RootsTech 2014

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

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Comments from the Vendors -- The Future of Genealogy Conferences

I will not be mentioning any names. Nor will I be identifying any people, but during the past few months, I have had the opportunity to discuss the economics of genealogy conferences with several very active vendors. These are the people that set up booths or tables at conferences with the hope that they will sell enough of their product to make up the expenses of going to the conferences or even make a profit. The overall picture that they paint is dismal. Unless they are fortunate to be subsidized by a major corporation, collectively they are not optimistic about attending conferences in the future. If they are subsidized by one of the larger vendors, they are cutting back and only attending very large conferences.

There are two ways to look at conference attendance; as an advertising expense or as a sales opportunity. Some vendors are there only for the exposure. Others need to make sales to continue business. Who buys genealogically related products at a conference? That is the question to answer. Many genealogy companies are very small business and a significant number would fall into the category of "mom and pop" operations. If they are carefully watching the trends and have gone to a few conferences, they likely have moved as much of their business as possible to direct Internet sales. If I were in the genealogy business, I would be looking for some other way to make a living.

Why is all this happening? Lately, I have been talking about shifts in the way genealogy is conducted. We are definitely moving from a paper-based, individually maintained pursuit to an online, collaborative model. If you are a seasoned, experienced genealogist, you may be conducting your research pretty much the same way you did ten or even twenty years ago. But you are living an anachronism. It wouldn't occur to a younger potential genealogist to begin his or her search for ancestors other than online and use one of the online family tree programs. Unless, as a business, you are not addressing this exclusively online market, you will probably not be making many sales in the future.

But why and how does this affect the genealogy conferences? Well, I could make a list:

  • Webinars
  • Online teleconferences
  • Pod casts
  • Webcasts
  • YouTube Videos
  • Local free conferences
The list could go on and on. Let's say you would think about going to a conference to see one of your "favorite" genealogy experts in person. Now what if you had just watched him or her in a live webinar, where you got to ask questions. Are now anxious to fork over cold hard cash to travel to a conference? One concrete example is the major U.S. conference now coming up on its fifth year: RootsTech. Many of the presentations at RootsTech were recorded on videos and distributed to over 600+ locations throughout the world. We all ready know that will happen again this year a much larger scale. This is a huge benefit to the individual genealogist. It makes available talented presentations that would never have come to a local conference. All of these conferences have been and will be free to the public. If you know that you will have a "free" conference in your area in the near future, why would you plan to pay to travel to a larger conference? Especially, if the same people were teaching at your local conference by video?

Younger genealogists are used to watching YouTube and other online presentations. They are involved in Facetime, Google+ Hangouts and other direct video communication. Genealogy does not generate super-star movie actors. Genealogy does not create rock stars or teenage idols. You do not see young people wearing teeshirts blazoned with genealogy company logos. Genealogy does not have the interest of a Comicon, a rock concert or a Star Trek conference. 

There you go. The smaller free conferences do not need or support vendors. The genealogist benefit from the increased opportunities to learn and mingle with fellow genealogists. If they like, they can still go to one of the big conferences, but the smaller commercially operated conferences no longer support vendors. 


What is genealogy?

OK, I have come full circle again. I am back to questioning the stereotypical image of a genealogist and also back to the question about whether or not genealogy even has a definition. First some different questions. Does searching for your ancestors, per se, make you into a "genealogist?" Is there some threshold entry requirement for becoming a "genealogist." Do I become a genealogist the moment that I begin calling myself one?

There is an interesting analogy. We have real estate salespeople and we have REALTORS®. As the National Association of REALTORS® likes to frequently point out, "A real estate agent is a REALTOR® when he or she is a member of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. I think there are those who would like to make a distinction between those interested in family history and GENEALOGISTS. Maybe those who think this way should start coming up with a new trade name? I might also point out that the REALTORS® have an uphill battle. You may wish to read a rather entertaining history of the word in The Word Detective's post "Realtor."

Every time I write about this subject, I get comments from GENEALOGISTS who point out that they are eminently inclusive and that they have no intention of excluding any of huddled masses from their own pursuit of their own family history. But we all know that real GENEALOGISTS adhere to certain standards and are usually members of certain organizations. How do we maintain a consistent balance between professionalism and inclusivity?

By looking at the real estate community, you can make some interesting comparisons to genealogy. For example, by statute in Arizona, anyone can sell their own property. But it you want to sell property for someone else and make a commission, you must be registered with the State of Arizona. In addition to registration, you have to take a rather long and involved formal real estate course and pass a test. Oh, and you have to pay for and receive a license to "practice real estate." See Arizona Real Estate License - Qualifying for and Obtaining. But even then, you do not become a REALTOR®. As I already pointed out, calling yourself a REALTOR® requires joining a particular organization.

Should we aspire to the same sort of regulation for genealogy? I think the main reason this analogy does not work completely is the nature of the product. On one hand, we are talking about real estate. In the United States we can own real estate. We have a formal title system for ownership with government recording requirements that date back into antiquity. On the other hand, genealogy is a nebulous concept of recording information about our ancestors, none of whom we own. I also think that we would have a much harder time trademarking the word GENEALOGIST (with or without capital letters) than the National Association of Real Estate Boards had back in 1916 for REALTORS®.

But this analogy brings up some more basic issues. As I have pointed out in previous posts, the number of professionally certified or accredited genealogists is very, very small compared to the number of people who have enough interest in information about their ancestors to put a family tree online. There is no other fact that so completely separates the "serious genealogists" from those who have a casual interest than this one fact. Because I teach at the BYU Family History Library and previously taught at the Mesa FamilySearch Library, I have been in a position for years to hear from patrons. The one most common complaint I hear, as I have mentioned before, is that people are changing my family history on FamilySearch.org Family Tree. This is always said with the attitude that "I am putting in the correct information" and "they" are putting in incorrect information. Of course, what I usually find is that neither the complainant nor the person changing the online record have any sources to support their position.

By asking the above questions, I am not advocating creating a cadre of genealogy enforcers. You may be able to cite examples of the abuses of so-called professional genealogists that warrant regulation, but it is unlikely that there are so many occurrences that any state legislature would take you seriously. In any event, as I well know from the practice of law and real estate, just because you have a professional organization and entry requirements does not mean that you do not have issues with professionalism and honesty.

This post is more of a component in an ongoing dialogue than some kind of resolution. The dialogue is going on in my mind and I appreciate any comments or input.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Limits of Accuracy


In quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle is any of a variety of mathematical inequalities asserting a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle known as complementary variables, such as position x and momentum p, can be known simultaneously. This is sometimes referred to as the Heisenberg principle, but it was formally derived by Earle Hesse Kennard and Hermann Wey. See Wikipedia: Uncertainty principle.

In 1931, Kurt Gödel proved two theorems of mathematical logic. Quoting from Wikipedia: Gödel's incompleteness theorems,
The first incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an "effective procedure" (e.g., a computer program, but it could be any sort of algorithm) is capable of proving all truths about the relations of the natural numbers (arithmetic). For any such system, there will always be statements about the natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system. The second incompleteness theorem, an extension of the first, shows that such a system cannot demonstrate its own consistency.
One of the most influential books I have ever read discusses the application of the Heisenberg principle and the incompleteness theorem of Kurt Gödel. The book is Hofstadter, Douglas R. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Basic Books, 1979.

These mathematical principles were "discovered" and changed mathematics in a fundamental way. So, you say, here we go again, how can this possibly have anything to do with genealogy? Well, humor me. Here is what I have to say on the subject of certainty. In essence both principles boil down to the statement that some measurements can never be precise and some systems cannot ever be proved completely without resorting to proofs outside of the system. These limitations were not known until quite recently. Now, I am not saying that genealogy is very much like mathematics, but there are several concepts that suggest similarities.

It has only been quite recently that a large mass of genealogical data has been created in centralized repositories and made reasonably available. Historically, genealogists had to focus their efforts entirely on a smattering of records scattered pretty uniformly all over the world. Those large centralized data accumulations, such as the libraries of the Genealogical Society of Utah (i.e. the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah), the New England Historic Genealogical Society and others were only accessible if you had the time and the resources to travel to the library itself. Now today, most of these scattered collections still exist, but technological changes have made untold millions of records accessible for free or for a moderate cost. For example, even with the advent of microfilmed records, obtaining access to the microfilm could be a slow and inefficient process. You could only guess from the microfilm's catalog description if it might contain information about your ancestors and it was very disappointing to order a film, wait until it appeared and then find that it had no useful information.

Most recently, advancing technology has resolved some of the microfilm issues by making the images available in digital format online. But the changes being wrought by technology are more basic than just increasing genealogical record availability. The vast accumulations of genealogical source records and online family tree entries are pointing out some ultimate limitations on accuracy and completeness. Ultimately, these physical limitations of the system will be the most significant barriers to genealogical research.

The effect of the accumulation of massive genealogical data concentrated online and available to huge numbers of people who, previously, would never of had such access is starting to reveal the fundamental limitations in the overall system. The most evident of these limitations is the level of accuracy of the overall system. Researchers are becoming painfully aware of the inconsistencies and contradictions contained in the accumulation of records. You can rail against the inconsistency, but as we accumulate more and more sources and records, the fact that there are such inconsistencies becomes more and more apparent. For example, it my knowledge of my ancestors was limited to one source, perhaps a surname book or a pedigree chart from a relative, I had one version of my ancestral history. Today, we can have hundreds or even thousands of versions. It is not just the compiled family tree records that are at fault, the very documents we refer to as sources are inconsistent and vague. There are few days that go by that I do not hear the complaints about the inaccuracy of the system.

What is less apparent is that there is an ultimate limit to our accuracy. No matter how careful we are and no matter how experienced, we will encounter inconsistency. We will be forced to choose between different dates, places and even different people. It is not that the records are unreliable, it is just that we now have access to multiple versions of the same types of records and multiple records that were either previously unavailable or impossible to obtain. Even if we resort to the time honored "proof statement," in many more cases we will be forced to admit that the conflicting evidence cannot be reconciled. We have found our own genealogical uncertainty principle, the limit of our ability to prove our ancestry.

But there is an even deeper issue. That is that genealogy, as such, is incapable of even defining itself. This is similar, in some ways, to the limits imposed by the theorems postulated by Kurt Gödel. By analogy, genealogy can never be completely defined or complete. In saying this, I am expressing a physical certainty. There will always be more records, but the search for absolute proof will never be complete. We cannot even come up with an adequate definition of "genealogy," much less come to a universal agreement as to what constitutes an adequate proof.

We can wring our collective hands over these limitations but they are physically imposed by the system we have collectively created. Genealogy will always be uncertain and incomplete. 


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Radical Change in Technology: Why I no longer need a Windows Partition on my Mac

I admit that the title to this post is somewhat techy in nature, but it points out a fundamental shift in the way that computers operate and point out a particularly a shift in genealogy programs in general. Three separate trends have coalesced to create this dramatic change in way I approach the interface between my use of the computer and my genealogical activities.

For many years, my involvement in genealogy necessitated that I maintain both a Windows-based operating system computer and an Apple-based system. Quite frankly, the Apple-based system was a matter of choice but because of my extensive involvement in typesetting and graphics that was the best choice. So for many years, we had two computer systems sitting next to each other in our computer room. A few years ago, as we upgraded our Macintosh computer we found that progress in the power and speed of the processor made it possible, for the first time, to practically run the Windows operating system in an emulation program on the Macintosh. At this point, we switched to using two Macintosh computers running Parallels Desktop.

The next step in this process, involved a decision by my wife to discontinue using Parallels Desktop for several reasons. Most of these reasons involved the difficulty of maintaining two separate operating systems on the same computer. I continued to need access to Windows-based programs, particularly those I supported and used for genealogy.

The reason for my wife's shift away from Windows-based software entirely was not based on any lack of ability to use Windows-based software or work with the newer versions of Windows operating system. In fact, we purchased a third computer to use solely for the few programs that required us to use Windows. So now we have our Windows-based computer sandwiched between two iMacs. This has gone on now for probably the last five or six years or longer.

The next step in the process occurred very subtly as online programs and those desktop programs directly connected to online programs began to dominate genealogy. I began to notice that my involvement in Windows-based programs began to decline precipitously with the introduction of several very adequate or even excellent Mac-based genealogy software programs. Continued to maintain my involvement with the PC-based programs because I felt the need to continue to support people coming into the Mesa FamilySearch Library. However, my involvement in teaching programs directly diminished rapidly because other volunteers at the Library were more than adequately capable of teaching the software classes.

The shifts in technology accelerated and could be summarized as follows:

  1. The increase power and sophistication of the online genealogy programs particularly those programs developed by the larger genealogical database programs.
  2. The availability of faster Internet access.
  3. The development of programs utilizing connections with the large online databases.
Recently, I became aware when I was notified of an upgrade to Parallels Desktop that I had not used the program for many many months, perhaps even in the last year. I still had the latest version of the program on my computer and could easily switch over to use the many programs I had on my computer that required the Windows operating system but I had not used it. Part of the reason, was that I had installed those programs that required the Windows-based operating system on the third computer. The advantage of doing this was the savings in time and frustration of switching from the OS X operating system to Windows on my Macintosh. It was much easier simply to switch to a Windows-based computer. The next shift was highly personal. The number of programs that I used that required the Windows operating system continued to shrink so my involvement with the third computer became less and less necessary.

There was another factor that contributed to a shift in the overall use of the computers and that was the increased utility of tablets and smartphones. A significant part of our usage of computers began to be transferred to iPads and iPhones. The increased use of mobile devices highlighted the fact that we were using online programs to a greater extent and that our reliance on desktop programs was diminishing. Obviously, there were some significant exceptions since I still relied heavily on graphics-based programs, but but for genealogy the shift became more and more apparent.

One day, I finally realized I no longer needed a Windows based operating system on my Macintosh. All of the programs that required the Windows operating system now been transferred to the Windows machine and frankly, it was much easier to move over and use the Windows computer than waiting around for Parallels Desktop to operate.

I also realized that my use of the computer was now dictated by the dramatic shift to online genealogy programs. I expect that this trend will continue. I further expect that this technological shift will begin to seriously change the present use of genealogy programs.

A valuable perspective on the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies Conference

I received a link of an excellent summary of the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies Conference held in Salt Lake City, Utah recently. Obviously, my perspective of the Conference was considerably different than that of a person who was deeply involved in Jewish genealogy. The post on The Jewish Daily Forward, is entitled, "A Report From the Jewish Genealogists' Summer Camp, The Author of 'The Family' Heads to Utah." I think the post very clearly expresses what I felt and experienced at the Conference as a complete "outsider." It is sometimes hard to break out of our "genealogical comfort zone" and really take the time to learn about an area of genealogy with which we are not familiar. But it is always worth the effort.

Genealogy is genealogy and the subject matter is only one variable in a sea of constants. Research methodology is the same no matter what the ethnic background, time period, geographic location or social construct. But in the case of this Conference, there was a distinct difference in the dedication and fierce interest of the attendees.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Online Digital Book Collections

This series of posts consists of links to online websites in different categories useful to genealogists and researchers. The first post listed online digital map websites. The next posts in the series listed both national and state digital newspaper websites. This post was intended to be a list of all of the websites I can find that have collections of digital books. Well, that turned out to be impossibly lengthy. For example, it would include nearly every university and college library and/or special collections department in the world. I finally realized that the list would go on forever, so I settled for a representative sample.

Some of these websites will be commercial and have a subscription charge, but even those with a charge for some books may also have a selection of free books. In some cases, you may have to dig down into the website to find the digital books, but they will be there. I finally decided to stick with English language websites. I might try some of the other language websites some time, but the difficulty is determining if they are legitimate or pirate sites without knowing the languages that well.

In making this list, it is apparent that there are several large websites that provide online ebook services to libraries. For example, the website Overdrive.com provides a centralized service of digital books only to libraries. Individual users of the Overdrive system gain access to the books in their own public library's online collection through logging in with their library card number and a password. Is this an online digital book collection? That is a good question. The number of books available to the subscribers is substantially different from institution to institution. The question is whether Overdrive is the online website or the local public library? Depending on how you view this question and many others, the number of online websites is determinant or indeterminate.

Another example is Amazon.com. It has millions of digital books, mostly for sale. It also has a "free library" of books. Is it a library or a bookstore? Or both?

It became immediately evident that the availability of ebooks is changing rapidly. Many of the websites listed have some sort of restriction on access. They are either university libraries where only those associated with the school can access the books or they are private companies or repositories with other restrictions. My goal was to make a list long enough and inclusive enough that you can find a way to acquire access to the material you are searching for. Unfortunately, the list became so tangled that I soon realized that this particular goal was unobtainable.

No list of digital books would be complete without a reference to Google Books. Google has clearly amassed the largest online collection of digital books in the world. Some time ago, Google estimated that the total number of books, counting every book ever published to be, 129,864,880. Of course that was back in 2010 and millions more have likely been published since then. The real question is how many of those books has Google digitized? The last estimate was made in April of 2013 and claimed that Google had digitized more than 30 million books. We can assume that Google is still out there digitizing books, so there are probably millions more on the website at any time after 2013. Trove.nla.gov.au, the website of the National Library of Australia, has a published number of books of 18,920,532 as of the date of this post. A search in Trove's book collection for the term "genealogy" results in 137,242 hits. The same search on Google Books results in 7,720,000 results. In either case, the number of books is unimaginably large.

For genealogists, the online collection of digital books on FamilySearch.org includes the content of several large genealogical libraries. The total number of books is well over 100,000 and growing. When you go to the FamilySearch.org website, click on the Research tab at the top of the page and then click on books.

One of challenges of this project is to figure out how to list the websites. I began with the idea to start by listing all the ones I use and/or know about and then move on to all that I can find online anywhere in the world. I have explained what happened at this point. The numbers of books or items listed for some of the websites is more of an indication of their size rather than a current number of holdings. Most of these online libraries continue to acquire more books and other items and the numbers will change daily.

Here is a representative list of online book websites, not in any particular order:
What you need to learn from this list and my attempt is to search for a book by title in every case, copyright or no copyright, to see if a website has an ebook for your particular search. Even then, it would be a good idea to search in the larger websites to see if Google missed the ebook. At some point, it will become possible to assume that an ebook always exists and then the search will be to find it online in some sort of library and gain access to the book. Interlibrary loans will very likely become completely digitized. 

The above list gives no idea as to how many digital libraries exist in languages other than English. The number I found seems endless. Listing digitized map and newspaper sites was nothing compared to the number digital books sites I began to discover. Try searching. You will soon see what I mean. 



Sunday, August 24, 2014

Fitting the Tools to the Task

If any of you have experience fixing a dripping faucet over the years, you realize that years ago, you could use a wrench and screwdriver and replace the washer in the faucet and fix the problem. Today, almost all new faucets come with special cartridges and it takes a special tool, in addition to a wrench and possibly a screwdriver or two, to fix the leak. Without that special faucet tool, the job is virtually impossible.

Now, as usual, you are probably trying to figure out what this has to do with genealogy. Well, the answer is pretty simple. At one time, you could do genealogy with a pencil and piece of paper. Some people would argue that you still can, but in reality, there are a lot of specialized tools needed to do the job today. One example will suffice, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah has been digitizing its collection of books and microfilm for a number of years. As books and microfilm are digitized, they are are no longer kept on the shelves or available to order (in the case of microfilm). So, now, just to view the microfilm or digitized books, you need "specialized equipment" such as a computer or other device and a connection to the Internet.

Of course, you could reject technological changes and ignore all of the online resources, but sooner or later, just like with the leaky faucet, you either have to obtain the tools to make the repair or hire someone to do it for you. Unfortunately, there are some people who ignore the problem permanently and refuse to "make the investment" in technology, just as there are those who choose to live with leaky faucets. There are excuses. One common issue is economic. Adapting to technological change is viewed a expensive and a luxury. This is an issue of which I am painfully aware. Genealogists today (although this may change) are usually older and at or near retirement. Many live on fixed incomes. But on the other hand, those who plead poverty, are usually unaware of the alternatives available for free computer use at libraries and family history centers.

Now we could keep arguing about economics, but these arguments are essentially correct. Being involved in genealogy costs time and money. It is not a particularly expensive activity compared to many very popular activities today. From another aspect, the tools used for genealogy, such as computers, mobile devices, an Internet connection etc. are also general purpose tools. In my case, my wife and I do not have or pay for a cable TV connection. Likewise, we do not have separate land-line telephone service. We very rarely eat out and we do not attend movies or other paid-for entertainment regularly. Some people would be unwilling to "give-up" those activities and services. We don't really care about them and do not feel disadvantaged in any way.

On the other hand, I believe in having good tools. A cut-rate, second-rate tool is sometimes worse than no tool at all. We likely spend much more than the average person on computers and the associated software and external devices. We probably use those computers and other devices much more than the average person does also.

I think that it is important to fit the tool to the task. If there is a tool that will help me do a job faster, easier, better or at all, then I see the tool as a benefit, not an extra cost. Sure, I could hire a plumber to come in and fix my leaky faucet and pay a $100 or more or I could go to the store and buy the $12 tool and the $25 cartridge and save my money. From another aspect, there is no way I could be writing this blog post without the proper equipment.

I look at tools as facilitators. Desktop computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones all facilitate my genealogy work. By maximizing the use of these tools, I maximize my genealogical efforts. These devises and the software that goes with them, are the power tools of my avocation. Sometimes I buy a tool, such as a software program, and some time later, I find out that there is a better program (tool). So, I try the new tool to see for myself. Yes, there is a cost associated with this, but remember, I am allocating time and time to me is more valuable than money. Sometimes the new program moves into my arsenal of tools. Sometimes the new program is a dud and I quickly move on to another program or back to the original one.

If we understand that the technology is the tool and that the computers and other devices are the specific tools we use to do genealogy, then the idea of upgrades, technological changes and other issues begin to take on a proper perspective.