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

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Maybe we need a revolution in genealogy. Maybe we already have one going on.

Quoting Leo Tolstoy:
I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.
Sometimes the depth of the changes can be measured by the fierceness of the resistance to the change. See Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking, 1987.
We are presently in a revolutionary transition from what is commonly referred to as "traditional genealogy" to an entirely new paradigm. The casualties of this revolution are and will be those that resist the changes or are unable to adapt.

What is traditional genealogy? In past blog posts, I have argued that there is no clear definition of genealogy so how can there be a "traditional" variety? One of the most obvious indicators of this problem here in the United States is the attempt to make a distinction between "family history" and "genealogy." There is also an undercurrent of derogatory remarks about "name gathers" as opposed to genealogists. In the past few weeks, I have heard a remarkable number of comments about people who are essentially making up entire pedigrees for a variety of reasons and then there is also the proliferation of copied family trees online lacking any sort of documentation.

Now entering onto the stage of the activity called genealogy is the first and most fundamental of these changes, the automation of searching for records. Over the past year or so, I have demonstrated time and time again that using one of the newly upgraded programs, now most evident in and, to construct a family tree from scratch, you can build a four or five generation, completely sourced family tree in a matter of a few hours of clicking on suggested sources. I did this about two or so years ago for the first time, starting with only my name and the name of my father and no other information. In about 45 minutes I had four complete generations of my ancestors supported by competent sources. I have since replicated this dozens of times as I have assisted people to do exactly the same thing.

I can hear the screams of outrage at this kind of statement. I assume these cries come from those who cannot fathom the possibility that a computer program could be that accurate. Well, face the facts. For many people in the United States and elsewhere, the number of online records can now establish three or more complete generations of ancestors from the available records in these large online databases. This is not an exercise in copying pedigrees, this is building a valid, sourced and documented pedigree with names, dates and even photos and stories, in a matter of hours. I should point out that this took me many months and even years to do manually before there were computers. It in only a matter of time before the accretion of additional records will enable most people, at least in the U.S. and some other countries, to extend these pedigrees automatically more generations into the past.

With a minimal amount of instruction, the generation of a valid, sourced pedigree is now within the reach of anyone who wants to spend the time and effort to create one. If a person has a pedigree already and puts it on one of these programs, the programs immediately begin providing sources for each individual. Presently, this works extraordinarily well back about two hundred years.

It is difficult for many genealogists to admit that computer programs can better perform some of the basic search functions genealogists have struggled with all of their genealogical lives. They do not view these programs as a benefit. Rather they consider them to be a threat. Their reaction to the new technology is exactly that outlined by Tolstoy and by Gleick. They immediately begin to make all sorts of excuses as to why this is not a valid way to do genealogy.

Sadly, there are many other genealogists, who, either because of physical limitations, lack of training and a more serious lack of interest, are merely unable to cope with the mechanics of entering data into a computer. They are befuddled by the programs and fail to grasp the operating systems and file structure of the programs. They are relegated to a computer-less subculture, aware of the changes but unable or unwilling to become integrated. Even more sadly, there are those who are excluded due to economic limitations. This condition reflects the greater world community which is rapidly becoming stratified, not just by economic advantage but by access to technology.

Another impediment to the acquisition of technology, particularly being able to take advantage of the online genealogical community, is the general inability to adjust to constant change. This is the one most dominant complaint I hear from those who feel overwhelmed with the changes and are fiercely resisting adapting to the environment of constant change. These again, are the casualties of the revolution.

I find it interesting that there is a constant stream of popular television series and movies that focus on the evolution of a superior form of human. Examples include the X-men, Alphas, The 4400, The Tomorrow People etc. all of whom are viewed as a threat to the rest of humanity. These shows exhibit a basic resistance to seemingly superior ability. I see the same types of attitudes exhibited in these series also present among genealogists confronted with technology they neither understand nor can cope with.

Meanwhile we have a significant number of genealogists who go about searching for their ancestors in traditional ways, generating paper copies of documents and quoting unsupported and unsubstantiated statistics about how only 5% of the worlds records are online. Even if this were true, which it is likely not, stating that fact does not prevent the use of whatever percentage of the documents are available from being used by these programs. Granted, there are many places in world where few documents can be found online. But if you think a minute you will see some interesting facts. For example from an article in the MIT Technology Review, it took about 25 years for telephones to achieve 10% market penetration in the United States. It took 30 years for electricity to achieve that same level. It took tablet computers 2 years and smartphones about three years to achieve 40% penetration. Currently, according to the Pew Research Internet Project,
As of January 2014:
  • 90% of American adults have a cell phone
  • 58% of American adults have a smartphone
  • 32% of American adults own an e-reader
  • 42% of American adults own a tablet computer
 What is happening is essentially that this technological revolution is now spreading to genealogy in ways that just a few short years ago would have seemed impossible. There are many questions that can be asked as to how these changes will ultimately affect the traditional practice of genealogy and of course, I am here to ask those questions.


  1. I completely agree that the availability of digitized records online has made it possible for most people to quickly generate a completely sourced 5 or 6 generation pedigree -- I do it all the time on behalf of others. Where I differ is seeing a zero sum game between the computer-savvy researchers and those who pursue more traditional document-based research. There are computer-generated pedigrees that are pure fantasy, and there are paper-only researchers whose work is impeccable. The difference, in my opinion, lies in how well researchers cite their sources and -- most importantly -- whether they understand the laws and history of any given time and place enough to properly analyze the records. I don't see why there has to be a dichotomy between "Researchers" and "Family Historians." From my experience, those who are offended by the latter just won't put their information online. As for those who do want to connect and collaborate online...caveat emptor! Thanks for your ongoing blogposts on this subject.

    1. Good comment and interesting thoughts. Thanks.

  2. My cell phone hardly ever works indoors due to poor provider signal.

    I can't get decent internet connectivity without paying a large monthly sum for a bundle of stuff I'll never want to use.

    There is a major internet-access disparity that in a way parallels the economic disparities in the USA. Technological changes are rather beside the point if one cannot use them.

    Think about those Nauvoo people.

    1. You mention Nauvoo. This is one place I could never get cell phone coverage. But on my last visit, the coverage had improved somewhat. I think we tend to focus on the problems rather than the over changes that affect the vast majority of our populations around the world.

  3. I am enjoying your blog very much James. I too am one of those that has embraced the new technology. I remember the days of traveling a vast distance and waiting my turn to just view census records on microfilm in a library or archive. It took days and weeks sometimes to accomplish that task alone.

    Now I can access every census record for the U.S and beyond for some countries at 3 AM from the comfort of my home. But not everything is online, not every record has been put in a form yet to be searched online and so those who dig through records and research the traditional method still have in my opinion a bit of an advantage. Because in my experience the jewels of my research are usually found in musty old records still.

    Yes you can source 3 or 4 generations with documentation online but I was always taught to try to have at least 3 sources to back up even the fact of someone's parents. As we well know what is in a census record can be misleading. A person claimed as a child may not actually be that head of household's biological child. Not all states have digitized birth records or other sources to prove that.

    But I don't understand the battle between the two or why anyone would want to fight having better tools to get the job done. I worked in archives and the challenge of preserving records for research is a daunting and expensive task. To me the computer age is going to save quite a few records as long as we have the technology to read them.

    Access is always a problem for those with economic disparities. I believe this is where public libraries are sort of filling in a void with public access to computers much like the microfilm readers of the past.

    But for those who are just won't put their information on line or even make provisions to save your work I have a cautionary tale. We had local researcher who for years had amassed so much information in her research of local history and families in this one area. She was meticulous in her research and had copies of everything. She left no provision for when she passed what to do with all her research. She had no children and her family basically threw it out. Archives and historical societies are straining for space and many just don't have the resources to keep collections.The new technology can enhance our tools of research and preservation hand and hand with traditional research and preservation. I don't see the conflict or why there should even be a conflict. I just know that research has become much easier to accomplish, all those records have found a way to be preserved and that work is not in peril of being destroyed if we use a combination of both. Thanks for the great articles James.

    1. Thanks for another great example. I hear about this type of situation regularly. In fact, already once this week. Many of these people do not realize the seriousness of keeping all this information to themselves.

  4. We have one of those researchers in our family, too. She is planning to donate it to her local historical society when she dies. In the meantime, at least 2 of us would like to see it now. I hope her historical society wants it and has space for it. In checking some of the family tails I've heard credited to her, the information is not correct. I've quit wishing I could go through her boxes of family memorabilia. Yes, I'd like to see it but the urgency is no longer there.