, all of my children and many of my older grandchildren would receive the message in a matter of minutes.

Now in this context, let me comment on the state of affairs in the genealogical community. We are at the same place in genealogy as I was when I retired from my law practice. There are still large segments of the genealogical community that cannot accept the cultural and technological changes that have come about in the last thirty years or so. These people are not all old in age. I find many younger people just as challenged by technology as I do older people. Even though my own children and grandchildren have grown up with computers, not all families have been so involved. Even among those with relatively good physical and mechanical skills, there is still a huge gap in the basic understanding of the dynamics of the changes happening around us every day that extends to all ages. For example, I still find many very young people, under the age of twenty for example, that struggle with keyboarding and the concepts of logins and passwords.

Overall, we have the mistaken tendency to equate mechanical computer entry skills with the technical, research oriented, higher education level skills required for genealogical research. We also seem to assume that because someone has been involved in computers, they automatically know how to do genealogical research. This attitude is pervasive in the computer community. I would rather deal with the fact that someone had no computer skills and understood basic research principles, than the other way around.

Unfortunately, this lack of understanding of the basic genealogical technological challenges and changes extends into the realm to the computer programmers and product developers. This lack of appreciation for the complexity of genealogical research, overlaid with complex computer concepts has stumbling block at all levels of the genealogical community.

For example, there are a multitude of genealogical software programs that ignore the vast amount of digital information. Some of the products in use, make little or no accommodation to Internet integration. Even at this late date in computer development, there are many genealogical database programs that only make limited use, if any, of mobile devices. I can name several well-known software apps and products that do not have workable and complete mobile applications. In short, the genealogical community as a whole is well behind attorneys in their implementation of the current technology. This situation can be graphically demonstrated by going to the website and looking at the number of programs that make no pretense of ignoring the mobile market. While you are at the website, you might also note the number of discontinued and unsupported products that are still being used and reviewed.

Another example of how far the genealogical community is behind the technological curve is the current fascination with genealogical DNA testing. This technology has been around for 15 years and most genealogists have little or no knowledge of its advantages and serious limitations. Adding another rapidly changing technology to the genealogical mix has made the subject even more complicated.

Genealogy is a very complex and challenging pursuit. It involves a significant level of basic level research skills, overlaid with some very challenging computer skills mixed with other technologies such as digital imaging, information processing, DNA testing, and quite a few others.

Treating genealogy as a casual hobby or pastime is extraordinarily naive. Some aspects of genealogy have, so far, eluded the some of the most brilliant minds in the world today. When most of our records are still locked up on paper or microfilm, we can hardly claim to be at the cutting edge of technology. When I can't access major genealogical products from a tablet computer or a smartphone, we still have long way to go. We are still struggling with basic implementation of some of the technology when I cannot transfer basic genealogical information and digitized documents between applications. We are still in the dark ages of development when I can only move one data field at a time even in the same application. I could go on and on listing the limitations that show that genealogy is still struggling to get into the computer/information age and is likely falling behind.