Most genealogists I have worked with over the past few years have fragmented workflow, moving between paper records and notes and online family trees and digitized documents. I still see many people with a pad and pencil or pen diligently copying information off of a computer screen. This past week, I had a friend who was showing me a huge pile of paper notes and family group records while we were trying to compare the notes and records to what was already on the FamilySearch.org Family Tree. We all seem to be caught between paper and computers.
Now with the imminent demise of microfilm, we are moving even more decisively into a digital world. So how are we to approach this new completely digital and online world? How do digital documents really affect the way genealogists have worked for years? How do we adapt to these changes or more directly do we adapt to these changes? This is really a subject of ongoing interest to everyone involved in the larger genealogical community even if they are still paper-bound and I have to keep coming back to this topic as the genealogical world continues to change rather rapidly.
For me, the decisive moment came many years ago when I threw out my two-foot high pile of paper family group records after converting all the information into digital format. The transition took several years, but after spending those years entering thousands of records into a series of computers and computer programs, I finally had no real need to go back to the paper. I have to admit that I still keep a pile of note paper on my desk and I do write myself handwritten notes from time to time and keep a few handwritten lists, but nearly everything else I do is digital and online.
How will the recent FamilySearch decision to retire microfilm as a media for genealogical records affect our research process? Well, that depends on the individual genealogist's involvement with research. I have been recently compiling a list of research items from Rhode Island records that need to be reviewed in conjunction with my Tanner line research. Because of the imminent microfilm issue, I have to rethink the process.
I basically sort the records I need into different categories.
- Those records that are readily available online in digital format
- Those records that are presently only available on microfilm but may be available in digital format
- Those records that are only available on microfilm and are unlikely to become available digitally
- Those records that are still on paper i.e. printed books and manuscripts.
The digital records are really no problem. I can access them anytime. The paper records are sitting in libraries and ultimately, I could use Interlibrary Loan to access those that do not happen to be available locally including the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. The major issue is access to the microfilm copies. I have been ordering a pile of microfilms ever since I started at the Brigham Young University Family History Library, but now we are in overdrive ordering the films that I think I might need in the near future.
One thing that is becoming evident is that many of the microfilmed records listed by the FamilySearch.org Catalog are actually available in digitized format from other sources. A fairly high percentage of the microfilms turn out to be old records that are available in digital copies on Archive.org or the HathiTrust.org. In fact, on both these websites, I have been finding amazingly valuable material that is not in the FamilySearch.org Catalog. I am also finding a lot of valuable information that is on other websites. There are still some core records that seem to be only available in microfilmed copies at the Family History Library, but those may not be crucial to my research.
I will be able to acquire some of the microfilm-only records before the cutoff date for requesting microfilm from Salt Lake but after that date, I will have to do even more online searching for specific classes of records. I am still not ruling out a trip to Rhode Island to search the records in the local repositories directly.
So, for the present, my main research activity consists of moving as much of what I am interested in researching into the "digital pile," that is, those records that are available online that I need to search. On the other hand, when I identify records that are only available on microfilm or paper and will remain that way for a while (or forever) I am listing those for visits to Salt Lake or other parts of the country.
Stay tuned, I am not done yet with this analysis and probably will never be.