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

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Challenge of Innovation and Change in the Genealogical Community

People, in general, do not adjust well to changes. Over the past few years, the genealogical community has finally adopted some of the major developments in technology. In addition, they are faced, with the rest of the world, with dramatic changes in the basic social fabric of our society. Resistance to these changes is not only evident in the older segments of the genealogical community but are more than evident at all age levels and in all of those, even the developers and companies involved.

This reminds me of my re-entry into full-time participation in my law practice. While I was very much involved in my law practice, I also began to be involved in a number of computer businesses starting about in 1982.  Later, in 1992, for a period of about six years, I "retired" from actively practicing law and ran some computer-oriented businesses, including a computer store, a graphic design company and a software development company. Ultimately, I returned to the full-time practice of law at a larger law firm with approximately 20+ attorneys.

In 1998 when I returned to full-time law practice, my life had changed considerably. I had spent a tremendous amount of time involved in computers, I had become a certified computer technician for multiple companies including Apple and Hewlett Packard, I had helped publish several software products for the Macintosh computer market and had been involved in teaching computer information systems at a college level.

Between 1982 and 1998 when I returned to full-time law practice, the "personal computer" industry had undergone huge changes and the Internet had become a fact of life. Despite these sweeping changes in technology, I found that the majority of the lawyers in my law firm had almost no experience in using computers. At the time I returned, the most innovative part of the new technology adopted by the law firm was a minimally useful system of word processing. Some of the attorneys did not know how to type and most had now interest in using computers at all.

When I retired from the practice of law in 2014, 15 or so years later, there were still some of the attorneys that were not comfortable with computers and did most of their work essentially by hand. This time period saw the computerization of the law firm go from word processing to complete electronic, online case filing systems instituted by the courts.

During all this time, I was also very active in genealogical research and witnessed its very basic beginnings with a few attempts at computerization to its present almost total involvement online. Remarkably, I see exactly the same resistance to computers that I saw with the lawyers in my law firm.

My children, who are all married and have families of their own, all grew up with computers. There is not one of them who can really remember when computers were not an integral part of our home life. They have now been exposed on a day-to-day basis to using computers since the early 1980s, for over thirty years. All of my children and grandchildren use computers almost constantly, some are directly employed in computer-related jobs at a very high level. If I picked up my phone and sent out a text message right now, all of my children and many of my older grandchildren would receive the message in a matter of minutes.

Now in this context, let me comment on the state of affairs in the genealogical community. We are at the same place in genealogy as I was when I retired from my law practice. There are still large segments of the genealogical community that cannot accept the cultural and technological changes that have come about in the last thirty years or so. These people are not all old in age. I find many younger people just as challenged by technology as I do older people. Even though my own children and grandchildren have grown up with computers, not all families have been so involved. Even among those with relatively good physical and mechanical skills, there is still a huge gap in the basic understanding of the dynamics of the changes happening around us every day that extends to all ages. For example, I still find many very young people, under the age of twenty for example, that struggle with keyboarding and the concepts of logins and passwords.

Overall, we have the mistaken tendency to equate mechanical computer entry skills with the technical, research oriented, higher education level skills required for genealogical research. We also seem to assume that because someone has been involved in computers, they automatically know how to do genealogical research. This attitude is pervasive in the computer community. I would rather deal with the fact that someone had no computer skills and understood basic research principles, than the other way around.

Unfortunately, this lack of understanding of the basic genealogical technological challenges and changes extends into the realm to the computer programmers and product developers. This lack of appreciation for the complexity of genealogical research, overlaid with complex computer concepts has stumbling block at all levels of the genealogical community.

For example, there are a multitude of genealogical software programs that ignore the vast amount of digital information. Some of the products in use, make little or no accommodation to Internet integration. Even at this late date in computer development, there are many genealogical database programs that only make limited use, if any, of mobile devices. I can name several well-known software apps and products that do not have workable and complete mobile applications. In short, the genealogical community as a whole is well behind attorneys in their implementation of the current technology. This situation can be graphically demonstrated by going to the website and looking at the number of programs that make no pretense of ignoring the mobile market. While you are at the website, you might also note the number of discontinued and unsupported products that are still being used and reviewed.

Another example of how far the genealogical community is behind the technological curve is the current fascination with genealogical DNA testing. This technology has been around for 15 years and most genealogists have little or no knowledge of its advantages and serious limitations. Adding another rapidly changing technology to the genealogical mix has made the subject even more complicated.

Genealogy is a very complex and challenging pursuit. It involves a significant level of basic level research skills, overlaid with some very challenging computer skills mixed with other technologies such as digital imaging, information processing, DNA testing, and quite a few others.

Treating genealogy as a casual hobby or pastime is extraordinarily naive. Some aspects of genealogy have, so far, eluded the some of the most brilliant minds in the world today. When most of our records are still locked up on paper or microfilm, we can hardly claim to be at the cutting edge of technology. When I can't access major genealogical products from a tablet computer or a smartphone, we still have long way to go. We are still struggling with basic implementation of some of the technology when I cannot transfer basic genealogical information and digitized documents between applications. We are still in the dark ages of development when I can only move one data field at a time even in the same application. I could go on and on listing the limitations that show that genealogy is still struggling to get into the computer/information age and is likely falling behind.


  1. Would you consider changing your font to black instead of the gray. For older eyes like mine, the contrast would make it much easier to read. Please, please.

    1. I've had a similar request to this on my own blog -- also a blogspot blog. However, in both instances (mine and James's) the font looks black on my screen. I think there may be more to this than simply a choice of font colour Becky. Can you provide some details, such as which browser and what device you are using?

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