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I recently attended a one-day conference. After listening to the presentations on a variety of genealogical subjects, I noted that none of the presenters even mentioned the fact that much of the "research" they were talking about was being done automatically by the large online genealogical database programs. None of the presenters even alluded to the fact that the average beginning genealogist around the world could also plug into a huge online community of potential relatives. From a traditional (outmoded) standpoint, their presentations were remarkable in their depth and detail. The main problem was that many of the techniques and methodology they covered were obsolete. Yes, I am saying that the Emperor has no clothes. I might also mention that during this whole presentation, in between classes and at lunch, I had a very interesting discussion with some very knowledgeable genealogists about some of more pertinent issues facing genealogists today.
The lone mention of technology was one presentation on the use of DNA, hardly a new or very novel idea. Even the mention of DNA failed to further mention the advantages of using the online programs to find candidates for the DNA matches.
It is like trains passing in the night. The "big names" in genealogy talk about everything except the revolutionary changes occurring almost daily. There are presently 281 classes scheduled for RootsTech 2016. There is one class on FamilySearch Hinting. There are two classes that talk about "going beyond hints." What is entirely missing is even one class on what is going on in the larger genealogical context with automatic record search technologies. It doesn't look like RootsTech 2016 will touch on the subject of the new paradigm, at least not in any classes I see scheduled so far.
What exactly is going on? Today Ancestry.com announced the addition of over 220 million indexed, searchable Mexican historical records. It is very probable that those with Mexican ancestry who have a family tree on the Ancestry.com website will shortly start to receive "Green Leaf" record hints for these records. Of course if you are an experienced researcher in Mexican Civil Registration records and Catholic Church Parish Registers and Bishop's Transcripts, you have likely used similar records on FamilySearch.org, few of which are indexed. The important point is the issue of "record hints." Failure to obtain record hints does not mean that the records are missing, but receiving record hints is a big step forward if you have been working your way, name by name, through years of parish registers. As more records are added to the huge collections online and then indexed (or indexed and then added as is the case with Ancestry.com) then record hinting moves forward helping to find more individual ancestors and families. FamilySearch is calling this "Fueling the Find."
Now don't get me wrong. I have recently been searching through microfilmed records that are still not digitized. But I also have tens of thousands of record hints waiting for me to process, primarily on MyHeritage.com but also on FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com and Findmypast.com. In the past few months both my wife and I have been measurably assisting in resolving some 100 year old end-of-line situations with the assistance of record hints from all four of these websites.
What we have here is the classic confrontation between a traditional methodology and new technology that radically changes that traditional methodology. Those genealogists with the most extensive training in the "traditional methodology" are the ones that most resist the changes. They do this by focusing on the details of the methodology, such as citation format and proof statements, and try to ignore the impact of the technological changes. Where genealogy was an arcane, marginal pursuit practiced by a few dedicated people, it is now becoming an open, rapidly developing, technologically driven, populous enterprise, and a big business to boot.
Think about the effect of industrialization and technology on consumer products. If you go back just 100 years or so, most of the products used by people in the United States were produced locally and many were handmade. In 1915 the first automobile had yet to visit the town where my grandparents lived. They had never seen an airplane or if they had, it was a novelty. They were still outside of the rural electrification effort and most of them did not have indoor plumbing. When I was young I saw my neighbors across the street abandon their privy and install indoor plumbing for the first time. I also remember crank telephones and a central, very local, switchboard with a live operator who sat in an office on the main street. There are still a lot of locally made and handmade items, but we certainly do not live in the same world my grandparents grew up in. I just drove 750 miles to and from Mesa, Arizona in a day, while talking on the telephone in my car from various locations along the way.
We are presently at one of those technological shifts, call it a revolution, in the world of information. I live on computers day and night. I am in almost constant contact with the entire world and carry on conversations around the globe. I just answered an email I got from Columbia in South America. Like it or not, genealogy is caught up in a paradigm shift. We have been using the same methods of research for hundreds of years. Suddenly this is all changing. We are moving from an individually oriented and solitary research mode into an open, online collaborative model. Instead of focusing on years of drudgery in researching the same records over and over again, we are being liberated from this redundancy. If someone, somewhere in the world discovers a document that answers one of my ancestral questions, there is now a possibility that I will benefit from his or her work. Likewise, if a wrong conclusion is reached by someone, I can correct it and show exactly where the answer can be found.
What is preventing this new technology from advancing even faster? In one word: ownership - the idea that we own the information we find as researchers. The FamilySearch.org Family Tree and the other online family trees are the antithesis of ownership. Some professional genealogists see this as a threat. If everyone can see and copy their conclusions, why will anyone pay them to spend the time and effort to write them in journals? So let's make reaching those conclusions as complex and difficult as possible. The answer is that the conclusions will be largely ignored by those involved online because they are guarded behind the legal curtain of copyright. I can't freely copy or incorporate your carefully crafted "proof statement" into my own family tree online because if I do so, you will threaten me with a lawsuit for "copyright violation" or try to intimidate me with accusations of plagiarism. The new paradigm includes an openness and disregard for proprietary claims that annoys and, in some cases, enrages those who "own" their research and conclusions.
Someone recently asked me if I could start over again doing all my research today, what would I change. That is exactly the subject of this post and series. The fact is that some things have not yet changed, but the things that have changed have done so dramatically. I have already mentioned that the first 15 years or so of my genealogical investigations (not really research) could now be condensed into a few days or weeks. If this is true, then how is what we can do now the same and how is it different than what went on before and what is still going on?
By asking those questions, now I can get to the next level of involvement with the information revolution. I can now begin to tap into the common core of information and benefit from the collective consciousness. What is our relationship with the large online database companies? How do we implement the information provided by mass digitization without losing the craftsmanship needed to be accurate and detailed enough to prevent the same research being done over and over again? What are the real limits of these online juggernauts?
Well, this is why this post turned into a series. I need to summarize my thoughts at this point and then move on to some additional serious considerations.
If I were starting over today, I would put what I know of my family tree on several online database programs. I would then spend my time adding in all of the appropriate and pertinent records they provide me by hints. I would expect that at some point the online databases would run out of hints because of a lack of digitized records. I would also expect that, by relying on several of these programs, I would have additional records added constantly. Within a short time, say a few months, I would probably start to see a pattern. Some of my lines would be abundantly documented. Others lines would reach the end of the online documentation. I would then begin the process of searching on those lines that still remained unresolved. Here is where the difficulty begins. Unless a person has a certain level of online researching skills, there is no adequate way for that person to know whether or not the information he or she is looking for is "online" or not. At this point, the researcher moves into records that are still in older formats such as microfilm, paper, etc. However, as records are found, they are digitized and added to the common, unified family tree, thereby preventing future duplication of the same research. All this time, I would keep checking the record hints to see if any of the issues I observe have been resolved.
The "traditional" genealogist will never know whether or not the information is online or not, because they will have assumed that it is not or lack the online skills to determine that it is. Going back to the conference I alluded to at the beginning of this post, it was clear in several instances that the presenters were entirely unaware that the resources they were consulting were available online. In essence they were redoing paper research of online resources.
Stay tuned for the next installment.