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

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Value of Old vs. New Genealogy or Myth vs. Fact

Genealogy is not technology. It is historical research. Genealogy does not go out-of-date. History does not change merely because we get faster or more powerful computers and computer programs. The digitized records that are going online by the millions, were always there, waiting for a careful and persistent researcher to find and use. I recently was following an online discussion where several disparaging references were made about "old books in the public domain." The focus of the discussion was the assumption that all ebooks were valueless to genealogists because they were limited to old, inaccurate genealogies. Those participating in the discussion, who were supposed to be genealogists, seemed totally unaware of the reality of ebooks and what is happening in the digital world.

Let's start with the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. The collection in Library is described as follows on its webpage.
The collection includes over 2.4 million rolls of microfilmed genealogical records; 727,000 microfiche; 356,000 books, serials, and other formats; over 4,500 periodicals and 3,725 electronic resources.
Now, the microfilm is being processed and digitized into the Historical Record Collections at an ever increasing rate. There are no current statistics available, but here is a sample of the rate of digitization from 2012 in a post entitled, "Executive Corner: FamilySearch 2012 Accomplishments:"
What Was Added in 2012
  • Digital Images Added: 297,695,589
  • Indexed Records Added: 408,154,952
  • New Collections Added: 381
  • New Countries Added: 10
  • New Books Added: 40,849
From the same post, here is the status of the online collections from FamilySearch at the beginning of 2013. Interestingly, in all of the discussion online that I mentioned above, there was not one reference to FamilySearch. Where I have later numbers, I have included them in parenthesis and in bold.
  • Number of names in searchable databases Over 3.5 billion
  • Number of historic records published online each month Over 35 million
  • Number of digital images published online each month from
  • original source documents Over 33 million
  • Number of searchable historic record collections online 1,363 (current number: 2020)
  • Number of indexed names published per year Over 200 million
  • Average daily page views Over 5 million
  • Average daily visits Over 200,000
  • Average daily visitors Over 85,000
  • Page views since launch Over 16.6 billion
  • Visits since launch 712 million
  • Visitors since launch 308 million
  • Number of online indexing volunteers Over 200,000
  • Number of registered users Over 1 million
  • Number of family history centers 4,600 in 126 countries
  • Number of digital books Over 60,000 (current number: over 150,000)
How many books are in the Family History Library, the largest such library in the world? The number given above from the Library is approximately 356,000. How many of those books have now been digitized? Well, the numbers from 2012 are really out-of-date. The current number of digitized books in the online collection on is well over 150,000. I cannot find a current number; the most current number I have is from October of 2014.

What do these numbers show? First of all, about half of the paper books in the Library have already been digitized and are online for free from If I were to buy into the opinions of the genealogists in the online discussion, I would have to assume that almost half of the books in the Family History Library were inaccurate and out-of-date because they were now in ebook format.

The reality here is clear. The digitization of a book has nothing at all to do with its value to a genealogical researcher. Digitization merely makes the books more accessible. Of course, I have not yet added in the following information about the number of genealogy books on these websites:

  • has thousands of digitized books including some recent publications such as The Great Migration and The Great Migration Begins, 1620-1635.
  • has 120,644 genealogy books completely digitized and freely available online
  • The Digital Library has 13,657,194 digitized volumes and 603,823 of those digitized books come up with a search on the term "genealogy." Many of these are fully digitized and freely viewable online.
  • Heritage Quest Online, which is available through many public libraries, has 28,000 family and local history books online. Many of these are currently published and copyright protected books.
This list could go on and on. I mentioned previously that one of my friends at the Family History Library was surprised that many of the paper books had been removed from the shelves. These were not "old, useless books," but valuable research items. The truth is that all these removed books are now freely available online. Can we assume that all these books are out-of-copyright and useless? No. In fact, the Family History Library and many other libraries are making plans to allow current copyright protected books to be checked out online, just like any other book in the library. 

Some libraries have truly unique and genealogically valuable books and other records. These should be made more available to all of the world's genealogists through digitization. Complaining about the availability of paper books is what is really out-of-date. Rather than complain about the closing of libraries paper book collections, perhaps more effort should be made to allow free access to all books online. 

By the way, if an old "genealogy book" was written a 100 years ago, it does not mean the book has no value or that modern books are more "accurate." You have to understand that when an old book was written about a family, many or all of the people in the book were still alive and could provide their own information. There well may be no listed sources, but the information is first-hand. There is no more guarantee that the current copyright protected book is any more accurate than an old one. It is time to realize that we will all be reading books online or on our mobile devices before long. 

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your points, James, but I love the first 4 sentences. Great introduction!