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

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Can you do all your research online?

After getting home from #RootsTech 2014, I started to dig out from under all of the things-to-do I had accumulated during my 10 days in Utah. Among those was a blog post by Michael J. Leclerc on the blog entitled, "Why You Can't Do All Your Research Online." His article started me thinking and I realized that I had a significantly different slant on the subject. Hence, the present post.

Quoting from Michael's article:
The unfortunate truth is that not everything is available online. It takes onsite research in archives, libraries, and repositories to obtain as much information as possible about your family.
Now, this statement would seem to be incontrovertible. However, a later statement made dramatically qualifies this issue. Here's the statement:
Digitizing records is time consuming and expensive. Governments are putting modern records online quickly because they are already in electronic form. But older, historical materials are slower to come online.
The problem is the definition of the term "modern records." Let's suppose that we start with a new genealogist who is presently in his or her 20s. Further, let's make some assumptions. I will assume that the person's parents were born around 1970. Since I presently have grandchildren who are approaching their 20th year this does not seem unreasonable to me. Now, let's jump back one more generation. That puts the new genealogist's grandparents born in the 1940s and the great-grandparents born in the 1920s. The lease for my part, I would consider all of the record since 1920, to be "modern" and readily available. I would also suggest that most of the information necessary for a well sourced pedigree during this time period, would be easily and immediately available online.

In making these assumptions, I'm relying on thousands of my own searches and helping hundreds of people do the same. In fact, not too long ago I did the experiment of attempting to construct a four generation pedigree chart exclusively using and it took me approximately half an hour to construct my own fully sourced pedigree back four generations on all my lines. As they say in the commercials, your results may differ but I would suggest that it is very common to find adequate records online going back four generations or even five generations for those who were born in the 1990s. Obviously these results rely rather heavily on the origin of the individual's ancestors. In fact, it would be extremely difficult and perhaps impossible to document the most recent four generations without using digitized records available online.

In his article, Michael makes the observation that FamilySearch's digitization effort would take "300 years." I think that this is a misreading of the information provided by FamilySearch. The 300 year time period referred to the time it would take to index all of the records. Is my understanding, that the digitization effort will be concluded within the next few years. The only records where this may not be the case are those that are clearly copyrighted and those for which permission from the original record creators is not forthcoming. The agreement between FamilySearch and pertains primarily to the indexing of existing records. Be that as it may, it is true that the digitization of all of the world's records may never be accomplished. But the real question is whether or not a sufficient number of records are digitized presently or will be digitized in the near future that will allow people such as our budding genealogist referred to above, to do an adequate job of documenting a basic four generation pedigree.

Another factor that apparently was overlooked by Michael in this post, is the issue of online lending libraries. For example, our local Maricopa County Library system has access to the Gale Reference Library. This online resource has hundreds of "copyrighted" genealogical reference books fully digitized and searchable online. In addition, online lending libraries continue to expand dramatically and it may be only a short time before virtually every book available in major public libraries is also available to be checked out online.

Of course the real issue is whether or not the documents that are currently locked up in paper repositories are going to be generally available. From my standpoint, the question is when will the genealogists need to refer to those records? The answer is a little bit complex. I have spent my time at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and other similar repositories around the country. In my case, I used to visit my local public library once or twice a month. With the availability of online library lending services my visits have decreased dramatically. Therefore, I do not believe that the conclusion that copyrighted material will be unavailable online is a valid supposition. In many cases, I do not need to go to the library to read a copyrighted book.

In saying all this, I certainly do not want to give the impression that I believe that all genealogical research can be done online. I will be long gone and buried before that is the case. But for the average US-born new genealogist, I believe that the future is already here. At this point, I probably need to raise the issue of how many sources are needed to establish a valid pedigree. But I will leave that for another discussion. For most purposes as I outlined above adequate documentation is presently available online dating back four or maybe five generations. There are exceptions and I assume I will receive comments to that effect.

1 comment:

  1. Having easy access to 'modern' records on line is wonderful & I look forward to having even more records at our finger tips. However, I think an important part of the research includes the visit to the archives or library or historical society to uncover, to see & hold those original documents. I look forward to planning and taking trips to places my ancestors lived, interacting with librarians and archivists and unearthing pieces of my ancestors' lives. Would the 20 year old genealogist have the complete experience without a trip like that? I wonder.