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

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Comments on the Changing Times of Genealogy

Our main focus as genealogists is information. We gather, evaluate, disseminate and store information. It seems to me that if what we are doing is working with information, we should be very much involved in the technological changes involving manipulating and working with our subject matter. In other words, we should be actively embracing the information revolution.

Current online and computer technology is part of what is now referred to as the "Information Revolution." Quoting from the University of Missouri article entitled, "The Information Revolution:"
The Information Revolution is a phrase we use to refer to the dramatic changes taking place during the last half of the 20th century in which service jobs (ranging from high technology, highly skilled professions to low-skill jobs like short-order cook) are more common than jobs in manufacturing or agriculture. The product of skilled professionals is the information or knowledge they provide.
I am perfectly familiar with selling information. I was hired by thousands of clients who paid me for what I knew. All I ever produced were words and ideas; hundreds of thousands of pages of the stuff and years of speaking.

Now I find myself immersed in the very narrow and specialized area of genealogical information. What I see is that that genealogist are "way behind the curve" in adopting and adapting to the new technology. Part of what I write about in this blog is how the new technology is evolving and how the changes in that technology impact genealogy and genealogists. It is not just important to use the technology: it is also important to understand how it is affecting and will affect what we do as genealogists. I am often reminded of the the Bob Dylan song that I have quoted before, "The Times They are a Changin'"
Come gather 'round peopleWherever you roamAnd admit that the watersAround you have grownAnd accept it that soonYou'll be drenched to the boneIf your time to youIs worth savin'Then you better start swimmin'Or you'll sink like a stoneFor the times they are a-changin'
I realize that the context of the song has changed dramatically, the message is the same. We either keep up with the changes, in this case, technological changes, or we lose out and metaphorically, sink like a stone.

Because of my technological background, I am constantly seeking a faster and more efficient way to do my work. Over the past two years, with the fastest Internet connection in the country, Google Fiber, and now one of the fastest computers available at a reasonable price, I have been looking to streamline my information handling methodology to match the technology. My attention has focused on three devices (all Apple by the way): my iPhone, my relatively newly acquired iPad Pro and now my very new iMac.

Part of my focus has been on integrating online resources into my work flow to avoid moving paper as much as possible. Ideally, I would like to go from original source documents, through all the steps of analysis and evaluation to integrating the newly discovered information into my database without once touching paper (unless the original is on paper or whatever).

Why is paper a problem? That question addresses the crux of the issues involved. In our existence on earth, we find ourselves in a web of family relationships. For thousands of years communication has been limited to people being present or the written word. Today, after a hundred years or so of technological development. I can sit at my desk and essentially write to the entire world in an instant. If I were limited to writing on paper, that could never happen. It would take a huge production and distribution industry for me to be heard.

Now match that with genealogy. Genealogists, until very recently, worked on "their" family. That concept has now changed. We now work on "our" family. There is no "my" family or "your" family. We are all part of one huge world family and the technology lets us see and experience those worldwide relationships instantaneously. But for the most part, the genealogists do not grasp this expansive view of our interrelationship. They still have their noses firmly glued to paper or what is worse, its electronic equivalent. So far, genealogical processes and methodologies have been focused almost entirely on reproducing paper technology. We need to start swimming in the world of online, completely collaborative, expansive and progressive technology and stop trying reproduce our paper world in a digitized format.

Here is one example concerning the genealogical work flow. In searching for information on a specific ancestor, I identify a place where that ancestor lived or some other event occurred. I begin to search for possible source documents that may have originated at or near the time my ancestor lived in a specific location or the event occurred. With those limitations in mind, I begin to sweep online and in catalogs to locate anything that might relate to that date and place. I then begin to methodically review every single source of every kind that might contain the information I am seeking.

On a very local and personal basis, I can go to the section of the Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library and search the shelves, looking at each of the books and pulling everything that might be relevant for inspection. When I did this recently, I found a book that had transcribed the court records of one of my ancestor's probate case. I walked over to a table with the book and pulled out my iPhone and took a photo of each of the pages where there was information about my family. I also took a photo of the cover and title page of the book. I then used the iPhone to upload the images to my Google Drive account. Google has 1 Terabyte of storage for free. When I got home, I downloaded the images from the Google Drive and then created a source citation in the Family Tree program and uploaded a copy of the information in the probate file to the Memories program. That information then formed the basis for adding a source citation to that ancestor's Detail page.

The key here was the ability to move the images of the book pages to the "Cloud" or Google Drive directly from the camera (my iPhone) to my computer and then into the Family Tree. This is the type of methodology I have been focusing on. In a true sense, the information that was locked up in a few copies of that book has been liberated and is now part of an online stream that can be viewed, evaluated and integrated by anyone in my family who cares or is interested.

Part of this process is severely limited by the availability of online, digitized sources. Obviously, if I had the probate files available online, there would be no need for the trip to the Library or searching the stacks. There are background issues of file format, file size, data transfer speeds, file quality transferability and other issues, but these are some of the same issues we have with all online files.

What makes this possible is the ability to move information digitally. But at every step of this process, we have impediments to moving the information. We have genealogists who claim ownership to their jointly held family information, we have governments that limit our ability to gather information about families. We have prejudice and other issues that block us from gathering information and we have a whole world that seems determined to destroy our families and prevent us from finding our information. We cannot own information we can only try to control it. We can persecute those who want it. We can destroy records but we have no real ownership over information. Why then do we, as genealogists, think we own the information about our families?

Right now, information about my ancestors, my part of the human family, is spread all over the world in bits and pieces. The real effect of the information revolution is that more and more I am able to find and incorporate all those bits and pieces into an organized whole that can then be viewed, corrected, analyzed, evaluated and disseminated to everyone.


  1. Congratulations or should I really say be cautious?

    You have exemplified exactly why family historians need to be very careful with online records and be certain just what they are actually viewing.

    From what you have written you have been careful to take images of not only the pages of the book relevant to your ancestors but also photos of the cover and title page of the book. I therefore assume the cover or the title page mentions that the images are of transcribed records rather than original records so that future readers of your extracted images realise what they are viewing.
    Many researchers would simply have taken images of the relevant pages and ignored the title page and cover.

    That is one of the problems of the internet age it is often not clear what we are actually viewing, is that register an original parish register, a cleric’s copy of an original parish registers or a bishop’s transcript of a parish register.
    Some English parishes have up to three copies of the original register (which also happens to contain copies of entries from the day book).
    Each of those copies contains differences; omissions, additions and errors, how do we know three or even four hundred years after the event which is correct?

    If we are viewing a transcript, do we know if it is a complete transcript or an abstract or précis of the main facts?
    Do we know how accurate the transcript is?

    By digitising the transcript you have partly overcome the problem with paper records but you are still reproducing paper technology, you have not released that transcript for the shackles of paper technology until you OCR or transcribe those images and of course the second you do that you have introduced a new possibility of error in the record (which is why family history favours the dual option of a digital transcript linked to the “original” image to enable the researcher to view the original if they so wish).

    Until we reach the point that original records are held in digital form from the point they are created we will always either be reproducing paper technology or creating records that must be viewed with caution.


    1. Good points, but I also reproduced the copyright claim indicating that I did not have the owners' permission to make any copies whatsoever for any purpose. Although I think the warning to be overly broad, I still refrained from publishing the digital copies I made from which I further transcribed the transcription.

  2. Nice analysis and description of the process you took. I think it is vital that we educate all to know how to digitize, save to cloud, sync devices, add to Family Tree, etc. Just what you describe. Guy's concerns are those on a higher level where there are few people. With the powers that be pushing more participation in family history, his concerns will probably only reside with the few who know what he's concerned about. Sigh.

  3. Right on James! You are totally right. Although this was a minor point in your essay, I applaud your your mention of the erroneous use of the phrase "My tree." It seems futile, but we must keep encouraging people to quit referring to their relatives as "my tree." Perhaps "my branch of the tree?"