Friday, September 6, 2013

What future developments would assist genealogists?

Of course the question of what we are missing as genealogists may be impossible to fully answer. You don't know what you are missing until you have it for a while. We have no idea what technological or social changes might affect our ability to do quality research in the future, but I can examine what we have now and make some conclusions about some things that it would be nice to have. Edison would not have invented the light bulb if he had not seen a need for a brighter source of light and of course, as genealogists working far into the night, we all benefit from this invention.

If I confine my future needs to those presently perceived, I think I can come up with several areas that bear attention.

One of the most obvious needs is some way to extract and correlate the vast number of online family tree entries into one digestible, useful pile of data. For example, some of my relatives are mentioned in thousands of online family trees. It is entirely possible that one or more of those thousands of trees on different programs around the web have some information that I do not presently know about, but how can I tell? I am not going to examine every one of those thousands merely on the possibility of finding something new. That would be ridiculous and a waste of time. Movements such as FamilySearch.org's Family Tree, that consolidate all of the information available for one individual are a promising start, but not everyone in the world is going to ever use the same family tree program. What would be nice is a program that would search family trees and compare the information to your own tree and tell you if the information was different in a useful way.

Another great need is a more efficient way of gathering sources and incorporating them in your own records. Digitization is only a very small part of the process. Once the record is found, the information must be extracted from the digitized copy and then entered into your own database. Of course, I am not being realistic here, but I can dream. Indexes may help you find the record, but all of the labor of extracting information and entering it into your own database is still there. I guess I am look for a research assistant who can do it all for me with a high level of confidence that the work is being done correctly.

I think a more efficient method of digitizing books and other records is needed. Despite current advances, there is still a long way to go in the speed of digitizing. The biggest obstacle is the physical handling of the paper. My high speed scanner does a good job of scanning loose sheets, but needs constant attention because of jamming and paper issues. Very thin paper always jams and of course an automatic book scanner is way too expensive. I think that is one reason grandchildren were invented, to do this work. (Only kidding)

Optical Character Recognition for handwriting would be nice. Given the variety of handwriting across the world, this is probably the least likely area to make serious genealogically useful headway.

Consolidated online searching capabilities would be nice. Right now, even with Google's powerful search engine, most of the world's resources lie in closed catalogs. WorldCat.org makes a good source but WorldCat.org cannot yet even search the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah even though some effort is being made to rectify that omission. Separate searches in hundreds and thousands of catalogs is very difficult. Of course, you would have to convince all these entities to open their catalogs, but that is very unlikely.

Along this line, there would be a great benefit from being able to gain access to the huge collections of documents now under lock and key around the world. These are documents in government archives, military archives, university special collections and other similar documents. This is not so much as a technological issue, but a practical economic, social and political one.

Speaking of social issues, I think we could all benefit from a Mandatory Preservation of Genealogically Significant Documents Act that would make it a major criminal offense to destroy any genealogically significant documents without the express permission of the entire genealogical community. This might prevent the children of genealogists from throwing away their parents life's work. But where would we keep all the stuff? Digitize it and preserve it online as heritage copies.

Well, I think you get the idea that there are a few things about genealogy that could benefit from future developments. I realize that most of them will never be seen during my lifetime, but it would be nice if they could be solved in the future.

1 comment:

  1. It would be great for OCR of handwriting. Sometimes the writing for decades long ago it impossible to read. Especially in languages other than English.
    That would help me the most in my volunteer position of reading and transcribing church records from the early 1800.

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