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

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Why do I focus on the technology?

Isn't it really the case that technology is just one aspect of genealogy? Does the genealogical community revolve around any one group or central core of a certain type of genealogist? Let me go back in time and see whether this type of question can be answered. I believe it might help to understand the current technological focus of my own interest in genealogy.

My Great-grandmother, Mary Ann Linton Morgan, lived alone as a widow for about thirty years. By todays' standards, she was extremely poor and lived in a one or two room apartment with the bathroom down the hall. Her only cooking facility was a hot plate (a small electrical heating unit). She worked nights cleaning offices. Her apartment was in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah on South Temple, directly across the street from Temple Square. For the last thirty or so years of her life, she spent most of her free time compiling and researching her ancestry and that of her deceased husband, John Morgan. She died when I was seven years old, but I have no memories of ever meeting her. She did not get along at all well with her grandchildren and the very few accounts I have been able to find of her reflect that antipathy.

Mary Morgan's efforts to extend her genealogy were primarily focused on then very limited collection of records in the predecessor to the current Family History Library and what she could learn through letter writing. What were the results of all that effort?

When I was growing up, I was told repeatedly by relatives, that "my genealogy was all done" by people such as my Great-grandmother and other relatives. The evidence for these statements consisted of a series of books written specifically about several of my ancestors. I have mentioned these books previously. When, through a series of incidents in my own life, I became interested in researching my family, I very quickly discovered that the research about my family was far from complete. Here was the quandary: my Great-grandmother was supposed to have done all this genealogy, but as far as I could tell,  all of her research papers etc. had vanished without a trace. As I went to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah year after year, to attempt to piece together my ancestors, I hardly found any trace at all of anything Mary Morgan had done. What happened to all that genealogy she supposedly worked on for thirty years? I had heard reports from family members that Mary's accumulated research had been stored in a huge pile of boxes in a garage somewhere. But had no idea what happened to all of her work.

After I had been working on my family lines for many years, my mother finally revealed that Mary Morgan's life work had been sitting in my aunt's basement all this time. My mother agreed to retrieve the boxes if I wanted them. I spent many years going through the records, ultimately digitizing all of them and then donating the records to the Brigham Young University, L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library. Digital copies of all the records were made available to several libraries and other entities. You can presently see the entire collection on the computers at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.

I relate this story for several reasons:

  1. Because of Mary Morgan's family's antipathy towards her and lack of interest in genealogy, her records were almost lost.
  2. As I reviewed the considerable amount of data and records she had accumulated, I found she had recorded some of her family members up to three times. I expect that she did the research over at least that many times.
  3. The records were difficult to process because there was no master index or similar document to the records. All of her research was done well before computers became available.
  4. Even after the records were "discovered," they were still unavailable to family members until I digitized the records and had the original records and the digital copies made generally available. 

Many genealogists find themselves in exactly the same position as Mary Morgan. They have accumulated a significant amount of genealogical data and either because of the attitude of their immediate family members or their own unwillingness to share the data with others, have put themselves in the position of losing all of their work once they die.

I also suspect that paper-based genealogists, in many cases, have duplicated their own efforts due to an inefficient system of recording all of their ancestors. While I was entering Mary Morgan's research into a variety of successive genealogy programs, I found it necessary to search for duplicate entries every time I entered a name into the programs. This was extremely time consuming. Even though I did this consistently, I still find duplicates to this day due to the lack of any of the program's ability to detect all of the duplicates.

Keeping track of over 16,000 names became more and more difficult. My personal experience makes me strongly doubt that people who claim huge numbers of accumulated ancestors really comprehend what they have in their files. There are certainly genealogical database programs that can handle huge numbers of entries, but simply having names listed in a file does not confer the information necessary to document each individual. I suspect that, in many cases, very large files consist either of copies from unverified pedigrees or extractions of names from documents without individual verification of each entry.

Very many current genealogists, despite the availability of online methods of sharing their files, still cling to their genealogical research and refuse to share it, even with interested family members. With the exception of some of my own children, over the past 32 years of doing research on all of my family lines and sharing that information online, I have had relatively few individuals interested in collaborating on any research on any line.

What I find puzzling is that there are some people who are not only unwilling to share their genealogy and thereby risk losing everything they have done when they die, but are antagonistic about putting their genealogy online. Even if these people have adopted some sort of computer program, they still refuse to share the data they have in their files for a variety of reasons which they feel entirely justify their actions. I do not believe that my Great-grandmother intentionally failed to share her research. She did not have the tools to do so. But even assuming she had been willing to share, it was the negative attitude of her immediate family towards genealogy in general that caused the records to be almost lost to the entire family.

Obviously, I am not through with this subject.

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