Monday, April 27, 2009

Determining what is actually new in genealogy

One of the challenges for long time genealogists is determining what is actually new and what is being only reported as new. As Ambrose Bierce said, "There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of old things we don't know."

For example, U.S. Census records are not new. Microfilm copies of the Census have been available in various repositories, like the Family History Library, for years and years. So a careful researcher could have investigated the Census records years ago. Does the fact that the U.S. Census records have been digitized and are available from various sources online, constitute new records? Not really, although the availability of the records is certainly increased, the records are exactly those that have been available for years. In this sense, very few of the records becoming available in digital format are truly new, they are certainly more accessible, but they have existed since their original creation. However, the ready availability of original records is certainly new. The fact that I can access U.S. Census records anytime of night or day in my own home is certainly a new development.

I consider any significant additions to the online pool of original source records to be an important new development. For example, whole libraries of books are being transferred to digital format, many of these books are specifically limited availability books of genealogical and family history importance.

So what else is "new" in the genealogical community? One thing that is certainly new, is the ease of communication with family members and other researchers. It is and was very difficult to maintain a dialogue concerning a particular research issue in the days when the main method of communication was standard mail. With the advent of almost instant communication, research collaboration can happen in almost real time.


The ability to view digitized copies of original record, gives a new window into the research process. Although the records themselves may not be "new" the ability to preserve a private copy of the record and share copies of the record with others virtually instantaneously is a new development and one that is ongoing and becoming more prevalent every day.

Another new development, is the commercialization of genealogical records. Huge companies are making a profit selling research time on their collections of records, almost all of which are technically in the public domain. The service provided and the quality of the information certainly are worth the cost, but the existence of these huge organizations is a new phenomena.


One thing that is definitely new is the ability of researchers to use digital technology instead of hand copies or even photocopies of original documents.

Hopefully, we can all adjust to this newness and continue to do good old traditional genealogy and family history.

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