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

Friday, November 27, 2015

Buying Into the Revolution -- Part One -- Setting the Stage

In 1975, I passed the Arizona State Bar Exam and was sworn in as a new attorney. I was to be an active attorney, on and off, for the next 39 years. Two years later in 1977, my brother got a personal computer. It was a TRS-80. We spent some time working on simple programs. Because of my previous experience with the mainframe computer at the University of Utah, I saw the potential of this inexpensive and very limited device.

Our one greatest challenge in operating a law office was the paper work involved. We usually had to make copies of everything we sent out and were using copious amounts of carbon paper. Most of our typewriters were IBM Selectrics. They had a dual ribbon system with a roll of "white out" that allowed for far easier correction than using an eraser or re-typing the entire document. Photocopying machines were huge and very expensive, so we charged for all the copies we made. As attorneys, we relied heavily on our staff to "produce the documents."

By 1982, I was aware of the strides being made in office automation. Some of the larger law firms had complex word processing machines. We heard such names as Vydec, Xerox and Star Information Systems. But the attorneys I worked with were still using the same method of correction using IBM Selectric Typewriters. I began to see that word processing could be done on a computer, but it took another few years before that could happen. When I purchased my first Macintosh computers, I was already in the business of selling Apple computers and other brands. I began using the Macintosh in my office to produce legal documents. The advantage (and disadvantages) were obvious.

Now we fast forward to the 1990s. By this time, I was fully involved in computers. I did 100% of my word processing on computers. In fact, rather than dictate documents to my assistants, I had taken over the process of creating the documents directly. From there, they would proofread them and make all the copies and send them out. We had stopped charging for copies.

I could go on, but I need to point out that when I left the practice of law in 2014, there were and are still attorneys who did not know how to operate their computers and did not compose documents themselves on the computers.

How does this apply to genealogy? I use the example of word processing as one of the most common computer applications. By the 1990s, I was also involved in a graphic design business and we were using the most advanced equipment we could purchase to produce posters, banners, and all sorts of documents from hardcover books to advertising flyers. By the time I quit my law practice, the Arizona courts were requiring all pleadings to be filed electronically. I am now creating my documents using voice recognition and other technologies. I am now considering whether using an iPad Pro is going to work for me instead of a laptop.

I am known as an "early adopter," that is, a person who accepts and adopts technology as soon as it becomes available.

Now we come to the great divide. Here we have an ever accelerating and evolving technology that is touching every aspect of our lives and there are segments of our population who are not at all involved and in fact, actively resist that technology. There are a multitude of reasons for this division. Some can be attributed to economic disparity, others are age related. Whatever the reason for the division, it is real and forms a barrier between those who accept the technology and those who either fail to use it or oppose it.

Genealogy is one of the very late adopters of the new technology. This is partially caused by the opposition of the record repositories. Genealogists do not control the rate of technological change adopted by the various entities that control documents. We are basically information consumers. We need information to find our ancestors and other relatives. Much of that information is still locked up in paper copies. Despite the advances in technology allowing digital access to billions of documents, the conversion of paper or its paper equivalent, microfilm, to digitized copies is slow and opposed by many entities. A prime example is the U.S. National Archives. The National Archives very likely accumulates paper much faster than it is digitizing it and only a vanishingly small number of its documents are available outside of paper copies.

But focusing on a very personal level, genealogy is finally moving into the technological revolution. However I still work in a library with 300,000 plus rolls of microfilm that are not digitized. I also have to travel and view some documents on paper, such as books and other records. But more importantly, I still find that the majority of the people I work with day after day, do not recognize the changes that have occurred in the methodology of genealogy. Just as many attorneys were and still are resistant to the changes from paper to electronics, such as my father who still wrote everything out by hand until he died, there are many genealogists who resist the technological changes.

I could go on and on with examples of the difficulty genealogists have with technology, but my point here is that the changes are inevitable. We will either embrace them or be run over by them, but genealogy has now begun to participate in the technological revolution. You can either get on the train or be left standing in the station, but you will not change the fact that the train is leaving with or without you.


  1. HI JAmes. Do you get accused of knowing nothing about computers from the teenagers. I've been at a seminar when some youngsters denigrated the abililties of a white haired oldie who was displaying a mapping system for Rural Fire Brigades. My first portable was a luggable, Don't know if it was a TRS 80, but I've used them. Love your blogs

    1. Yes, I have some interesting stories about younger people who assumed I was computer illiterate and were extremely embarrassed when they found out I was an Apple dealer and fixed computers and printers for years.