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

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part Fourteen: Scientific Research?

Will technology eventually obviate the need for individual research? Some of the large online genealogical database programs have implemented sophisticated search programs that match entries on a family tree with their indexed records. The accuracy of these programs has been increasing dramatically over the past few years. Innovations and increases in the accuracy of these record matches or hints has been driven primarily by new developments from In addition, each of the large genealogy database. commercial companies has now partnered, to a greater or lesser degree, with one or more of the DNA companies that specialize in providing information about potential ancestral links.

Will determining our ancestry become so simple that all you will need to do is fill out a form, pay your money and download your complete pedigree? What if all the governments in the world began requiring universal, mandatory DNA testing? Given the breakdown of "traditional" family units, will this be the only way people can establish their blood relationships?

The record hinting technologies have some severe limitations. Most obviously, the records searched must not only be digitized, they must also be accurately indexed. The digitized copies, upon which the searches and matches are based, can only be as readable as the originals despite the existence of image enhancement technology. In addition, the record hints are absolutely limited by the actual records searched by the particular company. If they don't have the pertinent records in their database, they cannot find your ancestor.

Likewise, DNA testing and matching have their own limitations. But DNA testing comes with additional less obvious implications. Here is a quote from the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health & Human Services.
Many of the risks associated with genetic testing involve the emotional, social, or financial consequences of the test results. People may feel angry, depressed, anxious, or guilty about their results. In some cases, genetic testing creates tension within a family because the results can reveal information about other family members in addition to the person who is tested. The possibility of genetic discrimination in employment or insurance is also a concern. (Refer to What is genetic discrimination? for additional information.)
This type of reaction is not limited to strictly genetic testing. Finding out that you are adopted can be just as unsettling. Ancestral DNA testing has its own controversial aspects. See the following:
Let's just say that I am not worried that doing individual genealogical research will become obsolete anytime soon. But it is very apparent that technological and scientific innovations are having and will continue to have a tremendous impact on the way that research is conducted.

Let's suppose that you are just starting out in your ancestral investigations today and you are well acquainted with computer technology and are an avid participant in online social networking. Let's further suppose that you haven't been in a physical library in years and have never seen a real physical roll of microfilm in your lifetime. How will you approach the concept of researching your ancestry? How do you discover the vast number of records that require more than a cursory online search? You note that the online video presentations from the RootsTech 2015 Conference apparently make little or no reference to finding your family in libraries, archives or other record repositories. Couldn't you conclude that doing "genealogical research" currently is limited to searching online?

Perhaps the perception that doing genealogical research online is sufficient overshadows the reality of online investigations. This past couple of weeks, I have been directly and intensely involved in searching through microfilmed records. What are the chances that those microfilms will be "digitized" and indexed in the near future? My guess, interestingly enough, is that there is only a very slim chance that the particular records I have been searching will be indexed or available to search online anytime in the near future. Even more evident to me is the fact that there are a huge number of records that remain off line.

Last night, we were checking the availability of some Swedish records. Many of the Swedish records have been digitized and are currently searchable online. But the average online savvy researcher might be surprised how many more records there are that are still locked up in microfilm.

The way research is conducted has changed with the changes in technology, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Previous installments of this series include:

1 comment:

  1. I have been criticized in the past for not subscribing to Ancestry. I did subscribe early in my family research pursuits but soon found that I obtained a skewed view of options of what lines where mine in my inexperience at that time. For example, if I searched for a name and a date and only one showed up with that name and date in their particular data base I thought that was my ancestor. I ddi not realize that there are a whole lot of folks with that name and birth date not in their data base. Especially as the dates become earlier in time. Certainly, they have a lot more in their data base than they did in 2003 but still as you note in your excellent post there are many more records that are not in their data base. I find I enjoy emailing and even visiting the various little county historical societies and libraries across the country. And I prefer to use my genealogy budget in that manner rather than paying for an online subscription. That doesn't mean I won't ever subscribe sometime for three months. But probably not anytime soon.