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

Monday, January 17, 2011

Tech or no tech? Where are you? A Commentary

It seems like recent experiences always get me thinking about competency in genealogy and technology. 

Even though the vast majority of the genealogists (using the term in a very inclusive sense) I talk to day after day profess little or no experience with computers, but there are a always a few notable exceptions. It seems that every time I write a post or teach a class with comments directed to novice technology users, I have someone respond who is a programmer for a major software or hardware company or who has spent their life manufacturing semi-conductors. This seems to be especially true at computer conferences. I will be teaching a class on an introduction to a software program and someone always has to correct me who helped write the program or is related to the developer. There is always this huge contrast between computer novices and computer techs. While at the same time, there is the same contrast between genealogical novices and experts. Sometimes the two areas of competency don't match up.

I have been reading some of the older genealogy commentaries and books, particularly, Donald Lines Jacobus' book "Genealogy as pastime and profession." (See Jacobus, Donald Lines. Genealogy As Pastime and Profession. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1968. ). This book was first published in 1930 and the contrast between the methodology used by Jacobus and his peers is strikingly different than those used by today's technologically savvy researchers. However, the challenges and problems faced by Jacobus are exactly the same today. Technology alone does not turn a bad researcher or genealogist into a good one. 

When you get right down to the basics, whether you are looking at a document scanned into computer and presented online in a database or examining the original documents in some courthouse or another makes absolutely no difference to the process of analysis that goes into building a credible pedigree. In some ways the technology makes researching easier as witnessed by the numerous references Jacobus makes to the difficulty in finding original documents. But on the other hand, technology also makes it considerably easier to perpetuate trash. Whether I copy out poorly done genealogy by hand with a pen or pencil or copy and paste with my mouse, if the original product is bad, the results will be also (i.e garbage in/garbage out).

So should we be modern day genealogical Luddites? Or do we use the technology tools we have to our advantage and keep working to bring up the level of competence in the genealogical community? Sometimes, I can truthfully say, that I question the utility of teaching one more class to people who admit at the end  that they have no idea what I am talking about and aren't going to make the effort to try to understand. I usually think this about the time I watch a group of patrons at the Mesa Regional Family History Center blissfully copying names and dates out of New FamilySearch as if it were the gospel truth.

Where do we start to acquire both the technological skill and the research skills to do adequate genealogical research? One of my friends always expresses amazement at some of the questions I raise when he asks for help. Recently, he gave me the name of one of his direct ancestors with a birth date of 1782 in Tippecanoe, Indiana to research.  Tippecanoe is the name of a town, and township, a county and a river. But apparently it never occurred to him to check the date. In 1782 not only did Indiana not exist, but that part of the continent was yet to be added to the United States which, by the way. also did not exist. The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1787 and 1788. I do not fault him at all. He is just starting out on his genealogical investigations, but the question does point out the need for some fundamental education before we launch off into the genealogical stratosphere. I will be working with him in the next few days to resolve some of the questions raised by his date and place.

You could start by acquiring some fundamental computer skills. For one example, our local community colleges have a huge selection of classes and entry levels to teach about computers. So how do you get started in genealogy? The same way you learn any skill. Either check out or buy some books and start teaching yourself, or attend classes. If you already have some basic computer skills there are literally thousands of classes online teaching about research and genealogy. has over 100 free classes while there are classes from Family Tree Magazine,,  BYU Independent Study, Family Tree Maker and the list goes on and on.

There is no shame in being a novice. There is only sadness for those who refuse to learn when learning is so free and easily obtained. However, it is a shame that so many keep on copying out their "genealogy" without either the computer or research skills to evaluate what they are copying.


  1. Another thing - don't be afraid to ask! Aski if a class with a particular syllabus looks good, ask for book recommendations. People are usually very willing to share their knowledge. And people with tech backgrounds can either provide an on the spot answer or they can quickly find a reference to help you out.

    One phrase that is easy to remember with regards to data - too often you find "Garbage in, God out" Just as you say, don't trust data no matter where it comes from. Verify for yourself.

  2. I have to agree with you here James. One thing that constantly floors me, and it shouldn't now, is the lack of knowledge of basic history. Maybe they are one of those who keep on saying "history is so boring".