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

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Dawn of the New Genealogical Information Age: Part FIve -- We cross the divide

Ask yourself the following questions:
  • Have I used a GPS device to find an address or store?
  • Have I called someone on my cell phone  or sent a text message?
  • Have I used a credit card with a computer chip?
  • Have I bought gas using a credit card machine at the pump?
  • Have I viewed a movie or read an ebook online?
Of course this list could go on and on, but the point is simple: we do a lot of things vastly differently than we did just a few short years ago. All of these activities have one thing in common: they depend on computers and the Internet. The fact that you are reading a "blog post" which I typed out on a large screen in my home office is enough to indicate that there have been significant changes in the fundamental activities of most of the world's population. Why should genealogy be any different?

As I have been discussing in this present series, genealogy is being swept along, mostly kicking and screaming, into the overall information age. Come now, you say, have you really ever seen a genealogist kicking and screaming? No, not really, I answer, but I have seen them doggedly resist change. Just this week, I have helped more than a few genealogists who were not comfortable with computers and who kept referring to their huge piles of handwritten notes and photocopies.

Back in the 1980s when I started using computers for recording my genealogical information, the computer and its disk storage were merely surrogates for the piles of paper I had accumulated. I was not really involved in "information processing," I was merely using a different method of recording my information. For many years, the change over from recording to processing occurred in small incremental stages, but during the past two years the changes finally passed the divide and I no longer do any mere recording.

What is the difference? For one thing, it is far more of a change than simply converting microfilm to digital images. What has happened is that the directional flow of information has changed from being initiated by my own research, to evaluating and processing information that is automatically sent to me in quantities that I can hardly manage and could not imagine only a few years ago. In short, when I started doing genealogy, it was like going to a well to get some water. I had to decide to get up and fill the water bucket. Today, genealogy is like indoor plumbing, all I have to do is turn on the faucet and take a drink. What is most interesting are the large number of genealogists who still do not have the "indoor plumbing" of genealogy, but pride themselves in their ability to use the outhouse or privy.

Here is another example. If I drive to downtown Salt Lake City, Utah (or many other cities) and I want to park my car, I can no longer feed a few dimes or quarters into a parking meter. I have to park my car and then go to an electronic device that will take my credit card and pay for the time I want to park. I then place the receipt for the transaction on my dash. If you want to see how the process works, you can go to the "Meter Info" webpage. What this illustrates is that there has been a fundamental change in the method payment is made for parking. So what?

There has been a fundamental way that genealogical research can be done but unlike parking meters in downtown Salt Lake, the changeover is not yet mandatory. We are not only still mired in paper, we have yet to begin adjusting to the change at all.

What has changed?

First of all, I no longer have a "separately maintained" database for my genealogical information. Secondly, I am instantly apprised of the entries made by anyone else working on the same people I am researching. I can see what they are doing and they can see what I am doing. At the same time I am reviewing my entries and analyzing the information I have entered, I can see additional information that has been "discovered" for me automatically by the online program. When I have question about an event in my ancestor's life, I can immediately search multiple databases for the answer. I have the resources of more than the entire Salt Lake City, Family History Library, with a few exceptions, literally at my fingertips. Here is a concrete example.

I look at this entry in the Family Tree.

The information showing here is a summary of over 100 years of genealogical research. There are several problems with these entries. For example, the marriage date for James Chattell and Sarah Andrews is after the birth of the first two children. Obviously, this can happen. But it does raise a question. Here is the substance of an email message I got from one of my family members about these entries:
Here is a page from the Farcet Parish records. The first entry is the christening of Maria Chattel daughter of James (LZ59-NWH) & Sarah Chattel on 30 Dec 1801. The second entry is the burial of Sarah, wife of James Chattel on the same day. So James had a first wife, who also happened to be named Sarah.

So, the first two children were from one marriage and the rest from a second marriage, both to wives named Sarah. Until quite recently, how would I have known that someone had found this additional information? If I had noticed the discrepancy, I would have had to do my own research. But then, how would anyone know what I did? What is also interesting is that this information was obtained from the family member looking at the parish register in England and the image came from a cell phone.

No, we are not entirely divorced from paper records, but the big difference is that I didn't have to go to England or even leave my office to learn this information. Those genealogists who are working on the "own" records on their "own" computer program and maintaining their "own" files are simply missing this type of collaboration.

As I mention in the title to this series, this is merely the dawn of the impact of the Information Age on genealogy. We will not spend too much time, I suspect, mired in the past. Tune in for the next installment.

Here are the earlier posts in this series.

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