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

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Observations on Technology and Genealogy

I still find a great deal of resistance to technological change even among those who profess an interest in genealogy. We were at a family reunion this week and sharing information with relatives. They had a large table set up with photocopies of various documents from the family and a few original documents. With few exceptions, none of the documents were digitized and therefore available by file. I spent a couple of hours digitizing journals and other documents that had not been shared in any other way. In one case, the relative had a transcribed copy of several journals and indicated that he had the files on his computer in Word Perfect. We spent a lot of time passing out cards with our e-mail addresses so that we could share the digitized documents we had and obtain copies of other documents we did not have from family members.

No one except me and one other relative had computers available. No one had flash drives, no one had their e-mail address ready to share, no one had a website or blog. It was very interesting. 

It was also interesting that family members brought priceless artifacts from the family's history. In one case, there was a photo of a walking cane used by an ancestor, but the location of the original was vague and in another case there was a flute played by a remote ancestor in the Nauvoo Band as the ancestor crossed the Plains to Utah. The photo was helpful, but I took several photos of flute.

You can't blame all of the issues with the failure of the family members to share information and artifacts in digital form on age. Although there were a few older members of the family present, most of the people at the reunion were younger than we were. There was really only one other family member who was prepared to share research or history electronically and even she was unaware of DropBox or other methods of easily transferring files. I ended up with about 4 or 5 GB of scanned and photographed files, mostly information and photos we had never seen before.

There was a huge paper copy of a spreadsheet with all of the family names and relationships listed. The sheet was about ten feet long. But it appeared that the person who did the sheet did not have the file available and also, had not entered the information into a genealogy program, where a nice chart could be made. There was a limited fan chart of the family with names pasted on that had been printed off from a word processing program. 

We talk a lot about collaboration with family members, but in our case, most of the information is locked up in single paper copies of vital records and journals. The family exhibited beautiful three ring binders with huge piles of documents, photos and other family information that were virtually impossible to share due to their size and the time limitations of the reunion. Collaboration is only a theory if the family members are not linked into preserving these documents digitally rather than by photocopies. It is obvious that there is a monumental amount of duplication of effort going on.

In another unrelated example, I had a lady come into the Mesa Regional Family History Center carrying a yellow paper pad of handwritten notes. She had been looking at birth records from Maricopa County and getting information off of gravemarkers in the City Cemetery. She had absolutely no idea that all of the time she was spending was duplicating efforts that had already produced online copies of all the information she was looking for. She came from a prominent Mesa pioneer family and it was almost certain that all of the information she had was already in or some other place with links and connections to other family members. I tried to help her to register for so she could see what had already been done, but I had no confidence she knew what I was talking about.

Those of us who spend our days online assume that the whole world does also. We need to be aware that not all of our family members read our blogs and few if any know how to share electronically.


  1. Unfortunately you are preaching to the converted when you blog on this topic, James. Those who need to won't be reading blogs!

    I just returned from England with many gigabytes of images from a cousin's files. A lovely chap he too has a huge paper chart - as I went through his documents we discovered that he had missed recording many dates and some people on his chart. If I had more time I would have put his data onto a freebie program for him and taught him how to use it.

  2. What we need to do is find a way to connect with these people that are out there somewhere as I'm trying to do with my family. It begs patience, but plod steadily on - teach by example.

  3. It sounds so familiar and even amongst those with computers who, after all these years, have still only gotten as far as email and even that's a challenge. I find it eternally frustrating.

    In defense of the other side though I wouldn't encourage anyone to spend the thousands of hours I have in front of computer screens. It's not the healthiest thing in the world to be doing.

    A close cousin with whom I share several thousand relatives, has just purchased Legacy so we can get on the same page. Or at least on the same planet and combine decades of research. Already I see a mind-boggling number of hours of work ahead in getting our family files and filing systems in sync. She doesn't know how; I'll be leading the charge. As exciting as that prospect is, there's a price to all this.