|View of the majestic Mount Everest from the Rongbuk valley, close to base camp and the terminus of the Rongbuk glacier at 5,200m.|
On May 29, 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Sir Endmund Hillary reached the summit of Mount Everest. They were the first two people known to reach the summit. Mount Everest, also known in Nepal as Sagarmāthā and in Tibet as Chomolungma, is Earth's highest mountain. It is located in the Mahalangur section of the Himalayas. Its peak is 8,848 meters (29,029 ft) above sea level. See Wikipedia: Mount Everest. Since that historic climb, more than 4000 people have climbed the mountain. See "Climbing Mount Everest: what you need to know." In 2013, 658 people climbed to the summit. See "Everest 2013: Season Recap: Summits, Records and Fights."
There is a profound lesson here for genealogists. No, I am not going to make any trite comparisons about climbing mountains and doing genealogy. My point is simple: technology makes a difference. There is a "first-time" factor, that is, the first time something is done, the act dispels any illusions that the accomplishment is impossible, but in this case the numbers of people presently reaching the summit are more a result of improvements in technology rather than any other factors.
Likewise, technology has had a profound effect on genealogical research and has pushed the limits of what was believed possible. My involvement with research spans the time period from the time when we were solely restricted to paper to the recent digitized document era. I can remember doing some research my senior year in high school on the U.S. Civil War. I wanted to write a short paper on one battle of the war. I went to the Phoenix Public Library and searched for books on the war and I failed to find even one book with details of the battles. Today, that may seem incredible, but by the time I was in high school, I had almost ten years of searching in that library and knew exactly how to find books in the card catalog and on the shelves and I knew there were no useful books about the Civil War.
I finally found what I was looking for in an article in a copy of the Encyclopedia Americana and wrote my paper on the Battle of Chattanooga. Today, that same search, using the Internet, would take me, perhaps, ten seconds and I would have hundreds of articles and books on the subject.
The same thing has happened to my genealogical research. I may have mentioned this before, but my first encounter with the U.S. Federal Census records was at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, probably in about 1983 or so. I remember being shown a huge cabinet containing rolls of microfilm and finding the roll I was interested in viewing. Unfortunately, the images on the roll turned out to be so bad, that I abandoned the effort. I don't believe I looked at a U.S. Census record again until many years later when I began using the paper copies of the Soundex indexes at the Mesa FamilySearch Library. Just in case you are wondering what I did for twenty years, I spent most of that time entering my accumulated family data into a series of computers and researching and correcting the entries. It took me that long to determine what research had and what had not been done. As a side note, very little, if any, of my original research has been obtained from the U.S. Census, although I have now added the appropriate references where available. In other words, unlike would be very common today, I didn't use the U.S. Federal Census as the primary source for my initial research.
Today, If I wanted to make the same review of the status of my family's previous research, that is, find out what has and what has not been done in my family. I could do the review in a matter of a few days. The combined efforts of all of my previous family members are readily available to me on FamilySearch.org's Family Tree.
This is what Mount Everest and genealogy have in common. At the time Hillary and Tenzing climbed the mountain, it took a huge, expensive expedition with 15 climbers and 362 porters. There were, at the end, more than 400 people who participated in the expedition and they had over ten thousand pounds of baggage. Today, climbing Mount Everest involves primarily physical conditioning, a desire to climb the mountain and a thousands of dollars for equipment and permits. Hillary's pack weighed about 44 pounds, the same gear today weighs less than half that amount. For example, cell phone service is now available on the summit of Mount Everest. See National Geographic's, "Everest Climbing Gear: Hillary to Hilaree."
Lately, genealogy has begun another, more dramatic, technological step that will push research into the 21st Century. Huge online programs have begun using sophisticated search algorithms to find source hints with digitized documents. For many new genealogists, finding their ancestors is just a matter of rapidly reviewing and evaluating documents suggested by the programs. Of course, as always, there are the detractors who claim that using the technology is somehow unacceptable, but the changes will come even more rapidly in the future. The old way of doing genealogy that I used thirty years ago is gone.
By the way, can you name the third person to summit Mount Everest? There is a lesson here also.