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

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Will Genealogy Survive?

For years, I was very much involved in retail sales as an Apple computer dealer. My complete lack of business background or education made this one of the most difficult times of my life. I had to simultaneously learn the skills necessary to run a very thriving business including a large dose of advertising. As a result of owning a computer store, we also started a typesetting/graphic design business. Because of changes in the computer marketplace, dedicated computer stores virtually vanished and the computer store we owned also failed, but the typesetting/graphics design business persisted and lasted for more than 30 years.

When we started the graphic design business, we tried to promote the new technology of designing publications on the Macintosh computers and printing the results on an Apple laser printer. One way I promoted this new technology was to personally approach all the printers and print shops in the area and talk to them about using a computer to design their printing and showing them the laser print out of the results. Almost without exception, the printers rejected my initial efforts claiming that the printing was too poor to be accepted by the public. The owner of the small print shop would invariably pull out a magnifying glass and look at the laser print, a 300 dpi print, and say that the product was unacceptable and they were not interested.

I still remember to this day the experience of having print shop after print shop reject the technology as too poor to be useful. It is interesting to note that because of that same technology, every single one of those printers and their print shops is now out of business. There used to be probably fifty small print shops in the Mesa area and now there are maybe two. Of course, the print shops later tried to adopt the new printing technology, but by the time they did so, they were essentially out of business. Large companies had quickly adopted the technology and the availability of high quality (300 dpi and later higher resolution) on demand printing changed the industry and is still changing the industry.

I see here a direct analogy to the present genealogical community. We are facing the same rapid technological changes and I am seeing the same inability of on the part of the genealogists to see the need to change. I also see that the large genealogy companies, who are rapidly taking advantage of the technology, are forcing the small operators out of business. I also experience some of the same frustration as I explain how the new technology will change the way we genealogists do our research and record our results, only to have people reject the product as too poorly implemented to work.

When was the last time you heard someone reject the idea of an online family tree? When was the last time you met a genealogist who said they had no computer skills and preferred using a paper-based system rather than learn how to use a computer? When was the last time someone complained that the program they were using changed because of an upgrade? When was the last time you heard someone reject putting their genealogy on's Family Tree because other people would change their data? When was the last time you heard someone say that they thought Personal Ancestral File was perfectly adequate for their purposes?

I have heard all of those ideas expressed in the last two weeks. Some I have heard multiple times.

Here is what I know will happen. These "old line" genealogists will be "out of business" just a surely as were all the small print shops in Mesa and elsewhere. Genealogy will not survive in its present form. Oh, I don't mean people will abandon their search for their ancestors, I mean that the processes we have used for the past 100+ years will disappear. Here is what is going to happen:

1. The large genealogy companies will acquire enough records to adequately document nearly all of the people who have lived in the past 150 years.
2. With a subscription or membership in one or more of these companies, a beginning genealogist will automatically have at least four generations of ancestry readily available. This will be true for most of the people from Western Europe and the Americas. Think about it, the young people being born today, are my grandchildren and soon my great-grandchildren. Their four generations only go back to people born in the mid-Twentieth Century, likely between 1920 and 1950. With a few exceptions, every single person in this category has some online documents. I am continually helping young people with their genealogy and find some I am related to. In almost every case, I have known their grandparents and sometimes their great-grandparents personally.
3. Cooperation and synchronization between different online database programs will allow more remote ancestors to be "crowd sourced." That means that any interested descendants of these more remote ancestors will be able to collaborate to extend family lines.
4. The need for individuals to go to large repositories will decrease as more records come online. Seeing this coming, the large genealogical entities will begin to de-emphasize "professional genealogists."
5. So-called professional genealogists will become more like professional historians, recording and expanding on the details of family history rather than searching records for names and dates. Very, very few people will see the need to pay a genealogist to search family records.
6. Because people can look at their "genealogy" any time they want online, paper copies of these records will become scarce or non-existent.

Right now, the current crop of old line genealogists are looking at the mass of data in family trees and saying it just isn't good enough to use. Just like the printers back in the 1980s, they are making that assumption based on their perspective but leaving out the technological changes. Think about this one fact: How long will it be until nearly every single identifiable grave in the United States has been documented online? Did you think this was possible five years ago?

Just as assuredly as these changes are happening and will continue to happen, genealogists will go into denial and claim that the way they have done genealogy is the only way it can be done. Goodbye genealogists. Goodbye small print shops.


  1. I agree with you James. I think the new 'norm' (i.e. the mega-online dynamically linked databases) is going to come faster than any of us believe possible, regardless of our current point of view or involvement in technology.

  2. Interesting perspective on the "old line" genealogists James. I have suspected this ever since FHISO failed to engage their participation, but you say it very clearly and convincingly here. I believe you will get some denial and counter-argument to this post but time will tell. I think the problem extends beyond the increased availability of online records though. The very approach to structuring and representing research data will likely change as more people with experience of data modelling become involved. As an instance, there's a current thread on the TGF forum talking about standards for recording places - basically there are none, other than recording a name as it was written (BCG), but this discussion is entirely focused on the written name as though identification will be obvious. This betrays a journalistic approach rather than a scientific approach.

    1. Well, for example, if you choose a source for any one of the big online programs the programs choose the format and form of the source citations.

  3. I completely agree with your analysis; Wonder if you feel that the overseas 'market' is approaching this at the same pace or if you feel it is still some years behind? Selfishly I am hoping that they are catching up.

    1. Well, the big online databases are the "Overseas" market. I think they are leading the way.

  4. Nephi Anderson, back in 1911,mentioned something pertinent to this discussion, that was recently re-quoted in 2004 by David E. Rencher, AG, FUGA : "I see the records of the dead and their histories gathered from ... established in the nations, but in Zion will be the records of last resort and final authority. Trained genealogists will find constant work in all nations having unpublished records, searching among the archives for families and family connections. . . .

    The issue at hand is simple and basic.
    (1) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not yet, even at this late date in world history, desired to establish a record keeping system that is the final authority pertaining to genealogical matters;
    (2) They have not taught the absolute necessity of having "trained genealogists" on a worldwide basis. This appears to be a future, direct priesthood responsibility, as: "And a book of remembrance was kept, in the which was recorded, in the language of Adam, for it was given unto as many as called upon God to write by the spirit of inspiration; And by them their children were taught to read and write, having a language which was pure and undefiled. Now this same Priesthood, which was in the beginning, shall be in the end of the world also." . . . So, I see sometime in the future, language reeducation and writing "by the spirit of inspiration" will be an integral necessity of family historians, to be competent in factual documentation; truly professional genealogists.

    1. I have quoted the same passage myself at least twice. Thanks for the interesting insight.

    2. I noticed one of your postings dated Sunday, November 10, 2013, re: "The Challenge of Duplication of Temple Work -- Opening Comments"

      You emphasize: "this Society, or some organization growing out of this Society, will have in its care some elaborate, but perfect system of exact registration and checking, so that the work in the temples may be conducted without confusion or duplication."

      James, you continue with "Unsuccessful efforts to eliminate duplication of research and Temple work date back as far as the 1890s. . . . During those early years, all of the systems used to avoid duplication proved inadequate.. . . at this point more than 100 years after Nephi Anderson's prophecy and almost 120 years since the establishment of the Genealogical Society of Utah we are still facing exactly the same challenges only on a massive scale."

      What I have above noted explicitly as a dereliction of duty is: " for it was given unto as many as called upon God to write by the spirit of inspiration"; i.e., any sincere computer specialist in the Year of Our Lord 2014, well knows that not only are there over 7,000 identified human languages; there are also a plethora of computer processes and languages used that defy quantification and qualification for exact matching of data information resources. Therefore, any simple inquiry by calling upon God, would instantly reveal the absolute necessity of obtaining, learning and promoting a pure and undefiled language, to chase away all darkness in these communications and recordings done between area world populations, as well as complex machine systems. Most people assume that in the future, seers would translate into English, etc., as in the case of the Book of Mormon. I see a different future avenue, in which a righteous population is educated in a universal language, which then will have linguistic genealogists restoring fragmented remains of spoken and written works, for both the living and the dead.

      I find it interesting to contemplate language distortions: "Therefore, why is it that ye cannot understand and know, that he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth? Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together. And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness. Language clarification and purity are necessary. both for missionary activities, as well as family exaltation. My way of thinking: It all is circumscribed together as one.

    3. Hmm. I don't know if I can go along with your thesis here. Maybe I don't understand what you are saying, but I am not sure that language has anything to do with the availability of records kept here on earth.

    4. Quick, final remarks:
      (1) President Benson describes the Nephite way of teaching: "The Book of Mormon Saints knew that the plan of redemption must start with the account of the fall of Adam. . . ."
      (2) President Benson: "Now, after we teach the great plan of the Eternal God, we must personally bear our testimonies of its truthfulness. . . ."
      (3) As a professional genealogist, the record in the language of Adam is the only record source that contains the concurrent documentation of these facts. Short of this record and language, the proof of verification lies in brief, surviving and interpreted, disjointed references, that are proofs of recordings and testimonies, but it does not have the full force of primary documentation witness, in finally establishing what occurred, without question or doubt.