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

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Technological Trends Affecting Genealogy -- A Review Part Two

As I previously noted, there is a major technological trend towards the digitization of original source documents. Most of these documents were created on paper, film or some other media, and have been stored in a variety of repositories both formal and organized and informal and not so well organized. This movement has greatly benefited the genealogical community by making these copies available on the Internet and allowing the researcher to view the documents from a personal computer device.

Most of the historical media, including both film and paper, are for the most part, transient. This is especially true with media such as newspapers where the paper used will discolor and tend to deteriorate rapidly, even over a matter of a few days. Realizing that much of the information of the world is wrapped up in transient media, there are national and even international efforts to preserve these valuable documents. Some of the preservation efforts are directly aimed at genealogists, but most are structured to preserve local and national history and culture. In any case, genealogists are benefiting from the vast increase in digitized documents of all types.

Digitization for preservation may be the main motivation, but the key to extending this trend to the entire community has been making those digitized copies available on the Internet. As access to the documents increases, the impact of having a huge amount of original source information available also increases.

One negative impact of this trend towards digitization is the stratification of the genealogical community according to computer usage. Either through age related issues, economic position or other factors such as physical limitations, many genealogists find themselves, in essence, locked out of the online genealogical community. It is readily apparent to anyone involved in genealogy and, at the same time, learning how to use a computer with the Internet, that there is a substantial overhead cost to the individual researcher in time and money involved in taking advantage of the online resources. Many genealogists still view themselves as essentially "paper based," that is, they maintain a significant amount of information on paper forms and in paper (or other media) based copies.

Unfortunately, this paper based system is quickly being eroded. The reason this occurs is that more and more record repositories are making their records available only in digitized copies. One brief example is the digitization effort of with books in the Family History Library. As the books are digitized the paper copies of the books are being retired. Likewise, as the microfilm copies of the Library's collection are digitized, microfilm copies are no longer available. The net effect of this trend is that those researchers who distance themselves from computers and the Internet will ultimately find themselves locked out of many research opportunities.

Predicting the trend towards digitization is simple. Additional source documents will continue to be digitized in the millions and billions. As time goes on, more and more presently unavailable documents will be included in the huge online databases until a significant portion of the genealogically significant documents are available somewhere and in some format.

One disturbing trend in digitization, which I have written about previously, is the monetization of the document collections. Large online commercial databases are willing to pay record repositories for access to digitizing their documents. Hence, the repositories are being educated as to the value of their records as a revenue source. The net effect is that more and more documents are being digitized but at the same time the resultant images are available only for a fee either to a contracting online database or from the repository directly. Of course, the fees charges can be justified as funding for the digitization effort, but there is really no demonstrable connection between the fees and the availability of the records. This trend toward monetization of the records is taking place, not just with commercial websites, but also with governmental websites.

You would think that making millions upon millions of records available online, either by subscription or for free, would make finding those records easier. However, the opposite is the case. The huge number of online records has created researchers that are heavily dependent on indexes and search engines. When either or both of these are mediocre, then the resultant searches are defective. As a result, only the most sophisticated of researchers are really able to take advantage of the increase in availability.

1 comment:

  1. Re "monetization of the document collections"

    This phrase is often waved about to claim that "we" are losing something. (I'm not saying you're saying that). The claim from the doom-mongers is that data that was once freely available is now only found behind a pay-wall. In fact, I know of no instance in the UK (I can't say anything about elsewhere) where the original free access has been lost. Sure you have to make a journey and go to the Archives in question (and it's amazing how many people think this access is zero-cost) but once you're there, the data is always freely available.

    For the rest of us, we never had remote access, so having it and having to pay is not removing something.

    Sadly, too many people think IT people should give their services and hardware free... Would they?