RootsTech 2015

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

Monday, February 3, 2014

#RootsTech and the fundamental shift in genealogy

When I was in high school (yes, I was in high school and they did have high schools when I was that age), as I was saying, when I was in high school we were in the middle of the Alfred Wegener "Continental Drift" controversy. There was a time when most of the prestigious scientists (read old and stogy) could not accept the idea that the continents drifted around on a sea of magma. Even I could see that South America fit like a puzzle piece into Africa and that there had to be a reason for that. But because Wegener was about 75 or so years ahead of his time in claiming that the continents moved, he was ridiculed and ostracized. Well, of course we all know now that Wegener was wrong. Sort of. Now we have plate tectonics, which is the same thing only with a little more detail. What happened to change all of the previous skeptical scientists? OK, for you purists, the whole theory was really thought up by Abraham Ortilius in 1596 or so. The scientists really had quite a long time to be wrong.

In my opinion, one reason the scientists did not want to concede that the continents had moved is that there is an allusion in the Bible to the fact that the lands were once all one mass and were divided. Never mind that this is a misinterpretation caused by translation errors, (now, I probably got your attention), nevertheless, the scientists (collectively speaking) could not just concede that point to the religionists. Of course, all that gets into the age of the Earth thing, which is getting me off track.

Back to my point (what does this have to do with genealogy anyway?), the main support for the entire theory of plate tectonics came with the mapping of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which happened about the time I was in high school. So our text books were basically a mess of pro- and anti- continental drift nonsense and had not yet been updated to include plate tectonics. I found the controversy interesting and read everything I could find on the subject.

Now to genealogy. The results of this long narrative is that I developed a rather healthy skepticism of all scientific theories. I realized what everyone thought was true one day, could all change the next day with more evidence. I also discovered from talking to my compatriots that no one else rather cared about the whole issue. Yes, I am going back to the class I attended and wrote about previously. So, I am sitting in class this past week and the instructor is referring to a document that is obviously false. But, there are probably 30 or so others people in the class and they are all just sitting there listening and not one of them was saying anything about the bogus document. Did they believe what was being said or were they just ignoring the whole thing? Same difference.

What struck me, upon reflection, was that genealogists fell into the same group as those skeptical scientists and the attendees in the class last week, with one important difference. Most of the scientists, not all, accepted the "new" theory as soon as there was some empirical evidence to support it. Now, all the high school textbooks have sections on plate tectonics (they do teach science in high school, don't they? Maybe not). Anyway, The whole evidence thing is still generally an ongoing issue with genealogists whether we know it or not.

As genealogists, we are under going our own continental drift/plate tectonics issue. Our entire way of approaching the subject of searching for historical records is radically changing and most (I would rather say, nearly all) of the researchers I talk to are entirely unaware of the change. This is sort of like my fellow classmates in high school and the continental drift controversy. So what is the overwhelming evidence of the change? RootsTech 2014. Here is one piece of the evidence:


This happens to be a map of the Exhibitors Hall for RootsTech. See the connection between the map of the world and the continental drift theory and etc? You don't? Well let me explain.

Across the bottom of this map are four large square representing four large online genealogical database companies; reading left to right: Ancestry.com, findmypast.com, MyHeritage.com and FamilySearch.org. Now we are all in the same position as the pre-plate tectonics scientists looking at a map of the world. We can see that the map supports a different world view than we presently have, but we reject the evidence out of adherence to tradition.

Since you are probably hopelessly lost by this point. I will now explain as clearly as I can what is going on. We have these four (and maybe soon to be more) huge online database companies. At least three of those companies are actively developing automated search engines that connect a local genealogical database program directly to their online resources and provide a way to automatically search records to find sources to attach to individuals. One example. Ancestry.com, the largest of these companies has a search engine that connects individuals in your online family tree to records in their database (read collections). They show you these connections with little shaking green leaves. When you click on a leaf, you can see extracted information from the suggested record and selectively add that information to your own record, if you think the right source has been selected. Then, if you have a lick of sense, you will examine all the records and change your entries in your family tree to reflect the "real" evidence provided to you by Ancestry.com. You can then purchase a program called Family Tree Maker and download or synchronize your now local database with your online family tree. Essentially all of the bread and butter type source records, such as U.S. Census records, etc. are automatically included. All you have to do to do your genealogy is click on green leaves.

Now, three of these companies lined up across the entrance to the Exhibit Hall in RootsTech are doing exactly the same thing. All have automatic or semi-automatic suggested source discovery and all have associated programs that capture all of the information provided and all of these four companies are talking to each other about sharing their databases in some form or another. So, in the past two weeks or so, you can now search a huge number of FamilySearch.org collections on Ancestry.com and this will likely increase dramatically, with more and more records being made available (after indexing) to automatic searches. So what if you are using a program that doesn't allow this to happen? That is an interesting question. If you are a software developer, how do you compete with programs that automatically find sources? That is another interesting question.

Never mind the issue of how accurate or inaccurate the searches made by these companies may be presently, what is already evident is that they are accurate enough to supply a basic set of documents to most people who fall within the holdings of the various companies. But what about the rest of the records in the world? Don't we still have to do our genealogy in a traditional way? The process is far from complete outside of a rather focused area of the world right now, but remember, FamilySearch has been collecting records for many, many years and those records are being indexed at an increasing rate and all those records are now beginning to show up in collections outside of FamilySearch or whatever other arrangements are made. You might also note that these large companies are each acquiring records at an every increasing rate. There are a finite number of records ergo, if this digitizing keeps going, most of the world's records may become digitized.

So, how does this relate to my example above. Most of the genealogists are in the position of the anti-continental drift scientists. They can see the evidence but they refuse to see the change in the theories. Genealogists can look at the map of the Exhibit Floor and fail to see the significance of the four large squares at the entrance. This is where genealogy is going. For the time being, the companies that are involved with genealogy and unconnected with the large databases, will likely survive for a while, until at some point they wake up to find they have no market for their products.

Let me give a final hypothetical situation. The year is 2015 and we are all going to another, even bigger, RootsTech conference. The past year has seen an acceleration in the ability of the big four to acquire digitized records. FamilySearch has made significant progress in digitizing and uploading millions upon millions more records. Even more records have been indexed. You are just now beginning your genealogical adventures and investigating your family. How do you go about getting started? If you are aware what is going on, you purchase or download for free a program connected to a large online database program. You start filling in your family tree and immediately, the program begins to suggest records to look at about your family. You add the records as sources and using the newly acquired information, you start building your family tree. Within a very short time, you have a basic four generation family tree with sources.

Now, I am fully aware that this scenario only presently applies to a rather narrow segment of the world's genealogists, but what is keeping this method of working on genealogy from becoming nearly universal? Only the time and resources it takes to digitize existing records and we already have a rather extensive core of available records that only need to be digitized from existing microfilm.

What will it take for you to see that there has been a fundamental shift in genealogy?


14 comments:

  1. James, Great article! Got me thinking. To take your analysis one step further I can imagine in 2015 one "gets started in genealogy" by clicking on a button next to your name in Facebook who has just recently bought one of the Big Four online database companies. In a few seconds you not only see your own family history but also know if/how your FB friends are related to you. Genealogy + Facebook = genealogy for billions.

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    1. Well, you might have missed my blog post where your Facebook family friends show up on your Public Member Family Tree on Ancestry.com. That future is already here.

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  2. Loved the post. I have great concerns for those "beginning" their search. At first they seem overwhelmed and afraid to start, then they find something easy. So easy it doesn't require a second look. I am currently helping some members of the church coming from pioneer stock. Surprisingly, they have nothing recorded themselves, not on PAF or anything electronically. As they began putting their info on a desktop database and found that rather than type, all they had to do was click and all that info for their ancestors appeared on their program. Wow! That was easy! Now they are getting bored just clicking, but they missed the learning part. They have no clue where to look for info, or what to compare what they found to. Most importantly they missed the thrill of victory, that 2 am shout "Eureka" and most of all getting to know their ancestors.

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    1. Thanks for good comment. This is a very good example of many of the responses to finding a family tree online.

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  3. I do hope the pendulum doesn't swing to far, from trees with no sources to trees that have all the suggested sources attached, including the 90% that are for the wrong person.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. There doesn't seem to a vaccine against junk genealogy. But the programs do make you say yes or no to sources.

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  4. Of course, there are massive changes in genealogy, but it doesn't follow that the original disciplines will disappear. People will still need to be able to analyse evidence to avoid being taken in by the "Grandmother was a Cherokee Princess" claims. Will they want to stop and do that if they've been racing along just pressing the button? Surely if it's on the internet, it must be true...

    The supposed "new" genealogy rather puts me in mind of the Ancestry Insider's chasm (see http://ancestryinsider.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/chasm.html ) Finding data through hints in database mining software is easy - assuming the hints are correct. But sooner or later the hints run out. Maybe the family emigrated? (The chasm there is both figurative and literal). Will the new genealogists have the knowledge of what questions to ask and what approaches to take? The disciplines learnt in the first, "easy" phase may seem obvious to us in retrospect but were probably anything but at the time. Life gets really tricky if both the data and the needed techniques go through a step-change of difficulty at the same time.

    Adrian B

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  5. I agree entirely. The main difference will be for the very experienced genealogists. What I am already seeing is that the automating of the sources lets me gather many times more information than I could previously. The automatic accumulation of sources will only benefit those who are already prepared to understand what they have.

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  6. Fundamental shift? Really? Computer algorithms cannot correlate the details between actual records with anything like the subtlety of the human brain. All of that database stuff out there is dependent upon accurate extracts and indexing rather than careful examination of documents. Ancestry.com can't figure out the distinction between geopolitical descriptions of residences/parishes and registration districts in British vital records.

    The programs cannot understand that a list of heirs in an application for administration on an estate was organized by family group -- even if the document were every-name indexed, which it will not be.

    The greater volume of material, more quickly available, does not really constitute a paradigm shift.

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    1. I hope I did not imply that computer algorithms will replace human intervention. What is the case however, is that computer matching will find all of the "easily matched" records such as census records and that will move the level of involvement in an unpredictable direction.

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  7. I agree James. The indexing of vital records and censuses and automation of their being attached to matching profiles in family history programs is fundamentally shifting how genealogy is done.

    I recall at a conference for professional genealogists a few years back, David Rencher told us that unless you learn how to solve problems for clients using indirect evidence, you will be out of a job in a few years. The computer will be able to piece together families when direct evidence exists without much human intervention. (end of Rencher thought)

    Many inanimate computers will be having "heart-turning experiences." Hopefully those computers will start sharing their experiences with us human beings. Oops, I forgot to prove to your blogspot software that I'm not a robot myself.

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    1. I got a good chuckle from your comment even though I am a robot. I like how the comments are so opposite.

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  8. This is a very interesting dialogue about the future of genealogical research and the importance of those large database companies. As a geologist, I understand the comparison being made with plate tectonic theory clearly although I’m not sure we genealogists necessarily have a lot of antipathy toward online databases in the same way that scientists studying the Earth debate issues may have been anti-continental drift.

    I agree the big, new databases will be mainstays for researchers in the future. There will always be “family historians” who love to just click and add names but most of us are not concerned with them or with what they might do. In spite of it becoming easier to add those sources with the click of a mouse (or finger on a touch-screen) most serious genealogists will check the facts before adding the information.

    I have been considering adding my family tree to one of these large online sites. I believe my data is well-sourced and properly documented. What scares me is that, once my tree, with thousands of names on it, was on such a site as Ancestry, there would immediately be hundreds, if not thousands of suggestions for document fits announced to me. It would probably take the rest of my life, and then some, to check them all!

    These are great resources for those just starting out or who have not yet reached the levels of tree-building that many of us have who have been researching for decades. It’s daunting to think about having to go through it all over again when confronted with an enormous number of new records to review!

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    1. Yes, I agree. The operative word here is daunting. Thanks for the comment.

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