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

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Is a Computer for Genealogy Really Necessary?

The question in the title to this post was a serious question when Joanna D. Posey wrote an article for the American Ancestors, New England Historic Genealogical Society newsletter back in 1987 with that same title. Quoting from the first paragraph of the article:
Is a computer for genealogy really necessary? This question is often asked at genealogical conferences and at genealogical computer seminars. The answer is not as cut and dried as one may wish. 
Certainly, we have seen quite a change in modern technology including the development of the personal computer system. Even with this in mind, genealogists have spent a tremendous amount of time in recording family data through traditional manual record keeping methods. To each of us there comes a moment of decision as to whether or not a computer would be more advantageous than traditional recording methods.
Back in 1987 Personal Ancestral File was only in version 2.1 for DOS, Apple PRO-DOS and Macintosh. In the Microsoft world OS/2 was released in 1987 and during the same year, Microsoft shipped Windows 1.01. The World Wide Web was not invented until 1991.

Ironically, many genealogists are still asking the same question 26 years later. That the question is still a serious issue is interesting in light of the fact that we now have people who were raised with computers in their home who are turning 40 years old and older. Apparently there is some considerable doubt as to whether or not a computer is more advantageous than traditional (i.e. paper and pencil) recording methods and as I deal with researchers day after day, I find that this question is far from settled. There are still those who resent, oppose and actively denigrate computers.

Frequently, I am faced with people who proudly claim that they have no computer skills and do not intend to acquire any in the near or distant future. If you haven't run into these folks, you need to seriously consider expanding your circle of acquaintances. In the past, I have labeled them luddites, but I think that the issues are much more serious that an economic opposition to mechanization. Even in light of the expansion of online databases, is there some real advantage to computerization? Depending on the number of individuals and families, it is conceivable that a paper system would be at least as efficient as recording the same number of individuals and families on a genealogical computer database program.

Judging from the amount of paper hauled around by researchers who are also carrying laptop computers, I suggest that many of us are still in the transitionary stage. We like computers and use them a lot but can't quite free ourselves from the vassalage of paper. I think some of us who use computers to an excess cannot imagine survival without one. But those not wedded to the computer are still in the exploratory stage of their relationship.

If you are still using a paper based genealogy system, it is unlikely that you have a lot of similarly situated people reading this blog. Considering the fact that when I teach classes on blogs, I nearly always find that a majority of the class is entirely unaware of the online genealogical blogging community. Even sophisticated computer users who are genealogists are unaware of genealogy blogging. I have a good friend who is very adept with computers and has a significant involvement in genealogy who commented after seeing my recent Webinar on blogging, that he had no idea of the amount of involvement, which translated out to mean he had never read any blogs.

Is there a solution to the problem of resistance to computers in genealogical circles? Is there even a problem to be solved. Won't the problem just go away when the number of computer devices exceeds the number of people in the world? Which will likely shortly happen. With the an attitude towards learning and innovation, such a person can be taught to use a computer. But it takes more than a few classes and some rudimentary motivation. It takes a lot of hard work on a computer, day and night, for months to gain proficiency. This may be and likely is, an investment that some people will never make.


  1. ...sorry, I have to chime in here James. You must be getting fed up of me by now ;-)

    Is this question any different from 'do we need a word-processor to write a letter?', or 'do we need Excel to do our small bit of accounting?'. In principle, the answer to these is 'no'. You can easily write a formal letter by hand but it looks so much better when printed, plus you get automatic spell-checking too. Yes, you can add up you figures with a calculator, or even an abacus if you're a real Luddite, but a spreadsheet makes it much easier.

    With genealogy, the power of online records makes it so much easier to search-for and correlate large amounts of information, and to solve problems that would otherwise take an inordinate amount of time, money, and travel. There will always be data that isn't online but that initial work with online records creates an overall picture that effectively forms a springboard to direct you to those other sources. Unless you're some type of savant, computers can also help you to reach rational conclusions more quickly by ensuring that they do not contradict your own evidence [something that online family trees do not seem to help with].

    In the area of desktop genealogy software, there's another type of person - those who use the computer but none of the popular products. I fall into this category myself. When I started in genealogy, I kept all my data in a semi-formalised notation using a word-processor. I later decided to develop my own software because the popular products didn't support the types of data is was recording, or the way I was linking it together. Yes, I could have continued using a word-processor but a specialised software program just makes it so much more convenient and consistent.

    1. I never get tired of comments, especially yours. Yes, for the same reasons I drive a car to a store a short distance away when it is 115 degrees in Mesa. You can do it on foot, but the advantages of a car are very obvious. You would think all your arguments would be persuasive, but the resistance to computerization is not rational.


  2. Being in your same age group and just doing genealogy for about five years I can not imagine NOT using the computer.

    Wait till the same people find out they can order things on line....

    1. These same people will not order anything online because they are afraid their identity will be stolen. Really. I am not exaggerating.

    2. I myself use a computer for my research. About fifteen years ago I found a cousin on yes yours truly ancestry. She has done most if our family research by car and at court house etc. She used paper to document all findings being from the hills of Ohio she had know idea how to use a computer until abt eight years ago when I purchase one for her and taught her how to use it. I must say today she us enjoying the wonderful web of research. As I mentioned before I found her on ancesty this was when she started to explore online at her library. I will say she still likes her paper.

    3. You use a tool if it will:

      a) help you in some way,

      b) save you time, and/or

      c) make the task more enjoyable.

      If there are net benefits to an individual of using a computer for genealogy, then it is worth their while to do so.

      Each person is their own judge.