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

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Digital Impact on Genealogy -- an updated perspective

I have been reading an interesting book. Here is the cite to the book:

Edwards, Andrew V. Digital Is Destroying Everything: What the Tech Giants Won't Tell You About How Robots, Big Data, and Algorithms Are Radically Remaking Your Future. 2015.

I realized that many of impacts of the digital world were also spilling over into the genealogical community. I have mentioned a few of these before, but, while reading the book, I have been thinking about the subject and realized that the effects are even more far reaching than I had previously anticipated. 

One observation; I am old. I will not live to see all of the changes that are occurring. The analogy is that I am like on of the people who lived in St. Johns, Apache, Arizona back in the early 1900s when the first car came to town. They, like most of us today facing the digital revolution, could not see the impact that the technology, in their case, the automobile, would have on their lives and their town. We are essentially in the same condition. We are facing a time of huge changes due to the digital world invading almost every aspect of our lives. 

One of the observations made in the above book is about large music performances. The author makes the observation that in 1994 there were more than 200 music stadium shows around the United States, but by 2004, there were only 46. The author attributes that decline to the decentralization of the music industry caused by the availability of online, digital music. He goes on to discuss the impact of the digital world on newspapers and other aspects of our world. 

What are the main indications of the impact of the digitization of genealogy? Well, for me, the most obvious is going on right now with one of my friends. I am helping with some research in Mexico. So far, all of the records he has needed to look at for his family have been found online on No visits to a Family History Center to look at microfilm. No searching online. No writing letters or visiting dusty archives. All this was done from his computer in his home. 

Let's suppose that FamilySearch achieves its goal of digitizing all (or nearly all) of the microfilm records in its collections. I would guess that at the present rate of digitization, this will occur in the next few years. Let's further suppose that the other large online genealogical database programs continue increasing their holdings. Going even further, let's suppose that many other institutions and archives continue their digitization processes. As I have observed previously, why would I need to go to a library? The return comment is, what about personal help? Don't I still need to go to classes? Don't I still need to ask questions?

Well, think about webinars. The genealogical community has already been substantially impacted by the common availability of webinars. Every single week there is a webinar from someone in the genealogical community. Just as the musical industry and the newspaper industry have been dramatically decentralized, eventually the genealogical community will begin to feel this impact even more dramatically than it has in the past. I have made observations about the effect of these changes on the genealogical conference circuit. I was reminded of this this week with a discussion among some genealogists about the impact on a local conference here in Utah. Just as some local retailers are having difficulty competing with Walmart and the online giant, through blogs, webinars, online conferences, and other digital offerings I have access to almost any genealogist in the United States. Why would I travel and pay money to go see a prominent genealogist if I can read her blog, listen to her speak, watch a recorded class and read her online digital book?

I admit, there is some "celebrity" attraction. But how many superstar genealogists do we really have?

Although there are some of us who know the reality, the general impression in the genealogical community is that "everything is online." In my opinion, the point where this was true for most people happened years ago. So, what I see today when I go to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City Utah is a bunch of people sitting at computers. I still go to the Family History Library because there are things there that I cannot easily obtain online. But, as I observed above, what if all the microfilms and other documents were available online? How often would I need to go to the Family History Library then?

From my own very personal perspective, I am primarily teaching at the Brigham Young University Family History Library. Many of the classes I teach here are being "digitized" and made available on the BYU Family History Library YouTube channel. I have been regularly putting up new presentations. Some of these online videos are receiving thousands of views. From the standpoint of reaching a large audience and further from the standpoint of saving scarce resources, i.e. my time, it is far more effective for me to do a video than to teach a class at a conference.

If you're reading this blog, you are being affected by the digital revolution. Think about that.

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