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

Friday, March 13, 2009

Digital Revolution in Genealogy -- 5 important developments

This post initiates a series of posts on the effect of the digital revolution on genealogy. Each of the upcoming posts will highlight an aspect of the digital revolution that has greatly influenced the way research into family history is presently done, and where we are going in the future.

Just a few years ago, family history research was done entirely from original documents on site or in repositories or archives or through microfilm copies of those records. My early introduction to this world included photocopy machines and carrying rolls of quarters to the Family History Library. A significant portion of the research was conducted through letters, often taking days, weeks or even months for a reply. If I wanted to obtain a copy of a book or an article, I could either make do with a poor quality photocopy, or try and find a copy of the original book or article. Both time and travel distance severely limited the quality and quantity of research that any one person could do.

Granted, many people still do their research in this fashion, but there have been significant changes in the way some of the work can be done with computers and other digital devices. I am surprised at the resistance I find to innovative ways of working with computers, among all ages of genealogists, but there are a few who embrace the newer technologies for the assistance they offer, without abandoning the older values of the work.

Here are what I feel are five of the most dramatic changes in the way genealogical research is done:

1. Lineage-linked database programs running on inexpensive computers store up to tens of thousands of individual records and link them into family groups. When my great-grandmother was doing her family history, over a period of thirty years, she managed to redo some of the work as much as five times. She simply could not remember what she had done previously, and with a huge pile of paper, could not find her completed work. She would have loved a computer and any of the very capable programs now available.

2. The development of the Internet, allowing families, friends and practically anyone to instantly communicate about, research and view source materials and family records. Not to forget all of the information now available almost instantly, including huge map files.

3. The digitizing of original source records making high quality copies of billions of records readily available for little or no cost. It is hard to measure the impact of having the entire U.S. Census records searchable and with images on line, and the literally millions of other records going online every day.

4. The introduction of digital cameras, giving the average person the ability to make unlimited photographs, including copies of documents, with virtually no cost per image other than the initial cost of the camera. I have been a photographer all my life, but until digital cameras became available I took relatively few pictures. Now, I can take as many shots as I want without worrying about the cost of film. I can also use the camera to take notes in libraries and to capture everything from scrapbook pages to grave markers.

5. Digitized movies and voice recordings allowing the dissemination of recordings with little or no cost. Family movies used to be virtually impossible and very expensive, now they are so common that they are posted online for the whole world to view. Digital recorders are a wonder, compared to the bulky and difficult reel-to-reel tape recorders I started out with.

I am sure you can come up with a lot more in the way of innovations that impact the way we do family history, but this is a start.

1 comment:

  1. And this is a great start James! I came into the genealogy world just as it was transitioning to the digital world.

    One aspect that I enjoy most is the use of social media and Web 2.0 technologies such as Facebook and Twitter. I can't begin to tell you how many "far flung" and hither to unknown cousins I have located in the past two years! It is absolutely amazing.