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

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Why do I focus on the technology? Part Two:

In the first installment of this series, I talked about some of personal history that taught me lessons about sharing genealogical data and overcoming the limitations of paper-based genealogy. I guess the real question is why the attitude of ownership by genealogists gets so developed that they act in ways that are counter to their own self-interest? I think that there is tendency that verges on hoarding disorder. I have found that this tendency to accumulate vast quantities of names and then act as if the accumulator was defending the names from some-sort-of threat is very common among genealogists.

In these cases, technology is seen as an additional threat. Rather than embracing new technology as a means of more efficiently and comprehensively doing research, it is viewed as a threat to the genealogist's ownership of their data. Because the genealogists are uncomfortable with the changes caused by technological developments, they feel that their ownership and control is also threatened. This is no where more evident than the antipathy some genealogists feel towards online family trees and particularly those using a wiki programming base. Rather than viewing changes made by others as an opportunity for collaboration and possibly education of those less sophisticated in the genealogical methodology, they see the changes merely as a threat and react with anger.

On the other hand, I have always viewed technology as being primarily enabling. At a very basic level, I have always found physically writing, spelling and punctuation to be almost insurmountable challenges. For this simple reason alone, I am enthralled with technology that allows me to overcome, to some extent, those limitations. I also see that genealogical research can very quickly exceed my capacity to remember the myriad facts and relationships as I increase the number of people in my files. This limitation drives me to want even faster and more efficient ways of recording data and manipulating it. In fact, I just noticed that my most current computer system is starting to appear slow.

During the past few weeks, I have been teaching a very basic class on the status of certain online genealogy programs, primarily those very large online database programs such as,, and The classes have been in conjunction with the BYU Family History Library on campus at the Harold B. Lee Library. The BYU Family History Library is staffed by Church Service Missionary volunteers and as such are a pretty accurate representative sample of genealogists of all levels of interest and experience. To some extent, my classes have focused on the changes in technology and how that affects the ways open to genealogists to change the way they have traditionally done their work. There are two or three daily shifts of volunteers seven days a week and so my classes have been spread out at different times during the day and evenings. You can see my schedule on the BYU Family History Library's Facebook page and, by the way, anyone who is interested is invited to attend the classes.

The reactions of those attending the classes have been interesting. They certainly reflect the overall attitudes of the genealogical community as a whole and are consistent with the reactions I observe in classes and other encounters in the past. Some of the most significant reactions clearly show how so many genealogists get caught in eddies and backwaters. For example, there are still a significant number of genealogists that are stuck with the Personal Ancestral File program. At one time, these people were progressive enough to adopt a computer program, but for whatever reason, they stagnated at the Personal Ancestral File level and never moved beyond that one program. The tragedy of this decision is that they are presently locked out of an further technological developments. In addition, the jump in technology to online programs and family trees is so great now, that it is as if they were starting from scratch and many resist this change with anger and frustration. Sometimes I feel more like a therapist than a teacher.

I am reasonably sure that this attitude towards advances in technology is not limited to genealogists because I am also reasonably sure that genealogists are merely a representative sample of the greater population. I think good examples of this tendency are the statements made about the fact that younger people are more open to technological changes and therefore can "do the new tech based genealogy" better than older people. Well, my experience is that younger people have the same set of limitations and attitudes as their parents and grandparents. Being able to text or use a game machine does not equate into an ability to do genealogical research. There seems to be a dichotomy here between the tendency some states in the United States have to raise the driving age and the assumption that young people can manage technology better than old people. What would happen if we lowered the driving age from infinity to age 65? There is something else going on here.

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