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

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Can we tame the rising tide of digitization in genealogy? -- Part One

From time to time my life goes into overdrive (this is the old term for warp drive) and I seem to drop a few days here and there. This week was one of those times when the list of things to do exceeded the time to do it all.

I am afraid that most of us feel that way about the tidal wave of digitized records showing up on the Internet. There are just too many to comprehend and there is not enough time to even review or evaluate the records.

As genealogists, historically I think we spent a lot of time worrying about situations where there were few, if any, records available, but hardly anytime worry about having too many records. In some cases today, there are literally too many records to comprehend, let alone examine. When I try to help someone with an Internet search, they usually go glassy-eyed and lose interest long before we have covered even a small percentage of the online records available about their particular question.

Here is a small example.

The Arizona State Historian back in the 1920s wrote a book which includes the settlement of the small towns in Arizona where my ancestors were pioneers. This is the book:

McClintock, James H. Mormon Settlement in Arizona; a Record of Peaceful Conquest of the Desert. 1921.

My son-in-law found the book for me some time ago and I have a very nice original edition of the book and found it full of information pertinent to my family. Suppose you did not know the book existed and did a Google search on "Arizona pioneer settlements"? (I use this example because I have pretty much exhausted this particular subject).  The Google search brings up 1,250,000 results. One of the more interesting results is a web site from Northern Arizona University called Canyons, Cultures and Environmental Change, An Introduction to the Land Use History of the Colorado Plateau. The website has a page on The Mormon Pioneers.  That page lists 22 sources but not the McClintock book. If does however list

Peterson, Charles S. Take Up Your Mission; Mormon Colonizing Along the Little Colorado River, 1870-1900. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1973.

Another interesting book that I also have in my collection. Now, if I kept looking at the results for the Google search on  "Arizona pioneer settlements" I would eventually come across the McClintock book and the Peterson book. I would find the McClintock book online in full view digital format from the original edition in three or four (or more) locations including Google Books, Project Gutenberg and The Peterson book is still under copyright and is only available online in a limited search view, but could be purchased from Amazon, among other vendors for as little as $7.50. I could also find a copy at a near-by library, like the Mesa Public Library through

Here is the point. This is an example of only two books, but I could go on with references to the books, reviews of the books, copies of the books and, in the case of the McClintock book, the entire book online. The amount of information seems to be endless but really isn't. In this case, most of the real information is contained in a few published books, the rest is locked up in archives of journals, letters and other sources that are not online as yet.

Here is the first key to taming the rising tide of digitization: Patience.

There is no doubt that the amount of digitized information online will continue to increase, so we need a lot of patience. We need to realize that items may become available from multiple sources and that there may be many ways to find the same information, but at the same time, only really a small percentage of all of the information in the world is online, many genealogical records are still waiting to be accessed. We need to use the online resources we have but not give up the minute we fail to find what we are looking for online and move on to research in paper and microfilm records. We also need to keep looking. New records come online everyday and what we failed to find yesterday may be there today. All this takes patience the next key: Perseverance.


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