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

Monday, April 6, 2015

Expanding Our View of What is Possible in Genealogical Research

View of the majestic Mount Everest from the Rongbuk valley, close to base camp and the terminus of the Rongbuk glacier at 5,200m.
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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'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.


  1. I love this article.

    Yes, the old way is gone. Long live the new way.

  2. James,

    Everything you say is (sort of) true. Yes it is easier to search online and there is an enormous amount of data available in various websites that can be helpful. One of the reasons, though, that you find it easier and quicker to use technology is that you spent all those decades going through documents and checking facts, so you know what is useful, what is accurate and what pertains to your particular family.

    The main problem now is that everyone getting into the game is not so knowledgeable. Many people think that doing genealogy is a walk in the park – just plug in a name and away you go, instant family tree!

    No matter what is said about the Internet, not all information about the people who may be your relatives in online. Far from it! And I think I have even seen you comment about that. There of thousands of pages of information in thousands of record office, libraries, court houses, government warehouses, etc. that have yet to be digitized; they probably never will be.

    If you do not learn what information is relevant to your family history studies and how to go about finding it, then your results will be nothing but shallow summaries of the real story, the kind we see every day in published family trees.

    Technology may be taking over much of the mundane work of sourcing some information but it won’t replace the considered thought processes of putting it all together no matter what those who think that there are or will be computer programs that can link everything seamlessly. If that were even possible all you would have to do in plug in your own name and a family tree going back hundreds of years would magically appear.

    1. Of course, the points you make are valid. But do we lock genealogy up into a "profession" like law or medicine and start prosecuting people for the unauthorized practice of genealogy?

    2. Hey, that might be worth a shot! :) But then there would not be as many family historians around for us to talk to. Thanks for continuing to provide great, informative commentary.

  3. It is one thing finding many new links to 2nd and 3rd and even 4th cousins, and expanding a tree sideways but it is quite another for most people trying to break backwards from certain known difficult points; for example London prior to the census, England & Wales during the rise of nonconformism between the late 17th century and 1753 Hardwicke's Marriage Act, and during the English civil wars when documents were destroyed. I know that counties in some of the US states have also suffered great loss of records and it is only the most painstaking work bringing together many sources and with deep investigation and weighing of evidence that allows small inroads be made into the genealogy puzzles and conundrums that those record gaps leave.

    Most of the "matches" on Ancestry don't help with these problems, often leading to other people's trees that are obviously erroneous. We may drown in unsifted information that the algorithm thinks is correct but I will be impressed if an algorithm can pick up clues from original documents (assuming that machines can be taught to read old style handwriting) using names and places that are spelled in a fluid manner and the sort of evidence that is obvious to a human but less so to a machine.

    Now, maybe it will come to pass that one day we will all be researching in the 17th century and earlier because we have built and confirmed all our trees back to that date, but somehow I doubt it, there are just too many record gaps, too much confusing evidence that needs to be weighed up and too much record context that needs to be taken into account. There are also too few people who are serious about getting their genealogy back this far.

    In my personal research I am far more interested in going back on each direct ancestral line than collecting cousins, and eventually all researchers get stuck with each line. I have sticking points from the 19th century on some lines and the 10th century in others, and all the other centuries in between. Like many people I have ended up choosing one or two family lines to really concentrate on finding out about, historical context, deep documentary research, although I will be excited to go backwards where I have previously got a little stuck due to records not yet being available online. I know many other researchers who feel the same way - names are one thing but it is the documentary historical research puzzle that is the really interesting part. If you take away that puzzling it out aspect then genealogy becomes something like stamp collecting. I believe there will still be a place for evidence based scholarly research, professional or amateur, even after the algorithms have connected everyone together.

    Mostly though I eagerly await the online translation service that will flawlessly translate medieval and early modern Latin documents into English. That I will get excited about!

    1. Much of what I learned collecting stamps has helped me with my genealogical research. You make some very good points that give me some ideas about future posts. Thanks so much.