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

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Paper vs. Computer Dilemma

Genealogy is all about paper. Some societies have relied on oral histories to transmit their genealogy, this was very effective, but had the tendency to ignore collateral lines and multiple children. I still see many pedigrees that follow one line with only the direct line child/ancestor listed in the family. Since computers are a very recent innovation, any genealogical information we have in our Western European based society is paper based. The computer revolution has affected genealogy by making a very small percentage of the previously all paper documents available in electronic digitized format. Unfortunately, the documents that have been digitized are the most used for genealogical reference, unfortunate because the impression given to the genealogical community is that the rest of the paper documents do not need to be consulted. I am fully aware that there are huge paper based genealogies in other parts of the world but relatively very few of these resources have yet to find their way to computer files.

Every week I see the same phenomena, I am talking to someone who is relatively new to genealogy and has been searching online for sometime and found a significant number of digitized documents. They discover that they are missing one or more important "documents" that will extend their line one more generation. Searching online has failed to produce the desired documents and they come to me wanting help in finding the documents they think they need. After I confirm their online search, I say the same thing (over and over it seems) "Not all documents have been digitized, you need to go to _________ (fill in the blank) and see if they have what you are looking for." You can fill in the blank with National Archives, Family History Library, Library of Congress etc. Just a few short years ago, this suggestion would have resulted in a search of the Family History Library Catalog and a microfilm order. Today, the reaction is one of disbelief and skepticism.  What, you mean I actually have to go somewhere or do something to find my ancestors? I am not exaggerating this issue, time after time, they simply stop doing any more research. That's it, I'm through.

I am not talking about the core of diligent genealogists who travel the world and visit repositories on their vacations, I am talking about the computer users who have forgotten the world of paper. There are freely available paper document collections right here in my home town that have never been used for genealogical research to my knowledge. I know of one extensive collection of on paper death records going back over 100 years which I have mentioned to dozens of local genealogists who had no idea of its existence. These records are far, far, far from being digitized. The attitude I see almost every day, I will just wait, it will all be on the computer soon.

In one instance lately, I told the researchers that the information they were seeking was likely to be found in newspapers published in the county where their ancestors lived. I even pointed out that there were three or four newspapers that had been published in that same small county during the time period when their ancestors lived in the county. The reaction was interesting. They were simply not interested in my information. They had no intention of traveling to a remote state to search university and state archives for copies of the newspapers, even when the Library of Congress listed the exact coverage of the local collections.

I have another research project right now, that I am certain will end up in the same way. I will tell the people that the records are in the National Archives Branch in an adjoining state and they will say, oh dear, I guess that research can't be done. There was an account in a newspaper recently where a family's 100 year old genealogical "mystery" was solved when a researcher went to the record repository in England and actually looked for the paper record. Surprise. This is the dilemma.

We have thousands of books in the Mesa Regional Family History Center. I would guess that less than 10% of the patrons have ever looked in a book for information about their family even if the book were digitized and online.

The rest of this story has to do with what happens to the paper records we end up collecting as genealogists. Do we keep the paper once the documents have been digitized? Do we make paper copies of the records we have on our computer? Tune in for the next installment.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting article. I just found a link here from the Legacy Family Tree site.
    I see myself in this post as one of those people that has reached a seemingly dead end. I'm not beyond traveling to find paper records but as you said about people being so used to using a computer, never thought that all records hadn't been digitized. And that's only common sense, which I've seemed to have lost when it came to my search.
    Thank you for sharing!!