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

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Digital vs. Paper -- A Genealogist's Viewpoint

The Leader of the Luddites
When I was in the sixth grade, I had one of the most unusual teachers in my whole school experience. One of the things she did was to create a debate between some of the students over the issue of solar power vs. atomic energy. This was way back when solar power was no more than an idea and the issues of using atomic energy were still in the future. Both groups (I was in the atomic energy group) did research and then presented their side of the story.

I have often thought about this debate over the years and when I moved to Mesa almost forty years ago, we soon installed a solar hot water system. I had come to understand the pros and cons of both solar and atomic and had moved from being an ardent supporter of atomic power plants to being a solar energy enthusiast. In later years, I even won an important lawsuit against home owners associations that would limit the installation of solar energy collectors.

What has this got to do with genealogy? Don't worry, I will get there eventually.

We have a lot of technological alternatives. Some of the options appear to be very appealing at first, but turn out to have extremely undesirable consequences. Then, collectively, we have to deal with the fact that adoption of a technology has caused us more problems than benefits. On the other hand, some technologies are so demonstrably superior, they soon become pervasive and eventually, universal. For example, if you go back in history, you will find that many industrial innovations (new technologies) were violently opposed by the very people who would ultimately benefit the most from their implementation. See "What the Luddites Really Fought Against," from the As this article point out, the term "luddite" has come to mean something quite different than what those early 19th Century Luddites were really trying to accomplish. Today we apply to the term to those who oppose technological change.

There is an implication that all technological change is good and all opposition to such change is bad. I don't think we can put value judgments on technological change at all. Technology is neither bad nor good. It is just that: technology. If you want to get into this aspect of technology, just read some of the arguments concerning the issue of "gun control."

Whether or not you believe any particular technological change is beneficial or detrimental depends on your own preferences in using the "newer" technology. For example, whether or not you "like" or "dislike" cellphones will depend on how you use this particular technology. Now, to the genealogical aspects of this topic.

I have had a book for some years about my family. I have written about this before and told how this particular book, written by my great-grandmother, has stories and photos of family members going back almost two hundred years. Like many such books, the print run was extremely limited. The book has almost 800 pages and is valuable in reconstructing and identifying family members. It lacks almost any documentation and has been accused of being full of errors, but the information is priceless, nonetheless.

Here is a citation to the book:

Overson, Margaret Godfrey Jarvis. George Jarvis and Joseph George De Friez Genealogy. [Mesa?, Ariz.]: [M.G. Jarvis Overson], 1957.

Most of the people who can trace their ancestors back to those in this book are not even aware of its existence and finding a copy would be very difficult. Some years ago I took advantage of an emerging technology and had the book scanned at the Mesa FamilySearch Library. Ultimately, the book was included in the digitized book collection online. Here is the link to the book:

Now there are a whole bundle of technologies that make this book available for free to anyone who cares to look at it from any location in the world. Those technologies include the entire Internet, computers, book scanning equipment, and so forth. Before all this happened, copies of that book were sitting on the shelves of about nine libraries, one of which, the Mesa, Arizona FamilySearch Library, is currently closed. I can now access that book and search every word of the text, from any device attached to the Internet.

What will happen to the original copies of the book? Will the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, leave its paper copy on the shelf just for "old times" sake? How many people used that specific paper copy of the book over the years? The reality is that very few of the people who can trace their ancestors back to those in this book are even now aware of its existence (I said that didn't I?). Guess what? They still have no idea the book exists even though it is in digitized form and universally available.

Should the Family History Library be compelled to keep the "paper" copy of the book on a shelf in the Library, merely on the chance that someone will come along and use the book in that format? Isn't the real issue here the availability of the information contained in the book, irrespective of the format? If the Family History Library people decided to utilize the physical space in the Library building in another way, rather than have shelves of books, but provide universal access to all the books on a free website, is there really a loss to the genealogical community? Isn't the assumed loss rather an issue with a personal preference?

As far as being able to find a copy to buy, it turns out that someone has violated the copyright, which I hold, and published the book on a CD and is trying to sell it for $79.00. There do not appear to be any paper copies of this book for sale online unless the CD copy is really a paper copy for sale.

Just because you personally prefer to hold a paper book for your research does not mean that there are not some extremely good reasons why digital books are not preferable over paper ones. I still use and read paper books, I have large pile of them sitting next to my computer. I just purchased a paper copy of a book that I am in the process of re-reading. But notwithstanding all this, I am still very much in favor of digitizing every genealogically significant book that exists. Let's move them out of the libraries and make them available to everyone, everywhere and those that legally can be, let's make them all free. Let's liberate the information is these books once and for all. And let's stop wringing our hands over the loss of the venerable paper books on library shelves when digital copies are freely available.


  1. ". . . . universal access to all the books on a free website . . . ."

    The access is dependent on access to fast internet interfaces (definitely not universal) by providers who make them affordable (definitely not universal) and reliable (also not universal). Those who have access to such internet provisions tend to forget about the many who do not have such access. And these factors are quite aside from those who do not or cannot pay for bundling available plans with sports and other video channel access.

    1. These books are visible on a handheld device such as a smartphone. Presently, 64% of the U.S. population now own a smartphone. See How many of those have access to the eight libraries that have physical copies of the book? I can go into nearly any public library in America and see the digital copy of the book on a free computer attached to the Internet. Yes, there is still a huge number of people who do not have Internet access, but they probably did not have access to a print copy of the book either. Yes, there is still a significant number of genealogists who still do not have computers, but how many of them would have even known of the existence of such a book before? How would they know the book was in the Family History Library?

    2. As your statistic shows, many of us do not have smart phones, or access to speedy internet connections to run them on with a lot of satisfaction. One can have a computer but only slow internet service. One can satisfactorily consult digitized book catalogues but be unable to download a book in fewer than 10 hours. The nearest library may require drive-time, but the would-be user may not have access to personal or public transportation. Sidebar: I am told that when a major department store moved out of central Detroit, where there was public transportation (of varying speed and reliability), the powers-that-be declined to extend this transport even close to the new mall where the store had moved to. They did not want to encourage inner-city denizens to come to the mall. There can be more than one reason for lack of access.

  2. I agree with the idea of digitizing. It opens up more opportunities for people to discover the information.

  3. The paper copy has to be kept for many reasons, including those applicable to other physical artefacts. I'm not sure of the policies in libraries, archives, and other repositories, but longevity of the data is a serious concern that requires diversification. I'm not talking about the data format -- if a format has a good written specification then software can always be constructed to interpret it. Each of the formats has its weaknesses, whether it's water/damp, fire, or an EMP. Putting all the eggs in one basket, and then discarding the other baskets (so to speak), is bound to be bad in the future.

  4. As an English teacher, I am caught between the two worlds of paper and digital. I find myself moving more and more into the digital realm. I just wish I could easily underline favorite parts, and make notes in the margins of a digital book.

  5. When I have a book regarding a family I add that info on the profile. In Ancestry, I add as a "New Story" add a photo of the book and a link in the description to where it can be found. A shaky leaf and photo gets everyone's attention to check out the link.
    It is wonderful that you gave permission to put this online for all to see.
    Thank you