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

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The State of the Research Wiki

The Research Wiki is easily the most valuable genealogical resource on the Internet. Even though it is largely unheralded and ignored by most genealogists, it is a hidden wonder when you realize the amount of information already present in its over 71,000 articles. If both new and experienced researchers spent one tenth of the time they spend with and similar websites in the Research Wiki, they would be immensely more productive.

The contributors to the Research Wiki quietly go about their work adding links and information daily and improving and updating the information already there. I am sure that if FamilySearch did a realistic evaluation of all of their online resources, the Research Wiki gives more bang for the buck than anything else they have online with the exception of the Historical Record Collections. What I find interesting is the regular introduction on the FamilySearch websites of "more" resources for the beginning genealogist, when the Research Wiki has many thousands of pages of valuable information. It is as if the promoters of "introductory material" are either ignorant of what is already there or afraid to send newcomers to a text driven resource. Yes, that is the issue. The Research Wiki involves actual reading! Can you believe it? The new comer might just have to read something instead of look at pretty pictures and animations.

There are, of course, a lot of pictures in the Research Wiki, but it is not sugar coated, simplified, dumbed-down, pablum. It is a solidly useful reference for teaching and instructing anyone with the good sense to use its resources. It is also not going to give you a 5 minute snapshot of genealogy but is going to introduce you to the meat-and-potatoes reality of doing genealogical research. Real genealogists use the Research Wiki. There are even a significantly large number of people who advocate abandoning the Research Wiki because it is too difficult and uninviting to newcomers. They
ask why we are spending our time with a product that "no one can use" meaning you have to be able to read and write to use the Research Wiki.

Yet with all that, it is still a work in progress and always will be. It is designed to be a work in progress. That is one reason we find encyclopedias to be less and less useful over the years. The encyclopedia companies used to issue annual updates, recognizing that their products were aging and becoming more inaccurate over time. The Research Wiki (and other wikis also) avoid that problem by allowing instantaneous updates of all of the pages.

So why is the Research Wiki ignored by the bulk of the FamilySearch employees and many other online sources? It may seem simplistic, but it boils down to air time. FamilySearch has a a huge number of "products" to promote and is adding new products regularly. These products consist of "new" ways to present what is essentially the same information. The stated goal is the expansion of interest in genealogy. They are trying to attract some additional percentage points of interest in what is a difficult and challenging topic. So you do this by telling everyone how easy it is to do genealogy? Or by dumbing down to the product until it is no longer useful?

You don't improve a pursuit such as genealogy by making it seem what it is not, i.e. simple, easy and fun, you improve genealogy by aiming your educational efforts and those who are already doing genealogy but need help. For example, one of the biggest obstacles to having more older people involved in genealogy is the technological challenge of learning computers. If you really want to have more people involved in genealogy, you start teaching the old folks how to use their computers to do genealogy, starting with the Family History Consultants and FamilySearch Center volunteers.

At the core of this simplistic way of viewing genealogy is the input from people who have never done an honest days' research in the Family History Library in their life. Yet, they think they have the solution for helping those who are new to the field? I think not. What you need to know about how to do genealogy is exhaustively and adequately covered by the Research Wiki and yet there is always a tendency to think that some other wonderful, colorful, video-based product will solve the mystery of why people aren't flocking to the ranks of the genealogists. Instead of looking for more productive ways to improve the community, they are looking for the quick fix. How about an organized mentoring program for newcomers, where they are assigned an experienced genealogist who agrees to help them do their research. Ooops, I thought we already had this in Family History Consultants, except they are usually not experienced genealogists at all but merely new volunteers. Why send them or any other newcomer to yet another class when you can have me or someone like me, sit down with them one-on-one and teach them how to do their work and then they can teach someone else etc?

I presently spend hours a week helping genealogists with their questions, one-on-one, day after day and guess what? This is the real solution to helping people get started in genealogy. People who are already interested in doing research on their family do not need to be told why they need to do genealogy, but how to do it. The Research Wiki tells you how to do it.

So, if you are tired of the video game/social networking trivial and superficial approach to life in the modern age and genealogy in particular, then take some time to look at the Research Wiki. Sure, you will find places where there is still a need for more complete information. So, what are you going to do about it? Complain? Or get to work and help the rest of us fill in the remaining gaps and make the Research Wiki even more valuable.

My last shot in this post. How many of the knowledgeable presenters at the RootsTech Conference this year will mention the Research Wiki? How many will mention some other online resource? Think about it.


  1. I would be interested to know if you have any favorite pages, topics or categories of either of those in the FamilySearch wiki.

  2. Ann, the Research Wiki is organized by location and topic. So my favorite pages are about whatever I happen to be researching at the moment. Right now that's Sullivan County, New York, so I've been reviewing that county page.

    Also, I wanted to share the distinction between a couple of things about beginners. There are actually two types of beginners - beginning genealogists, who focus on living memory, and beginning researchers, who focus on finding documents and information about their ancestors beyond what those living know about.

    In truth, I think we should be able to make living memory fun and interesting. That's how we'll be able to get more people hooked on learning more about their ancestors. That doesn't mean that we forget research though. When you're done with living memory, that's when you begin to research. And that's where the wiki comes in. And in truth, we could make the wiki better for beginning researchers, but that's a topic for another day.....