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

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The side-effects of digitizing records

The movement of information from analog to digital format is more than just a convenience or passing fad, it is a fundamental change in the way information is integrated into our society. I heard a comment recently that noted the change from the way people obtained the "news" from newspapers and TV to the Web. Those shifts in the information channels are only a symptom of more basic adjustments caused by the unstoppable force of digitization.

It is obvious also that this same trend is affecting genealogy. For example, when was the last time you looked at a U.S. Census record on microfilm? The answer to this question demonstrates, not just the physical change from viewing images from microfilm to monitors, but also the tremendous adjustments made in equipment and personel. When I first visited family history centers or libraries, one of the most prominent features was the huge number of microfilm readers. Today, those same machines are quickly disappearing into odd corners and back rooms. This is just one visible example of the change. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah has become a sea of computers when it used to be a sea of microfilm readers. Our new volunteers at the Mesa FamilySearch Library are shown microfilm readers like they were dinosaurs. It helps to understand this to know that we have digital readers also that will capture images and same them to flash drives. Even the technology of microfilm has moved beyond the simple to the complex.

One of the effects of this digital revolution is the demand it makes on genealogists to become "computer literate." Computer literacy involves a lot more than it did just a few short years ago. Today, computers come in all shapes and sizes, with and without keyboards and the demands of both local and Web based applications.

I am finding that the biggest challenge to advancing with genealogical research is the degree of computer sophistication. At the core of the computer skills is the ability to type or swipe. Because computers require both education and physical practice (like learning to play the piano) there is a steep learning curve. The challenges are only partially age related. Many more students today are required to have keyboarding skills than in years past when not everyone was required to take typing. As a side note, I consider learning to type one of the very few useful things I learned in classes in high school.

As a consequence of this age related shift in required skills there is a general impression that younger people will have an "easier" time doing genealogy and to the extent that they are motivated this is likely true. The accuracy of this observation depends, of course, on the acquisition of the other core skills needed to do meaningful research.

Today, I worked with two different people, both would be considered elderly by our society (like me, elderly). One had excellent computer skills and had worked with keyboards and then computers most of her adult life but had only some basic genealogy skills. The other had years of genealogy experience and almost no computer skills. The contrast was dramatic even though both were apparently equally motivated to do genealogical research. It is my perception or opinion that the patron with the computer skills will have a much easier time than the one without those skills.

So, to some extent, the future of genealogy is tied up with the acquisition of computer skills by the current researchers and those who are motivated to enter the pursuit of their ancestors. As more records becomes digitized, it is a given that the paper records will be come more inaccessible. For example, as books are digitized in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, some of them are taken off the shelves and stored to make way for other books that have yet been digitized. Equally, when microfilm records in the Family History Library are made available online, they cease to be available for rental. Access to millions of records is now limited to those who own computers, have some type of Internet connection and the skills to use both the computer and the connection.

The real question is whether any of the time honored skills needed for genealogical research whether done online or in person have changed or are being eliminated by the shift in technology? My opinion is that they are and they are being replaced by compensating skills enabled by the technology. For example, because of my work background I had developed certain research skills using a card catalog and reference books that I haven't used in years. But now, I have learned how to search catalogs online and in my opinion, I am much more effective in my research than I was when I was tied to card catalogs and National Union Catalog volumes.

I guess there is double challenge; can we help the computer savvy of whatever age to do genealogy and can we teach the genealogists to use computing devices and the Internet. I think we are beginning to make progress in both areas at least, to the extent of examining the issues.

1 comment:

  1. This rapid move to the use of the computers and online resources I believe is also partly responsible for the reduced interest and even decline in membership of many family history societies. Perhaps many do not recognize that interaction among genealogists through such groups is also a great way to extend research.