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

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The revolutionary challenge of New FamilySearch

Sometimes it take a year or two (or more) for the nature of a major change to become evident in any human activity. Genealogy has always been a very narrow and some-what esoteric study. But now, FamilySearch's New FamilySearch (NFS) database constitutes a revolutionary challenge to the way genealogy has been previously done. There are a number of aspects to the way the information is maintained and presented that distinguish this single database from any previous attempt at a compilation of family information.

At this point in the development of NFS, it is difficult to tell if some of more revolutionary features are intentional or merely the effect of a series of smaller decisions accumulating into radical change from existing or traditional methods. It is becoming apparent that the features of the program, especially when it is opened up to the public at large, constitute a radical departure from existing methodology.

Presently, the most prominent departure from existing status is the accumulative feature of the data. Each individual is presented with his or her total existing history. Right or wrong, detailed or summarized, every submission is combined or able to be combined into one presentation. Many of the individuals with long genealogical traditions have hundreds of combined submissions. This fact has been the source of a lot of negative comments about the program but instead of being a negative, the combined files facilitate a more complete view of the person. I have yet to see any other database format that gathers all of each individual's information together into one place at one time. Users of NFS who see the variations for the first time are almost always very disturbed by the lack of accuracy and consistency. But viewed from a data standpoint, it is entirely revolutionary to have all of the individual submissions on an individual gathered together for evaluation. It is always possible that one (or more) of the submissions are correct, leading to the opportunity to make that determination from the offerings.

In the past, I have been of the view that having the variations in each individual did little more than point out how much sloppy work there was out there in the community. But that is the point precisely. It does point out that not all of the variations can be correct. If anyone has the slightest desire to come to a resolution of the contradictory information, then there are the variations, each displayed with exactly the same amount of validity. Rather than rejecting all of the ones you disagree with out of hand, perhaps you could re-evaluate your own position to see if your materials are correct or not. If the information were presented in Wiki format, with the ability to make instantaneous corrections, then there would be no impetus to evaluate all of the differing opinions, right or wrong.

The same issues arise, with the same conclusions, about NFS's preservation of all possible family connections, even though some of them are obviously wrong. Seeing the multitude and inventiveness of the mistakes reinforces the need for careful evaluation of the information presented. I admit that seeing a grandchild married to his grandmother is rather disturbing, but the fact that someone made that mistake or had some reason to believe that the information was correct has a whole world of implications.

Heretofore, anyone could do sloppy genealogy with impunity. With NFS all of the dirty laundry is out there for everyone to see, with only the protection of a E-mail address or number. It is impossible to predict the consequences of direct and very public presentation of poor work.

One of the less obvious implications of having a concentrated data structure with possible multiple submissions on each of the individuals is the issue of using your own database program or relying on NFS to store "your" data. If NFS expands to include photos, sources and other information about an individual or family, then it may become harder to convince many users that they also need to store information on a local computer. From that standpoint, NFS may become an alternative to all of the currently available local programs.

In my next installment, I will discuss the radical implications of having a hugely successful volunteer support organization behind the program. If you were not aware, NFS has the FamilySearch network of volunteers and missionaries all around the world 24/7 answering questions and providing free support for the program. By the way, a new revision of the program is probably imminent.

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