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

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Future of Online Genealogy

In a recent post, I talked about the future of genealogy software. In this post, I decided to peer into the future of the online genealogical community. One of the most remarkable aspects of the recent changes in genealogy is the accessibility of original source records. The real question is whether or not this availability will actually impact the way people record and remember their families or will the rift between the social and popular aspects of genealogy and the more academic versions simply widen as time goes on.

It is hard to come up with a terms to apply to the more documented aspects of genealogy that are not loaded with historical baggage; such as scientific, academic, professional, source-centric and others. I choose the term "academic" as somewhat neutral. What is most prominent in this particular area of the persuasion is a passion for accuracy and documentation. This area of genealogy is epitomized by the American Society of Genealogists and their journal, The Genealogist. For an example of this type of writing and study, see Leslie Mahler, "Samuel1 Levis, Quaker Immigrant to Pennsylvania: His Descent from Edward III," The Genealogist 13(1999):30-36.

There is no doubt that scholarly or academic genealogy is confined to a very small number of dedicated individuals. For example, the Fellows of the the American Society of Genealogists is limited to 50 people at any one time. It is interesting that none of the names of the people on the list have a significant online presence and with only one or two exceptions, none of them are well known to the greater genealogical community. The academic genealogists also include the various accreditation and certification efforts which by their very nature are exclusive rather than inclusive.

The polar opposite of the academic genealogical community is the fast growing and lively online genealogists involved in social networking and blogging. Interestingly, the two types of activities do not seem to cross paths much. In my case, I have met hundreds of genealogists but in reviewing the list of the Fellows of the American Society of Genealogists, I recognize only a very few names. It is not likely that many, with perhaps a few exceptions, of those on that list are aware of Blogging, Facebook, Google+, Twitter crowd of genealogists. There is no clear line of demarcation between the various levels of interest in genealogy. The academic genealogists dominate some genealogical publications and  conferences but become less apparent towards the family tree gathering end of the genealogical spectrum.

Overall, the rise of the academic genealogists from such notable names as Joseph L. Chester, William Whitmore, Donald Lines Jacobus and their genealogical heirs, has had little impact on popular genealogy. Although the standards of genealogical scholarship have been raised significantly over the past few years, The vast online community of "family tree genealogists" is likely entirely unaware of the existence of this level of genealogical interest.

Currently online "family trees" number in the millions with billions of named individuals. The activity in this particular area of genealogy or family history is an enormous influence on the future of genealogy. If organizations such as are able to maintain a working model of the Family Tree and if the other large online companies such as and continue to attract the numbers of people anticipated, the main stream of genealogy will revolve around online family tree programs. It is unclear how the academics fit into that overwhelming online presence. Especially since it is clear that few of the online family tree participants are at all interested in adding sources or documentation to their trees despite the ease with which this can now be done.

Online genealogy will dominate the entire spectrum of genealogical interest. The academics cannot ignore the popularity of the family tree gatherers although they may decry the lack of documentation and the errors and omissions, they cannot stem the tide. The number of online participants will continue to grow and the task of sifting through myriad duplicate family trees, absent some unforeseen technology, will dominate the near future of genealogy. Most of the genealogical community will see genealogy as a participatory activity, through online social networking, with suggested connections and possible "new relatives" as commonplace.

Efforts to turn the tide of the family tree gatherers and turn them into story tellers and family historians may have some effect on a minority of the online community, but the evolution of genealogy will largely be shaped by the ad hoc specialized interest communities formed on the social networking forums and as reflected by the family tree gatherers rather than by the academics.

Is there any hope for relief from the vast duplication and inaccuracy of the family tree gatherers? I don't like to be pessimistic, but I see even more polarity in the future. There is presently no technological, social or cultural way to stem the tide of names going online or to avoid lack of documentation and duplication. The availability of sources will benefit the academic community as well as the rest of the genealogical community, but there are few pressures on the community to move towards the academic viewpoint. There will always be careful, meticulous researchers outside of the inner academic circle, but there is nothing in the online structure that makes the academic approach attractive.

There will always be those who aspire to the "inner circles" of academic genealogy but the vast majority of the family tree gatherers will remain unaware of their very existence.

What will genealogy look like in ten years? Fifty? The digitization effort will increase. The commercialization of the large collections will increase. The availability of online sources will allow more people to have access to do serious research, but the future for most genealogists will be largely determined by online social networking.

I do see some ancestral lines as becoming fully documented. But at the same time, I see that making this documentation known to the family tree gatherers will be an insurmountable problem for any foreseeable future.

Now, the future for the serious genealogist is rosy. Ease of access to sources will provide a gold rush of activity in documenting ancestral lines. Depending on the skill and dedication of the researchers, there should be a huge amount of very valuable genealogy done in the next few years. But the number of people participating in this end of the spectrum will remain vanishingly small.


  1. What a timely post. Teens are going to be encouaged by their parents to add sources, photos and stories. Want to know why? The adults are afraid they'll screw up the data. Hmmmmm. So at Root Camp we will be teaching them how to do this. The teens aged 12 to 16 are the future of this "online social networking presence."

  2. With the announcement from RootsMagic that they can now interchange sources with Family Search it now becomes easy to add documentation to a public tree.