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

Monday, November 9, 2015

Developing Technology Aids Genealogical Research

It is one thing to talk about genealogy and quite another thing to actually do the research necessary to find one's ancestors. Genealogy, like writing books, has always been a rather solitary avocation. It is hard to socialize when your main activities consist of spending huge amounts of time in front of a computer screen or sitting in a library or other record repository. Fortunately, I teach a lot of classes and although teaching does not necessarily qualify as socialization, it does put me in contact with live people.

There is a direct connection between finding records of our ancestors and spending the time locating and searching the documents containing those records. It takes me far more time to look for appropriate records to search than searching the records themselves. I also spend a great deal of time organizing, citing and transcribing the records. Any advances in these procedures have a measurable effect on the efficiency of the overall research process.

It is the nature of records that they are created at or near the time an event occurs in the jurisdiction responsible for creating the record. In this statement, the word jurisdiction is defined expansively to include the scope of the responsibility of any entity responsible for originating the record. But it is also important to realize that from the point of its creation the record becomes mobile. Records can migrate from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. When I speak of this migration, I mean that the physical records move as they are transferred from location to location. For example, a school record could be created for a student in a particular class in a particular school. That student's record could end up being physically located clear across the state in an archive, state library, university special collections library or some other such institution.

If I wanted to examine that school record, I would have to first find the record then gain access to the record. Historically, the record (unless copied) had to exist in one location at a time. For this reason I had to travel to the record unless copies had been made of the record I wanted to search. I would also have to determine whether or not the copies were available.

For genealogists, the first big step forward in record availability was the production of microfilmed copies. In 1938 FamilySearch's predecessor, the Genealogical Society of Utah, began the process of microfilming original records. The microfilmed copies of the records could then be viewed on a viewer and thousands of documents could be transferred economically and conveniently to a location nearer the researcher's home. As antiquated as microfilm seems today, billions of the world's records are still locked up in microfilm. Ordering a microfilmed copy of a collection of records initiated a complex series of events culminating the roll being duplicated and then shipped to a remote location nearby the person who ordered the microfilm. This process goes on today through the Catalog and the world-wide network of Family History Centers.

In the past few years, the largely analog process of photographically copying an image onto a roll of microfilm and then viewing those images directly with a microfilm viewer or projector has been replaced by digitally creating an electronic image of the same microfilm. has been converting their huge microfilm collection to digital images. In addition, the acquisition of new images has been entirely converted to digital cameras. The images are now appearing online in the Historical Record Collections. Of course, FamilySearch is not the only entity acquiring and then displaying online collections of digital images. Huge numbers of digital images of original source documents are being added to online websites every day. One notable example is the Washington State Digital Archives which currently has preserved over 164 million state documents and made over 63 million of those documents searchable online. The Washington State Digital Archives also continues to add over 3 million new searchable images a month.

Genealogical research has become focused on digital images. Today, anyone with a smartphone camera can produce a digital image of a document and make that image available on a website where it can be viewed by other researchers around the world. The impact of this change in the process of accessing and viewing documents is just now beginning to affect the genealogical community.

Here is an example. When I began doing genealogical research in the 1980s, I traveled by car from my home in Mesa, Arizona to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah to discover what had already been researched by the members of my extended family. My research centered on a collection of millions of paper Family Group Records that had been accumulated and were stored on shelves in large binders by the Family History Library and its predecessors. My survey efforts consisted of searching through the binders for the previously submitted paper documents and then making a photocopy of the pages one-by-one. Over the years I continued with this survey, I accumulated about a 2 foot stack of paper records.

Today, I can look at the Family Tree and see the results of the digitization and accumulation online of all of those same records. What is more, I can do this from any device that can view documents online. Those same records that took me years of travel and expense to view and copy, are now available for free online.

Detractors of this process never fail to point out that there are still huge numbers of documents that are only available in paper copies. Yes, that is true, but the rate of conversion of those documents is increasing rapidly. What I have personally discovered during just the past year is that nearly every one of the end-of-line issues that had existed in my own family lines have now been resolved with online digital records. The main limitation is now merely the time involved in searching all those records and as I pointed out in a recent blog post the newest automatic searching technologies are accurately finding more records for me online than I can process.

As I noted above, the impact of these new developments are just now beginning to be felt by the genealogical community. Not too long ago, I could comment on large collections of new records being added online. Today, that is an impossible task. So many records are being added daily that no one person can possibly get a comprehensive view of what is happening.


  1. James, you say, "Detractors of this process never fail to point out that there are still huge numbers of documents that are only available in paper copies."

    Can you explain why those who point to the huge body of material that has not been microfilmed nor digitized are "detractors" of using what is accessible online? Surely this is just a usually mild-mannered warning that the usefully accessible via internet should not be considered a complete (and often not comprehensive) body of material that could be searched.

    1. The people I am referring to are usually those who have no idea what is online. When I try to explain the advantages of searching online, they respond that not all the records are online and that they will continue to do genealogy "their way" and they don't need FamilySearch, Ancestry etc. Unfortunately, some of these same people teach classes where they make no mention of the online resources. I just had contact with one of these this past week. I call these people detractors.