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

Sunday, January 3, 2016

What is the real benefit of the digitization of genealogically important documents?

Let me start by comparing two of my experiences. Yesterday, I went to the Brigham Young University Family History Library to view some microfilmed English parish registers. I spent about three hours searching through the records with some success in finding relatives. I would like to contrast that experience with my efforts in examining microfilmed records a few years ago.

In both research efforts, I was relying on the vast collection of records obtained by FamilySearch and its predecessor organizations included in the umbrella of the Genealogical Society of Utah. Beginning in 1938, representatives of the Genealogical Society of Utah have gone around the world making microfilm copies of original source records. There are now about 2.4 million rolls of microfilm stored in a large "Granite Vault" in Little Cottonwood Canyon outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. Absent that effort, I would be forced to either travel to the locations where the records were stored or correspond with those who could search the records and return their findings to me. I am well acquainted with this process because I inherited substantially all of my Great-grandmother's research work that was accomplished in just that fashion. See the following;

Mary Ann Linton Morgan documents, CD-ROM no. 2328 pt. 1, Computer, Family History FamilySearch Desktop, Available on a computer at the Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Here are the stages in how the research process has changed.

The Paper and Pencil Stage
The earliest stage of genealogical research relied entirely on paper and pen or pencil entries. My Great-grandmother would write to relatives she could identify and ask for information. If a reply came, she would transfer the information she received to paper notebooks, usually bound volumes with blank, lined pages and then recopy the information to a paper family group record. Bear in mind that her paper record was the only copy of her research efforts. Her other major sources of information were various books that had been accumulated by the Genealogical Society of Utah beginning in 1894. Once she had identified an ancestor, she would write to the various record repositories and request copies of documents. From time to time she would receive paper or film copies of the records. Over her lifetime she accumulated about 16,000 names. Many of these individuals were unrelated because she had extracted them from published parish registers and other documents by surname. 

The Photocopy Stage
I arrived on the genealogical research scene at the time when technology had developed photocopies. When I began my initial research, I quickly realized that a considerable amount of information about my family had already been accumulated in books and family group records submitted to the Genealogical Society of Utah and residing in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. These paper records were kept in large binders on the shelves of the Library. Shortly after I began doing my own family history research, in about 1982, I started working with a series of computers and computer programs. Because of the information available about my family, I viewed computers as the solution to organizing and evaluating all of that information. 

I would travel to Salt Lake City, Utah from my home in Arizona and spend time "pulling records" from the huge collection of family group records and photocopying them. I had to pay 25 cents for each copy, so I would have rolls of quarters to pay for the copies. Once I had located the records, then I would manually fill in pedigree charts to try and understand how I was related to all these people. Some of the lines seemed to go on forever, others ended rather quickly. I would then travel back to Arizona and enter the records into my files. After a few years, I had accumulated about a two and half foot high pile of family group records and had entered thousands of names into various computer programs. Entering that much information into the primitive computers and programs of the day involved a very slow process of checking for duplicate entries. In addition, I would outgrow programs and adopt new ones. I had to completely re-enter the information several times. I mean, I had to re-enter everything several times as the programs changed. This process continued for over 15 years but in reality continues to this day.

At the same time I was finding, photocopying and then manually entering these names into computer programs, I realized the number of errors in the accumulated information and began researching the correct information from original records. This information I found was either photocopied or copied out by hand and then manually transferred to my computer programs. 

The GEDCOM Stage
In the 1990s, the Internet began to be an important factor in handling genealogy files and programs. The original GEDCOM Standard was released in 1984 and was used to transfer some information between programs. For me, the advent of GEDCOM meant that I did not have to re-enter all of my data when I switched programs. Switching programs tended to happen frequently but for a long time, I used Personal Ancestral File on my Windows computers as well as the Macintosh version. As a matter of note, the process of migrating from program to program continues to the present time.

Despite the advent of personal computers and the ability to make file transfers, most of my research was still in the survey stage. At this time of my research life, I began to accumulate huge collections of documents from my family lines.

The Scanner/Digital Camera Stage
The development of scanners and much later digital cameras that could connect to a computer and produce digital files was revolutionary in the way I did my research. I could digitize a document and put the paper copy away. Eventually, I could attach the digitized (scanned) documents as exhibits to the individuals and families in my files. The time saving was significant and I began to process vast amounts of information and made tens of thousands of digitized files. I estimate that I have scanned well over 150,000 documents.

But my methodology in doing research did not change quickly. The scanned documents merely became a substitute for photocopies.

The Internet Stage
Eventually, beginning in the late 1990s and up to the present time, the Internet began to play a more important part in the process. Some of the commercial companies and FamilySearch began digitizing documents, including the FamilySearch microfilm collection. That process made digitized copies of original documents available online. This stage is ongoing.

The Research Revolution Stage
Several technologies came together to create a whole new way of doing research. I alluded to my recent visit to the BYU Family History Library. Let me explain how the process works presently.
I have a survey reference point for my research called the Family Tree. All of the data I entered into computers, starting in the 1980s has been incorporated into the Family Tree along with any other information that has been submitted by anyone else on my lines. So, I can focus on documenting and correcting the information rather than continually looking at what might have been done on family group records etc. Had this information been available to me when I started, I would have spent far less time determining what had and what had not been done. So now, as I have done for the past few years, I can focus on family lines that actually need research.

Now I select a starting point on the Family Tree. I use the record hints from,, and to provide the initial source information. By evaluating the entries, I can determine what research needs to be done. I correlate the research needs with the records available online and add in sources for any of the records I find. When I run out of online records it is back to the microfilm. But in this case, I can put a research outline online on Google Docs and list all of the microfilm records I need to review. When I go to the Library, I view the microfilm on a film viewer (ScanPro) that lets me make a digitized copy to a flash drive or directly to Dropbox. As I examine the microfilm, I make digitized copies and attached them directly to the people I am researching on the Family Tree. Then when I get home, I already have the digitized copies of the documents available to me online or on my flash drive. I can then evaluate the documents and incorporate the information in the Family Tree to support the existing information or make corrections.

Almost all of the activities that took me so many years to complete are no longer necessary. When I go to the Library, I do not have to take anything with me except perhaps a flash drive or two. All of my current research is online in the form of Google Docs or incorporated in the Family Tree.

Now, you could do the same thing with any number of different programs. The point here is that I no longer need my two and half foot high pile of paper. In the mean time, I also keep adding my previously digitized copies to individuals online on the Family Tree.

What about the issue of changes to the Family Tree? I welcome changes. If they happen to be incorrect, I make the corrections. If necessary I communicate with the other users and attempt to collaborate. I will likely continue to adapt and change my methodology as the technology changes. 

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