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

Monday, February 4, 2013

Moving on into genealogical technology

What are the basic tools of a genealogist? Basically, you could do genealogy with a stack of paper and a pencil and that is the way that many of us started. Over a hundred years ago, someone figured out that genealogy consisted in recording similar information over and over again. So this enterprising person began printing forms to use in capturing genealogical data. Soon there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different kinds of forms. Guess what? These forms are still around. I have a two foot stack of them in binders sitting there waiting to be processed.

Is there anything wrong with forms? Is there anything wrong with walking instead of flying? My grandmother had a morbid fear of flying and never went on an airplane in her life. Instead she traveled across the United States on busses. You could always argue that this was her choice and didn't matter in the long run. Is still using paper forms like my grandmother's refusal to fly in airplanes? A little. Some people travel for the experience of traveling. They are out to see the world and flying is the antithesis of seeing the world. So why go beyond printed forms and a pencil?

Believe me, I have had this discussion recently with people who sincerely believed there was no reason to go beyond paper and pencils. But back to my traveling grandmother. What if the purpose of the trip is to see someone or do something in the remote location? What if you don't really care about the scenery but you want to go to the wedding or see the new baby born or whatever? That wouldn't happen just a few years ago because it might take months to walk back across the country. Today, I can leave my home and in a few hours I can be anywhere in the country. We sometimes refer to this as progress. I am not going to get into the discussion about whether it is or is not progress. Let's just say it is now possible.

So how has technology really affected the practice of searching out information about your ancestors? Well, for one thing, I no longer have to write everything out by hand on a paper form. Writing is particularly painful for me, but I can type rather well and rather fast. For that reason alone I would choose to use a keyboard rather than a pencil. Another benefit is that I am not limited to the spaces provided on paper forms. Rather ingenuous people have put all the forms into electronic computer programs, such as Ancestral Quest, Legacy Family Tree and RootsMagic, to mention just a few. Is entering information into these programs an advantage over paper forms? Again, without going into a long discussion and argument, I submit that it is.

One example of the problem of using paper is illustrated by my Great-grandmother. During her life she spent over 30 years gathering family information. As I have gone through the work she did, I find that she recorded the same information about family members about three times. In other words, she did the same research on the same people and recorded the information three times. I don't think she was backing up her information. I think that the quantity of names and dates and such exceeded her ability to remember what she had done. I think if she had computers, she would have done a lot more work and had less duplication.

We each only have so much time on earth to do things like gather family information. From my perspective we need to spend that time as effectively as possible. So I would rather fly than walk. I would rather use a computer than paper forms.

A tool lets us do our work. You cannot pound nails without some kind of tool. A rock might work but a modern hammer is designed to do the work more effectively. Keeping genealogical records on paper is like using a rock to pound nails. It works, but it is slow and ineffective. Computers are the modern tools of genealogical trade. If you go to a hardware store to buy a hammer, you are going to find out pretty fast, that there are dozens of different kinds. If you go to a computer store, you are going to find out the same thing; there are dozens, maybe hundreds or more, kinds of computers. If I were building a house, I might use four or five different types of hammers. As a genealogist, I have find the same thing. I use four or five different types of computers to do my work. In my case, these computers are called a desktop computer, a tablet computer, a smartphone, a digital camera and so forth. I find each one works best for a specific type of job. So the first step in moving forward is to take advantage of the technology available.

Believe me, it takes some considerable time to learn how to pound nails. Guess what? It takes time and effort to learn how to use a computer. Would I go back to pounding nails with a rock? No. Would I go back to doing my genealogical research on paper with a pencil? Maybe a different type of question, but the answer is definitely no.

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