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

Saturday, January 9, 2016

What Happened to Genealogists Going Paperless?

As I serve at the Brigham Young University Family History Library each week, I see a constant stream of people using the advanced and high speed scanners with their photos, slides and documents of all kinds. On the other hand, in dealing with patrons and helping friends and neighbors, it is clear that paper still rules. Of course, this is a natural consequence of our inheritance of paper from the past. But it does raise a question of how digitization is affecting the genealogical community.

From my perspective, I see two major trends. In the first and clearly the more predominant of the two, genealogists are simply moving paper records into digital copies without changing any other methodologies. The issue here is whether or not there is really a difference between a box full of paper photos and a digital file of the same photos? What is far less evident are the affects of digitization on the minority of genealogists who have integrated their digital collections into their research activities. The question is the degree of change in method of handling the information.

If you still regard a computer file in the same way that you do a piece of paper what have you gained by making the transfer? For example, I still have a tendency to make lists of things-to-do on pieces of paper scattered around on my physical desktop. The interesting thing is that I also have some virtual "sticky notes" pasted all over my computer screen. Guess what? I have a tendency to ignore both the paper and the virtual lists. To make matters even more interesting, I also have To Do lists on and In short, as far as To Do lists are concerned, I am still operating in two worlds; paper and digital.

Right here on my physical desktop, I have a "handout" from a meeting yesterday consisting of eight double-sided pages. This is a rather long document for a handout, but what is more interesting is that it is primarily a copy of the United States Record Selection Table on the Research Wiki which is itself an almost exact copy of a paper chart I used to use many years ago in the Family History Library. In other words, when we move the information from physical to digital we are merely substituting one for the other. My contention is that when we move our information to a digital format, that should also change the way we use the information.

The is one very important difference between the paper record selection chart I received yesterday and the one in the Research Wiki on See if you can guess the difference from this screenshot.

You might not be able to tell, but all of the places to search on the Research Wiki copy are linked to pages in the Research Wiki explaining the resources. In other words, the digital chart is more than a physical representation of the paper chart. The paper chart apparently has about the same list with this major difference. The paper chart would be even longer than its eight double-sided pages if it really contained all of the information in the digital chart. The paper chart is entirely missing all of the "extra" information provided by the links to the Research Wiki pages. In other words, the paper document tells me to look for a vital record, but does not tell me where or how to find such a record while the digital copy does supply that information.

This is much more than a superficial difference between how the documents are displayed. But here is the real factor. The people who were given the paper document were very likely entirely unaware of the existence of the same information online in the Research Wiki and had they been given a "link" to the information, they would not have used the online document they way they may use the paper one. This illustrates the fact that we are still caught between the world of paper and our relatively new digital environment.

The real question is how we end up using the information from either our paper sources or from digital copies of those same records. In this regard, I am seeing an interesting phenomena associated with the Family Tree and other online family tree programs. These new online Family Tree programs now provide record hints. What is happening is that these record hints are being mechanically added to individual and families by many users without any consideration of the content of the suggested links. In all of these programs, the user must evaluated the suggest record sources to verify that the records apply to a particular individual in the user/s family tree. But in many instances, the evaluations are not done and in appropriate records are attached. There has been no attempt made to reject inappropriate records.

I have been discussing different aspects of this issue in recent posts. The idea here is that digitization is more than the process of moving documents from one format to another. Once information has been captured in digital format, to be ultimately useful, those newly digitized documents need to be integrated into a methodology based on digital content not simply one that is merely an analog for paper.

So, how do we begin the process of completing the move from paper to digital? A good example comes from outside of genealogical research. I have recently been buying and selling some real property in conjunction with my move to Utah. Real estate transactions involve extensive paperwork. For the last two years or so, almost all of that "paper work" has been transferred to online digital signing services. I can now review a document sent to me by email and sign it online and send it back to the originator in a matter of minutes where I used to have to obtain the documents on paper from an escrow office, fill them out on paper, sign them with a pen and then make photocopies and then deliver the signed documents back to the originator (or sign them in his or her office). What used to take me an entire day, now can be accomplished in a few minutes.

Where are genealogists in this transformation? Essentially, we are trying to live in both worlds. We still love our paper. Yesterday at the Library, the photocopy machine was just as active as the scanners. Even though we have digital microfilm readers, we also have a bank of the old microfilm projection booth type machines. I still routinely get paper handouts rather than digital copies. But in my own methods of approaching research, I am almost completely transitioned from paper to digital.

Yesterday, I went to the Library with a flash drive. I put the microfilm on a ScanPro digital microfilm reader. As I searched the microfilm record, I digitally copied the documents I needed to my flash drive, but I also immediately attached the same documents as Memories to the people in the Family Tree. No more paper.

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