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

Friday, October 3, 2014

How online genealogical database programs operate - Part One

I realized I had hit upon a goldmine of a hypothetical when I came up with the Dreamland of Genealogy (DOG). I needed just such a concept to keep from seeming to pick on any one large online database in the name of fairness and the fact that they all need to improve. So now you, the reader, will have to figure out which of the large online companies I am picking on. Of course, on occasion, it will be necessary to be specific and leave my hypothetical world for a while.

During the past few weeks I have been working at the Brigham Young University (BYU) Family History Library any where from 3 or 4 to 11 hours a day answering questions and teaching classes. By the way, the schedule for the classes during the week of October 6th through 11th are on the Library's Facebook page. Everyone and anyone is invited to attend. The topic will be FamilySearch Family Tree in depth. One result of such intensive teaching and support has been listening to a huge variety of questions and concerns. As a result, there are certain patterns emerging.

One of the most common problems, not surprisingly, is the need for logins and passwords for online database websites. By coming to a library, the patrons and missionaries are leaving their own computers at home and forced to remember logins and passwords that their browsers remember for them at home. Many of them come with pieces of paper covered with writing and have to search for the tiny scratchy note they made when they registered for the website. I am well aware that there are programs that will organize passwords and remember them from one master password or using some other type of technology. But the challenge in the BYU library is that the users need a password to get into the BYU computers before they ever get to their own set of passwords. Since it is up to the individuals to remember all these passwords, I guess I don't have a ready solution to the problem, other than helping them restore the passwords when forgotten.

But there is a more serious underlying problem. This is the need to interact with an online genealogical database. For this reason, I started to think about these websites in a general way. What do they all have in common?  How do they operate? Why do they exist? Here are some of my thoughts on those, and other, questions.

There is a universal need to communicate and store information. You might recall that writing was developed just for those purposes. Storing and communicating online is just the illogical and surprising extension of the Babylonian Cuneiform Tablet. The evolution of the Internet probably made email, social networking, online advertising, streaming movies and databases inevitable developments. Genealogical databases are just a sideshow to the vast amounts of information being poured online in the name of preservation and even entertainment. Centralization of these online resources is also a natural consequence.

But how do DOG and its real-world counterparts become so big? A little history always helps to clarify any such question.

Back when the Internet was just beginning and the World Wide Web was just an idea in the head of Tim Berners-Lee, two recent graduates from Brigham Young University, Paul B. Allen and Dan Taggart, had the idea to offer copies of publications from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on floppy disks. They developed the idea and began selling the disks out of their car. The company they founded, Infobases, Inc., ultimately became through a lot of growth and some changes in ownership. In 1997, the website,, had first appeared.

Being first had its advantages although maintaining the lead took a lot of money and effort. If you read about the history of, you will see that even in those early days, the amounts of money involved were into the millions of dollars. The key idea was coupling an online database with the time-honored concept of a subscription. As they say, the rest is history. People can easily understand the concept that periodic payments are a useful way to obtain products. Our whole society is built around the concept of payments over time from salaries to taxes. Key to the development genealogical databases was the lightning speed at which the needed technology was developing especially the ability to create digital images and display them across the Internet.

This was only the beginning. We need to move a little bit further down the road in another post about the operation of the online genealogical database programs. Stay tuned.


  1. Dreamland of Genealogy might even be a better name that Genealogy's Star.

    1. Yes, but I think we are stuck with Genealogy's Star for better or for worse.