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

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

When will genealogy reach the tipping point?

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After spending many hours recently searching through microfilmed records, I have been thinking about the changes in genealogical research over the past few years. It appears to me that genealogy is undergoing changes that will be transformational. There will come a point when most individual research for locating records will no longer be needed. Here is my analysis.

Let's start with a child born in 2016. Records concerning the life of that child in most parts of the world will be fully and redundantly documented. The identity of the year 2016 child's parents will also be a matter of record in nearly all the countries of the world. The actual statistics today as reported by the United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Economic and Social Development and as reported in their article entitled, "Coverage of Birth and Death Registration," made the following observations:
The work of the United Nations Statistics Division to assist countries in improving their civil registration and vital statistics systems started in 1949, following the recommendations by the Statistical Commission at that time. Progress has been made ever since in most countries. 
There are still deficiencies, however, in civil registration systems in many countries until this date. For example, only 62% of the countries, territories and areas register at least 90% of births occurred. Furthermore, for death registration, only 57% of the countries, territories and areas have at least 90% coverage.
The key here however, is that the countries without such coverage are also those who presently have lower activity in participation in genealogical research. Some areas of the world, such as Europe and North America and Oceania, have vital records available for more than 80% of the population. See  "Coverage of Birth and Death Registration," Presently, it is estimated by 2020 that 70% of the worlds population will be using smartphones and that 90% of the world will be covered by mobile broadband networks. See "Ericsson Mobility Report:70 percent of world's population using smartphones by 2020." May I remind you that is only 4 short year away.

My opinion is that these and other technological changes will create a virtual wave of information about the current residents of the world. This wave will steadily move backward in time as automated record searching capabilities increase. The effect will be that a person born 100 years from now in almost all parts of the world, will be able to pull up six or seven generations of their ancestors in a few clicks, should they wish to do so. At the same time, the number of people in online family trees will expand from the Middle Ages forward. Presently, almost every individual who appears in a record from the Middle Ages in Europe is known. The ultimate limit, of course, is a lack of any records of individuals. Since this an absolute limit, eventually as more names are added moving forward towards the present, the two waves will eventually meet and most of the people who have any records in North America and Europe will be recorded and verified, if records exist.

For most people living in the United States and many countries in Europe, research into the first two generations of their ancestors can be automated. As this process advances in its capabilities those who begin their "genealogy" will have the option of automatically adding two, then three, then more of their ancestors automatically.

The results of these changes will be that genealogical research will be concentrated on a shrinking number of people who are undocumented between the years of 1650 and 1850.

It is my opinion that we have already reached the tipping point in this scenario. We have already put in place the technology and record acquisition programs around the world that will soon make finding a very high percentage of anyone born after 1850 relatively straightforward where existing records are available. For those who are just now beginning to accumulate genealogical data about their ancestors, I wouldn't count on being out of a job too soon, but fewer and fewer advanced genealogical skills will be needed until individuals trace their ancestry back to the early 1800s.

The limits to this will be set by the availability of records. But not all records need to be digitized for this to happen and not all records need to be readily available. But if enough of the basic records are available the process will become inevitable. I am not at all claiming that every person will be found. But there will come a time when there are no more need for genealogical research for records available on any one of my family lines either as a result of an absolute lack of any more records or as a result of the fact that every one has already been documented and identified.

Think about it.


  1. While agreeing with what you have written I would add that the current wave of privacy paranoia that is sweeping the world will also mean that the records created will not be accessible.

    Privacy has changed from the right of the individual to prevent governments from interfering with their lives to the right of the individual to prevent other individuals living their lives.
    We currently have the ludicrous situation where people cannot even be named in some circumstances.

    1. It looks like it is time to write about privacy and genealogy again. Thanks for the comment.

  2. By "first two generations" you must mean latest two generations.

    FS and the aggregators are concentrating on post-1850, especially the 20th century. My problems are early 1600s-1800 except my latest immigrant ancestor who arrived in Canada about 1819. So regrettably I do not fall into the class of beneficiaries of the majority of digitization efforts. Too bad.

    1. Thanks for the comment. My point is that as time goes on the "aggregators" will start moving back in time. Of course, the real issue is a lack of records as you move into research in the 17th and 18th Centuries, not just the lack of online records.

  3. We have a missionary speak in church last week who served in Rwanda. They couldn't get people there to even fill out 3 or 4 generations on a pedigree chart. Why? Do to the last of written records, yes. But also, because revealing their heritage might lead to more genocide, as in the Clinton years. Yikes. There may be some places that are going to take a lot more than just keeping records.