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

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Just over the horizon -- the future of genealogical research

Yesterday, in the evening, the electricity went off briefly, crashing all of our electronic devices. It took us a few minutes to recover and fortunately no data was lost. However, this brief experience took me back to my childhood, living in a small town where consistent electrical service was still a dream in the future. We had kerosene lamps and candles to backup our intermittent electrical service. What was then a regularly occurring event of little consequence, loss of power today is considered a national disaster. 

We have become so dependent on maintaining a certain level of technology, I fear we have put ourselves into a precarious position both materially, intellectually and even spiritually. I happened to mention to one of my acquaintances that we were going camping this past week. The reaction to my statement was surprising, she asked, "Camping, you mean sleeping on the ground?" Well, yes, in our case it does involve sleeping on the ground. As I thought about this reaction, I realized that technology often equates to isolation from some the previously common harsh realities of our human existence. From my standpoint, going camping for a few days involved me returning to well over 200 pending email messages as well as hundreds of unreviewed blog posts on my reader program. 

When I compare my younger experiences of spending almost entire summers without TVs or any of the other electronic devices that populate our world today and my immersed experience of living with the web as an integral part of my life, I am struck by the contrast. One thing is certain however, I do not long to go back to the pre-electronic days. Part of the overwhelming contrast in our world today is that there are those, like myself, who spend a majority of their time connected to a world community and others who are living in even more primitive conditions than I did as a child. What is interesting about this observation is that some of those people living in those primitive conditions are living within a few houses or blocks of where I do now. I do not have to travel to a "third-world" country to find people who, for a variety of reasons, eschew electronics. 

I had an experience just this week helping a patron at the Brigham Young University Family History Library, that points out the challenges of the complexity of our world. This patron was looking for an ancestor that lived in the late 1800s and died well into the 20th Century. The first thing this patron told me was that they had done quite a bit of "research" on this family and that the courthouse where they lived had burned down and they could not find any records. During the next few minutes, I found that they had the children of the elusive ancestor in the 1940 and 1930 U.S. Census records. After only a brief period of research, I found that they had not identified the town where the known ancestor was born or where he lived, despite having looked at the Census records which contained the information identifying the town where the ancestor lived. After a very short search, I found the 1920 U.S. Census Record for this family when we ran out of time due to the late hour and the end of our day at the library. 

These observations and incidents points out an important fact about the future of genealogy. As we become more and more dependent on technology, we begin to lose our ability to function at a basic level. Over the past weekend we had rain, wind and snow to contend with as part of our camping experience. It turns out that these are exactly the things that would cause most people to stay home. On the other end of this issue, I am finding that the online world is so complex that many researchers cannot comprehend exactly what it is we are trying to do as genealogists. Just as this patron failed to realize that the destruction of a local courthouse had little or nothing to do with U.S. Census records, we have become so entangled in technology that we cannot function either with or without it. 

One thing is certain, the amount of information available by electronic means will continue to grow at an ever increasing rate. Here is a statement that I found interesting from the Frequently Asked Questions on the website maintained by the U.S. National Archives:
How do I get census records? 
Federal population census records, 1790-1930, are available for research at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, and in Regional Archives throughout the country. The National Archives at College Park does not have census records. 
Please note that the 1940 census is the most recent one available for research. You can also access information about the 1930 census
Some libraries and other research institutions have purchased copies of Federal censuses. Check with your local library or genealogical society to see if the census may be available in your area.
Can I order copies of census materials by mail? 
NARA will only copy exactly identified pages of the Federal census. To use this service, you must provide the following:
  • census year
  • name of the individual listed
  • exact page number
  • state
  • county
  • enumeration district (1880-1920 only)
Copies of the exact census page can now be ordered online, as well as through the NATF Form 82 (National Archives Order for Copies of Census Records). 
What if I don't know the exact page of the census? 
You might be able to find census indexes near you. Check with your local librarian or genealogical society. Private firms have produced indexes to census records for specific years, generally 1790-1870. These are widely available throughout the country in libraries that have genealogical collections. In addition to these printed indexes, there are microfilm indexes to the 1900 and 1920 census and partial indexes to the 1880 and 1910 census. 
From these indexes, you can determine the exact page on which a family was enumerated. With that information, you can use the NATF Form 82 to order a copy of the page. Use the online Inquire form to request NATF Form 82. 
For more information, please visit How to Use NARA's Census Microfilm Catalogs.
Did you realize how complicated it is to obtain a copy of an individual U.S. Census page? Really, this is a copy of the current page from the U.S. Archives. The point here is that we are all caught up in this situation of being behind the technology to some extent or another. Just as the patron at the BYU Family History Library somehow equated loss of courthouse records with lack of records at all, we are facing a tremendous burden of keeping up with what is and what is not available to us online. While at the same time, we often forget that the same information is available in a book sitting on a shelf in a library close to where we live.

Genealogical research is often portrayed as becoming easier and more accessible. This is usually the theme of the larger online genealogical companies and archives. In my opinion, the opposite is actually the truth. As we expand the reach of our electronic world, we are making it more and more difficult for any one individual to comprehend the scope of what is available and to be able to adapt to and utilize the tools we already have in light of changes happening every day.

What is certain about the future is that there will be even more information available in a greater variety of formats and from a greater number of devices. What is also certain is that genealogists will increasing struggle to comprehend and absorb the huge flood of data that is steadily becoming more available. At the same time, the contrast between those who manage to keep afloat in this ocean of information and those who sink and cannot swim in the flood, will become even greater as time goes on.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said. And its going to get worse.

    The influx of new genealogists brought on by the TV shows like WDYTYA, big conferences like RootsTech, the work by online companies like MyHeritage to produce instant genealogies to newbies, and the DNA gorilla will add a multitude of inexperienced researchers who will blindly believe and regurgitate all the info they find about any John Smith as if it he was their own.

    They will, as you state, be lost in the forest of resources available.

    But most of the fun isn't the result, but is the journey. There's lots of fun coming in our hobby of choice.