Click here to read the first in this series:
Let's suppose that you were starting into researching your family history, oh say, thirty years ago. Let's further suppose that you lived far away from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and the local genealogy library had very limited resources. Once you ran out of "home" sources, where could you go to find out more about your family? In my case, since this is where I found myself thirty or so years ago, I spent my "vacations" in the Family History Library. We stayed with my wife's family and I parked at the Library for four or five days of "research." My research consisted mainly of trying to figure out what had and what had not been done in discovering my ancestors.
My collection efforts in the Family History Library were mainly focused on the existing family group records that had been submitted by my family members over the previous 100 years or so. I was trying to figure out what had and what had not been done by my extended family. I ended up with a two foot high stack of copied family group records which I began entering into a rudimentary program running on an Apple II computer. As I accumulated the previously submitted family group sheets, I spent a huge amount of time trying to verify the information. I made very little original progress except to make corrections. Everything I did was copied and there were very few source citations.
Now we will start moving forward. Every year the computers became more powerful. At the time, I owned an Apple Computer Store and we got all the new models of both PCs and Apple computers. Subsequently, I kept migrating my genealogical data from program to program and computer to computer. The incentive was speed. As I added more and more people and my files grew in size, the computers were never fast enough to handle the additional data. Finally, there came a day when the speed and storage capacity of the computers exceeded any need I had. The programs and the computers could speedily handle tens of thousands of names and documents.
Meanwhile, for many years, in fact, since 1938, FamilySearch's predecessor, the Genealogical Society of Utah, began a project to microfilm original genealogical source records from around the world. By the time they converted to digital acquisition, they had accumulated 2.4 million rolls of microfilmed records.
Then we got the Internet. Just like the computers, at first it was slow and very cranky. Then it got faster and faster and pretty soon Ancestry and FamilySearch started digitizing their record collections and adding records online. The amount of information online began to grow geometrically. Now we come to real beginning of my story.
FamilySearch kept acquiring more and more records and eventually they began to digitize (convert to digital computer readable format) all the old microfilm records and began to acquire records directly with digital cameras. Soon there was a race to acquire larger and larger collections of online genealogically important records. Thousands of record repositories around the world began digitizing their records. Several companies emerged with huge online collections.
While all this was going on, a few short years ago, a company in Tel Aviv, Israel made an extraordinary step forward in the way online genealogical database programs operate. MyHeritage.com was right up there with the rest of the large companies acquiring records. They began the step forward by improving on an idea started by Ancestry.com to provide hints as to applicable records for the individuals in an online family tree. This programming effort culminated in a series of programs designated Super Search, Smart Matches, Record Matches and finally the Record Detective. The development of these programs created the beginning of a major shift in way genealogical research proceeded. Because of the extraordinary searching accuracy of these automated programs, the entire methodology of genealogy began a dramatic shift.
When a MyHeritage.com subscriber began entering information into a family tree, the program immediately began searching through a database, soon to accumulate more than 6.2 billion records, and find highly accurate matches. The user then reviewed the match and if appropriate, attached the record to the individual in the user's family tree as a source. If the record had information about a person who was not yet in the user's family tree, then the new individuals were added with the click of a mouse or other pointing device.
With this highly accurate, automated search capability a proven fact and as an example, other large companies began developing their own systems of automatic record search or improving their existing capabilities.
Now we come to the present. We have several very large, online, genealogical database companies that have implemented automated search capabilities relying on a user supplied family tree. The shift in the paradigm is that the previous, very tedious activity of searching individual records for ancestors is now automated. What I spent nearly 15 years doing in the Family History Library, can now be accomplished in a matter of hours. In contrast to my copying efforts, the new methodology can build a pedigree directly from original sources.
Wait, wait, wait. Aren't I missing something important? Aren't I painting a picture of Shangri-La when the reality is far from realized? Don't we need to remember that there are still a huge number of records out there sitting in repositories in paper format? Don't we need to remember proper citation formats, proof statements and all that goes along with the time-honored methodology of real genealogists? Don't we have to do "real genealogy" and not rely on some ad hoc online family tree program?
Well, the answer to all these questions is no. The automated genealogical search capabilities have now exceeded the ability of almost all experienced genealogists to find pertinent and appropriate records for their users. There are still limitations, but much of the basic and even some of more advanced genealogical tasks are now automated. A beginning researcher can now enter his or her basic information into any one of these newly updated programs and expect to have substantial amounts of information added automatically to their family tree.
Before I get into a discussion of the limitations, let's look at the benefits. We need to realize that I can now use several programs at once. I have a developing family tree on each program. Obviously, I need to designate a home base, a place to keep my core information. I use one of the online family tree programs as my "main" program or I can use one of the many available desktop programs.
The process is much simpler and less costly than my cumbersome activity of accumulating huge piles of paper family group records. I avoid the expense of regular trips to Salt Lake City, Utah and I get a complete survey of the work done by millions of genealogists around the world. This brings up a side note. I just finished driving from Mesa, Arizona to Provo, Utah. It took me about 11 hours and cost nearly $75 in gas and this is with a car that gets good milage. If I had to rent a hotel room and eat in restaurants to do research in Salt Lake, one trip could cost me many hundreds of dollars. When we start worrying about the cost of subscriptions to these new online databases, we need to remember what it used to cost to do the research directly in a library.
Now, it is probably time to talk about the limitations we still face. First, these programs are search engines. They do not do the necessary analysis of the records they find. We still have to do our part to make sure the process is finding our relatives and not just matching names. There are also temporal and geographical limitations. Some areas of the world do not yet have any digitized records. If our family comes from these parts of the world, then we are back to microfilm, hiring researchers or traveling ourselves. I will get further into the "objections" raised by the "real genealogists" in a future post.
But now I need to summarize where I am with explaining this process. I used to spend untold hundreds of hours searching through paper records in the Family History Library just to discover what had already been researched about my family. In essence, I was duplicating work done by others. With the new online, automated search programs, I could accomplish the same work in a relatively short period of time. As a bonus, I am constantly finding people and adding sources that I would never have found previously, simply because I would not have spent the additional time needed.
Tune in next time when I address the "sour grapes" genealogists who are struggling to keep us on the one true path to doing genealogy.