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

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Can Genealogy be Collaborative?

Many years ago, pre-computers, my wife's family started a project to verify and source an entire line of the Glade and Green families of Salt Lake City, Utah. The research was divided up between family members who all went to then Family History Library to review the microfilm records. I have seen the family group records produced and the source citations for each person are recorded on the bottom of the pages and continued onto the back of each page. In some cased the source notes for one family group record go on for 3 or 4 11x17 typed pages. The sources are specific for each event down to the microfilm number. After the initial research was done, every single date and film number was verified. They also gathered the original records. When records weren't available, they jointly hired professional researchers in England to search the records that weren't microfilmed.

Today, that would be called crowd sourcing, back then, it was collaboration. Copies of this original research is sitting in a binder I am looking at right now. The family researched back into the early 1600s and in some cases into the 1500s when the records ended.

But here is the problem. All of this original research is locked up in typed, paper family group records. It was never published in a book and so only the family members who originally participated retained copies. There is no denying that collaboration on that scale produced tremendous results. But what happened to the results. How many of the current family members are even aware that all that research work was done?

What if we take another example of my Great-grandmother who spent the last 30 years or so of her life doing genealogical research. She amassed a huge number of records including a large number of letters to relatives around the U.S. and in England, Scotland and Ireland. She not only researched her own lines but those of her husband. Over a number of years, I entered all of the names in her files into a succession of computer programs and then digitized the records. A copy of the entire digitized file is in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. See Mary Ann Linton Morgan documents available on a CD at the Library.

In the first case, the family cooperatively produced a huge amount of highly detailed and completely sourced research. In the second case, an individual, working all alone, produced another huge collection of genealogically valuable information. In both cases, it is very unlikely that many of the current family members are aware of the extent of the research. So aren't we missing something when we have collaboration? Doesn't the end product of the collaboration end up essentially the same as all the work done by the single individual? Unavailable in some cases to successive generations?

In my Great-grandmother's case, the information is now readily available to any family member taking the time and effort to search in the Family History Library catalog. But in the case of the vast number of annotated family group records, that information is only available if you happen to stumble across a copy. But wait, there is a source for looking at the family group records. It is called the Family Group Records Collection, Archives Section, 1942-1969. Too bad. All of these family group records never made it into the submitted files.

What is the point? Collaboration can be used to find huge amounts of data, but lacking some standardized method of exchanging all this data, collaborative efforts end up just as if there had been no collaboration. So what is the solution? Well, sharing all this information online is one suggested solution? Using the Family Tree may be a solution if someone in the family takes the time to enter all of the sources into the program. A monumental task that is very unlikely to happen. Does this mean all that work will have to be done over again? Essentially yes, until there is an adequate way to transfer all of this prior research onto sharable and searchable resources.

So, can genealogy be collaborative? Yes and no. Collaboration is possible and can produce hugely successful results. But without an adequate method of entering the research into the existing available databases, the work will not be generally available and will likely be redone out of ignorance of the original research.


  1. This is so true. I personally have done a lot of work on my family and I do not know anyone in our family who could possibly take on after me so someone will probably do this all over again.

  2. The track pad from Apple Corp is not perfect as providing a touch interface for a desktop computer - but it's a good start.
    We have the ubiquitous GEDCOM5 standard which makes collaboration feasible and software such as webtrees and TNG which provide central repositories - but I think the problem is deeper, the average genealogist wants to maintain a personal ownership over 'their' data, until we overcome that problem and free up the data the concept of collaborative genealogy wont gain much traction.