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

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Paper vs. Computer Dispute

The dilemma is that genealogists are deciding that their research efforts are ended when they run out of online sources. Many researchers just don't want to make the effort to go to a specific repository to find paper records. Now comes the dispute. What to do with the paper records once you have them in your possession. There are more than a few very hotly held positions on this issue. In one corner, we have the genealogical hoarders who shudder at the thought of anyone disposing of any scrap of paper or other material object even touched by an ancestor. They keep old electrical bills, grandma's junk mail and a complete series of their uncle's TV Guide. In another corner are the "I don't care who owned it, it is junk" contingent. They through away original marriage licenses, birth certificates, stock certificates, gold certificates and anything else they can get their hands on. No matter what the genealogical value, it is off to the trash heap. Yet another corner is inhabited by the digitizing wizards. They scan everything they can get their hands on. They scan everything the hoarders have in their piles and then they don't care what happens to the original paper. The other corner of this controversy is governed by the "I have an unbeatable system for filing" party. They have the wisdom to know exactly what is important and will be important to future generations. Everything they keep is in color coded, polyethylene protective sleeves in acid free containers with humidity control.

In the middle is the poor genealogist who has yet to join one of the parties and is confused by the differences in style and substance. All of these various positions are adamantly defended by their interpreters. They think they are right and everyone else is wrong. Let's think about this dispute in a rational way for a few paragraphs.

Let's start with a birth certificate. When I am alive, I might need my original birth certificate for any number of reasons. For example, a birth certificate is one of the documents you might use to apply for a passport. What good is the original birth certificate once a person has died? The answer depends entirely on what you know or do not know about the person on the certificate. If you are trying to prove your entitlement to an estate, a birth certificate of a deceased person might be a valuable document. From a genealogical standpoint the document likely has no sentimental value and once the information is properly recorded and the document is scanned for future reference there may be really no use for the original document at all.  I have seen very few framed birth certificates in my life. On the other hand if you have a handwritten letter from your Great-grandfather to his girlfriend, soon to be his wife and your Great-grandmother, you may treasure the original but would still like to see the document scanned and distributed to the other grandchildren. Oh, I forgot to mention the other corner, the one outside the ring, this corner is inhabited by those people who own everything and cannot bear the thought of anyone touching their ancestor's documents or even looking at them. They usually have no idea whether or not the documents are important, but they are sure not going to let anyone else have them.

How would you like an original will in which the deceased listed every member of the family including all the in-laws with their names and relationships. What is the document worth once you enter all of the information and relationships into your computer? So, here you have it. The real dispute. Whether the paper documents are of any real value after the information contained in them has been correctly and completely recorded? This dichotomy pervades the whole of genealogy. On the one hand the preservationists in whatever guise maintaining their paper copies and on the other the informationalists sucking out the information and discarding the rinds.

Strangely enough, some of us may have both traits. We may be obsessed with digital preservation but have no intention of ever disposing of the original documents. I have heard it said over and again, I would rather hold the document in my hand than see the faithful reproduction on a computer! But at what price. It is one thing to harbor a few documents, but what happens when the number of documents grows into the tens of thousands? Who among us, other than the institutions has the resources to adequately preserve thousands upon thousands of documents? And what will our heirs do with our monumental piles of paper?

Stay tunes for another exciting episode.


  1. I scan any original document I can get my hands on that contains information that might be valuable to my genealogical research. Usually I'll give the originals back to whoever owns them. When I am the owner of the document, it usually serves another purpose that's not genealogy-related. If it's bought, I might keep it because it represents a value, and also to be able to rescan in case of some digital mishap. I'm more than happy to maintain a digital archive, but see no need to be the family archivist. As long as I document who owned the original at the time of scanning, I feel I've covered all the bases as a genealogist regarding sourcing. Just the other day, I borrowed my grandfathers' war memoirs from my uncle. I've scanned all 43 pages, now I'm giving it back. I would encourage my uncle to maybe hand it over to our national War Archives so it could be of use to other researchers, whether genealogists or historians. I'm sure he won't, because for him it has a sentimental value, as it is one of the few things that still connects him to his father.

  2. I'm a fence-straddler. I digitize, but also hold on to the original. I do toss some things though, mainly stuff like the junk mail you mentioned. Old bills can be interesting; it depends on what the bill is for.

  3. This is such an issue for those of us sifting through what our hoarder ancestors amassed. I've digitized and tossed boxes of material, but do struggle with the letters, cemetery deeds, and 19th c. financial transactions. These documents don't exist anywhere else and support the family "story". My digitized copies - even blogged and shared online - will be the only copies if I throw away the originals.

  4. As always, another great post, James. I had one of my beginner consult clients at Ancestry Day ask me what she was "supposed" to keep in paper, what she was "supposed" to do with her files and filing system. I launched into a ten minute diatribe about the various contingents that you outlined and suggested that she do whatever was feasible, comfortable, and efficient for her personally. I think she was a bit disappointed, in that she wanted to just be told what to do and how!