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

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Dawn of the New Genealogical Information Age: Part One -- Last night I had the strangest dream

Last night I had the strangest dream, I ever dreamed before, I dreamed that all the records in the world had been digitized...

Is this really a dream? In the dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451, author Ray Bradbury predicted all sorts of dire consequences from a society where books were banned and "firemen" burn any books that could be found. As we progress further into the Information Age, digitized books can now exist in billions of copies on billions of devices and moved instantaneously around the world. The possibility of stopping this monumental flow of information seems more remote than the dystopian picture painted by Bradbury when books were only made of paper. Rather than memorizing books as in the novel, today we can have whole libraries of books on a tiny flash drive. 

From our own standpoint as a genealogical community, do we really know what the consequences will be of the continued massive digitization of genealogically significant records? Can we guess the impact? I ask these questions in light of the fact that no writer of fiction or nonfiction in the past came even close to predicting the impact of computer technology on our collective world community. So how can anyone, including me, predict the impact of the continued digitization of records on a small, (very marginal) community of genealogical researchers?

The answers to these questions should be central in our perspective of not only where we are presently in the area of family history or genealogy, but where we might be in just a few very short years in the future. My reflections on the subject are sparked by two announcements; the long awaited separation of from the Family Tree and the more recent announcements (2016) that may finish digitizing the 2.4 million rolls of microfilm in its microfilm collections in the next two or three years. I see these two events as interrelated and pivotal in the development of the future of genealogy and genealogical research. But showing how these events are related and what their impact might be is only a small part of the overall story. 

Genealogist, especially those who claim advanced research skills and knowledge, love to point out that "most of the genealogically important records are still locked up on paper." They also enjoy enhancing their opinions on the status of digitized records with stories of digging into massive piles of paper records stored in courthouse attics or obscure foreign repositories. There is an underlying assumption here that somehow the massive digitization of records will inevitably miss those records that we personally need to do our own research. But let me pose one more question: How many of these professed onsite researchers are completely aware of alternative records that may exist online in digital format? You may think this is a silly question, but how many of us who used to spend hours looking at microfilm at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah long before the age of personal computers and the Internet, would have believed, at the time, that we would be able to view all of those records on our own computers sitting in the comfort of our own homes?

Let me speculate on some of things that might occur if and when "finishes" digitizing all of its microfilm collection. I might also note, that I am sure that the people at FamilySearch and in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have considered these possibilities.

I will begin with a consideration of Family History Centers as they now mostly operate. Why do people go to a Family History Center? Currently, and in the recent past, genealogical researchers have used the Family History Centers because of their books, microfilm availability and free online computer programs (the Family History Center Portal). But now let's suppose that all the microfilm is online and available through the website. Let's further suppose, as is the case, that few Family History Centers have any books and that the collections in the larger centers have been mostly digitized and are also online on, which they are. But wait, what about the personal support and classes provided by Family History Centers? Well, our local experience is that the smaller Family History Centers are used on Sundays and for classes during the week, but are otherwise empty. Some things are certain, there will be no more microfilm orders and no more microfilm viewers.

Now let me extend this speculation to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Over the last thirty or so years, I have gone to the Library to do research because the records that were available there in the Library were not readily available to me anywhere else. But I was mainly looking at books and microfilm. Obviously, why would I travel to the Library if both the books and the microfilm are readily available to me online. There is a subcategory of issues for me personally because I now have access to the Brigham Young University Library that has many of same resources as the Salt Lake Library and in many cases, many more resources. As I learn more about the BYU Library resources, I find fewer reasons to go to Salt Lake.

I don't really see the demise of Family History Centers, but I do see that from an organizational standpoint, and in some areas, like here in Utah Valley, they might disappear and be consolidated into larger centers where people can come for classes and personal support. The resources of the smaller centers in areas where there are few members of the Church is different however  and they may need to survive. This is especially true where potential patrons have less access to computers. By the way, this marginalization of Family History Centers has already occurred in many places where there are high concentrations of LDS Church members. There have also been a few statements made by Church leaders that the "new" Family History Center is in the home. See the Church News article, "The Home is the New Family History Center." If this idea is extended, it might mean the end of the small, local, poorly used, Family History Centers.

I must pause and note that not all of the microfilm records in the Family History Library collections will ever be generally available. Many of the records are protected by agreements, copyright and other limitations which will make them only available in Salt Lake at the Library. There will always be a need, even if the records are digital, for having a centralized Library.

Stay tuned for the next posts in this series.


  1. I completely agree with your last paragraph. But while I believe that copyrights and contractural issues will be the major reason why certain microfilm rolls will still not be imaged by the time FamilySearch says it is "done", there will be other reasons.

    For some record collections that were poorly microfilmed or that convey important contextual information through the use of multiple colors, I suspect that FamilySearch might seek permission to put the original paper records back under the camera.(Assuming of course that the originals still exist.)

    Likewise, there is little need for FamilySearch to image microfilm rolls consisting entirely of images printed published books for which paper copies have been imaged already by BYU, the Internet Archive, or someone else. This is especially true in cases where a particular book was microfilmed more than once.

    I also suspect that FamilySearch will not image microfilm rolls solely containing methodological guides or finding aids to manuscript collections in cases where the finding aids are now out of date. For many archives, finding aids that used to be available only in paper form, are now available online, where they can be more easily kept up to date.

    1. There may also be additional categories that will require specialized treatment. But there will still be a whole lot of images online. :-)

  2. I really like your articles. I find them interesting and they expand my understanding of the world of genealogy.