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

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Can we see the future of genealogy by looking at the past?

Lately, I have been collecting old books about how to do genealogy. Some of the books are almost 100 years old. My interest is in the changes that may have occurred over the years in how people viewed genealogy. Simply because of availability, I have found quite a series so far. Here is the list up to today in chronological order:
  • Genealogical Society of Utah. Lessons in Genealogy. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Geneaological Society of Utah, 1915.
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Seeking After Our Dead: Our Greatest Responsibility. [Salt Lake City]: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1928.
  • Bennett, Archibald F. A Guide for Genealogical Research. [Salt Lake City]: Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1951.
  • Bennett, Archibald F. Family Exaltation. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Sunday School Union Board, 1957.
  • Williams, Ethel W. Know Your Ancestors: A Guide to Genealogical Research. Rutland, Vt: C.E. Tuttle Co, 1960.
  • Rubincam, Milton, and Kenn Stryker-Rodda. Genealogical Research: Methods and Sources. Washington, D.C.: [American Society of Genealogists], 1960.
  • Bennion, Howard S., and Donna D. Sorensen. Genealogical Research; A Practical Mission. Salt Lake City: Deseret Sunday School Union, 1962.
  • Harland, Derek. Genealogical Research Standards. Salt Lake City, Utah: genealogical Society, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1963.
  • Wright, Norman Edgar. Building an American Pedigree; A Study in Genealogy. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1974.
  • Doane, Gilbert Harry, and James B. Bell. Searching for Your Ancestors: The How and Why of Genealogy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980.
  • American Society of Genealogists. Genealogical Research, Methods and Sources, Vol. 2. Washington, DC: American Society of Genealogists, 1983.
  • Cerny, Johni, and Arlene H. Eakle. Ancestry's Guide to Research: Case Studies in American Genealogy. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Inc, 1985.
  • Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1990.
  • Jaussi, Laureen Richardson. Genealogy Fundamentals. Orem, Utah (284 East 400 South, Orem 84058): Jaussi Publications, 1994.
Some of these are obviously religiously oriented, but all contain basic instruction. It will take me some time, but I intend to compare and contrast the methodology and any changes that have occurred over the last almost 100 years. I truly believe that the past is a window into the future. Once we know where we have been, we can usually see where we are going. In this case, the changes in genealogy have not been a dramatic as you might expect. Technology is a thin veneer over basic principles that have remained essentially the same. As genealogical researchers, we need to know this and acknowledge both the good and the bad of the past. In doing so, we will not only see but understand the future.

One of the basic ongoing discussions I have with a variety of people from FamilySearch to the Mesa FamilySearch Library to those teaching in other circumstances is how best to present the technical nature of both genealogy and computers in a way that does not intimidate those who are new to the pursuit, while at the same time providing support for those who are already in the thick of the research process. This week at the Mesa FamilySearch Library, I will end up teaching 14 or so classes at all levels, plus helping dozens of patrons with research problems both relatively simple and highly complex. I am spending as much as eight hours a day, almost without a break, teaching and helping. So, the question of how all this should be done in the most efficient and helpful manner is not theoretical, but practical.

One of the constantly recurring questions is whether or not the beginning researcher should focus on putting his or her initial information in an online family tree such as FamilySearch Family Tree or some other online program or be immediately encouraged to choose a database program. There are arguments for both methods of introduction, but if we start teaching programs, the new person is losing the opportunity to immediately connect with family history. Do we equate the importance of learning computer operation with doing family history and learning about our families?

In one case this week, we had people who had no computer skills. I mean no skills whatsoever. They had to spend a considerable time looking for letters on the keyboard to enter their own names to log onto In these cases, we had to get more knowledgeable people to sit beside them and help them enter their family information into Family Tree. Do we really think that these people want to learn how to use computers before they want to connect with their ancestors? In all this, there is an underlying issue of trying to engage new, younger people in genealogy. All of the flashy new graphics were entirely lost on these older patrons who were determined to enter their family information, but who did not have even the skills to turn on a computer and find a website such as Do we abandon these people entirely? Having an engaging computer-based kiosk to address these people would be an entire waste of time. Believe me, I help many more people in the category of these elderly people with no computer skills than I ever see of young people who are this determined to connect with their families.

I keep reading stories of groups of young people who have become engaged in computer-based projects for finding their ancestors, but of the hundreds and hundreds of patrons I have seen and the few I have helped this week, I do not see the youth. So we have a huge target area extending from those young people who have some (although usually exaggerated) computer skills but little interest to those who much older but have an almost desperate need to connect with their family and lack any computer skills whatsoever. In our rush to cater to the younger group are we forgetting those that are doing their family history even with their lack of skills? No engaging startup screen is going to address this problem. By the way, almost none of these specific older people I was helping spoke English, I was helping them in Spanish. 

1 comment:

  1. I got interested in genealogy because of my father. He had gathered too much information for paper and wanted it in the computer. I purchased FTM for the information and put the stories he had written into WORD. That was 20 years ago but it is what got me hooked. At that time I didn't have time for genealogy, or the inclination. But he had the time to proof my work and help organize what I was doing. The input really didn't take that long, so maybe some of these people have children or grandchildren that would be willing to help. I know that doesn't totally solve the computer skills issue, but it may get the younger generation interested enough.

    Dad had some things he wanted to know, so I then took it upon myself to see what I could find using the computer. Yes, then I was really hooked.