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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The threat of online genealogical databases

I am constantly reminded that a significant number of genealogists are almost completely isolated from online genealogical resources. The occurs for a number of reasons:

  • lack of computer skills
  • lack of online network skills
  • fear of identity theft and other online dangers
  • lack of basic reading and research skills
  • lack of economic resources
  • lack of the physical ability to keyboard or operate tracking devices such as a mouse or trackpad
  • fear of losing data to others 

The list can go on and on. But there is one online challenge that is common to all genealogical researchers; the overwhelmingly large number of websites containing genealogical information. No one person can possibly comprehend, much less, utilize all of the online resources. Genealogists react to this monumental abundance of data in a variety of ways. One coping comment involves a statement concerning the number of records that have yet to be digitized and made available online. The oft repeated comment involves various estimates of the number of records left to be digitized. The gist of the comments refer to the fact that "not all genealogical resources are online" and the comment is used as an excuse for ignoring what is already available. This is sort of situation where it is believed that "real genealogists look at paper" and that those concentrating on online sources are somehow missing the essence of genealogical research, which is of course, sitting in libraries, archives and court houses around the world looking at dusty old records.

Estimates of the actual percentage of the world's records that are now available online vary immensely. I have heard that only 5% of the records are online and that digitizing the remaining 95% is a hopeless task. After spending quite a bit of time researching the issue, it seems to me that the answer is no one knows. The reality of the situation is that for many researchers, the number of online records has grown to such a huge number that there is hardly enough time left in any one person's life to review them and incorporate them into their research.

The availability of online genealogically significant records varies immensely depending on the political and geographic location of those records. But one factor that I have repeatedly observed is that most researchers do not know how to find what is already there online. During my recent week in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, I came away with several dramatic instances where researchers in the Library were confronted with the issue that the very records they were seeking by coming to the Library had been available to them all along online. It was sad that they had to come all the way to Salt Lake City to find out that fact.

At the beginning of this post I outlined several reasons why genealogists do not become involved in researching online. This points out some other issues with online research. Here are some of those issues:

  • the online records are available but held by subscription only websites
  • the online records are available but in a language not readily useful to the researcher
  • the online records are available but in obscure websites that are difficult to use or even find
  • the online records are not indexed and must be searched as if they were on paper

Again, the list could go on, but the idea here is that many records are, in fact, available but very difficult to find and identify. The genealogist may not be subject to the woes and ills listed above, but still lack the online skills necessary to find existing records. When I talk to researchers about the huge online resources that exist, many see this as a threat rather than a opportunity. The reaction is that the researchers revert to their paper-based genealogy as a defense against this feeling of inadequacy.

The truth, for many of the genealogists from countries where the Internet is easily available, it that there are usually adequate online records available to construct a sourced pedigree extending back from 200 to 300 year without recourse to paper records. Although it might be necessary to scour online images without indexes. Some of the researchers also view this fact as a threat.

What is the real danger? The real danger is that the upcoming, younger genealogists who have grown up with the Internet as a fact of life, will begin to believe that it does, in fact, contain all truth and knowledge and that will become the real threat of the online genealogical databases.

5 comments:

  1. I saw the words "threat" and "on-line" and assumed you were going to talk about on-line trees and their errors.

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    1. Sorry, I got tired of that issue for a while.

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  2. “One coping comment involves a statement concerning the number of records that have yet to be digitized and made available online.”

    That is not a coping comment it is trying to make people aware that there are vast piles of records that are available in physical form that are not and probably will never be digitised.
    Two of the real dangers of the internet are people who have grown up with it have no idea what is available in physical form and also people do not understand that there may be a number of records for the same event but only one has been digitised.

    This ties in with your sources posting..

    Cheers
    Guy

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    1. Well, I hear it from people who have no idea what is actually online. In that sense it is a coping comment.

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    2. James, you say "The real danger is that the upcoming, younger genealogists who have grown up with the Internet as a fact of life, will begin to believe that it does, in fact, contain all truth and knowledge and that will become the real threat of the online genealogical databases."

      I wish I could recall the details and who reported it, but several years ago (at least three) a FHC was reported to be getting rid of all of its microfilm readers because some official there believed "everything is on line." I think this was in the Los Angeles area.

      It is not just youngster-newbies who have this grossly mistaken belief now -- not just in the future.

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