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

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Dawn of the New Genealogical Information Age: Part Two -- We live in Turbulent Times

I have been anxiously waiting for this time for over thirty years. The spark that first kindled my interest in doing genealogical research was the lack of an adequate way to coordinate the masses of existing genealogical data. The precipitating factor in actually doing some research was encountering incomplete records when all around me has assured me that the records were "complete" and all the research work had been done.

My interest began near the beginning of the availability of personal computers and I have watched and waited for the technology to finally mature to the point where I could make verifiable progress in untangling the accumulated mess created by isolated individual genealogical research efforts. In a real sense, I am still working on exactly the same problems I encountered over thirty years ago. The difference is that now I see a solution.

Let me start this post by focusing on the pre-computer, individual, genealogical researcher. I have an excellent example in my own experiences and those of two of my Great-grandmothers. But I will also generalize in a hypothetical sense, to draw out the situation faced by nearly all of the researchers until the present time.

A few short years ago, a newly interested family history explorer was urged to begin their discoveries by gathering and examining personal and family records in their own home and then begin to contact living relatives. This is still being taught as the fundamental way to begin genealogical research. See "Gather Family Information." I took this step to heart and today I have well over 100,000 pages of documents in boxes. But what did this admonition tell you about the research that had been done on your family lines by your relatives and ancestors? Not a whole lot unless you happened to be the person who inherited the work done by those people. In my case, I had almost no records outside of the records of my wife and children, but because of my membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I also had a "Book of Remembrance." This Book of Remembrance was large binder with several pages of pedigree charts and family group records and a few documents and photos. All of this had been gathered by my parents and presented to me sometime in my teenage years. Of course, if you did not have this particular heritage, you did not have this "benefit." This binder gave me the specific impression that my genealogy had already been done.

In addition, I had the Tanner, Jarvis and Morgan books. These were surname books, two of which had been written by my Great-grandmothers. My relatives were the people listed in those books, notwithstanding the fact that I had almost no contact with any of them. Because of circumstances which I still do not understand, although I had thousands of "relatives" as evidenced by the books and my Book of Remembrance, I had almost no contact with these people. My real relatives consisted of a very few people with whom I actually met and interacted. We did not have "family" gathering and our "family reunions" were strictly limited to my parents, my siblings and their children. As an aside, I now meet people who I can identify as relatives on a regular basis, some of whom have become my friends.

So, my interest in genealogy did not come from stories about my ancestors. Neither did it come from fond memories of interaction with my relatives. It came mostly as a result of my interest in research per se and genealogy happened along as a topic to research.

It was many, many years after I started to do research into my family lines that I discovered the records and research that had already been done by some of my relatives, including my two Great-grandmothers.

No matter what the initial motivation, every one of the pre-computer and pre-Internet genealogists was in exactly the same position I was. Extended cooperation among relatives was rare and if it existed at all, was usually focused on a particular family line. Genealogical research done by other family members was fragmented. My "clearing house" for discovering what research had been done by other was the vast paper-based, patron files maintained by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. In huge, heavy binders, similar to my own Book of Remembrance, these accumulated and duplicative family group records ended up being my only source of information about what had already been "researched" on all my family lines. Not only did I find duplications, I also found a huge number of unsubstantiated claims that I time and time again discovered to be erroneous. This pile of records still exists and has been digitized now and is available online as the "Family Group Records Collection, Archives Section, 1942-1969" consisting of 5,337,178 images in the Historical Record Collections on

The most dramatic effect of the digitization of genealogical records has thus been to tie together the multitude of fragments of genealogy and focus all of the research in one place where we can all freely see exactly what the rest of the world is doing and has done. Like it or not, the place online where this is happening is the Family Tree. In a true sense, it really doesn't matter whether you believe this statement or not and it doesn't even matter, to some extent, whether you even look at the Family Tree, the reality is that the records of your own ancestors will inevitably be compiled in that specific venue no matter where you live and no matter who you are. In fact, the biggest real challenge to FamilySearch is keeping up with the amount of information that is flowing into the Family Tree program every day.

If I were starting out with an interest in family history today, I would have a dramatically and substantially different experience than I did thirty years ago. This series explores those differences and effect those differences have on genealogy today and will have in the near future. The reality is that technology is changing genealogical research so completely, that those of us who still have paper-based roots, are often overwhelmed with the changes. In fact, how I do genealogical research today has changed substantially over the past two years and will continue to rapidly change in the very near future. It is important to ask ourselves, every single day: how do I do genealogical research today considering the changes taking place?

 Here is the first post in this series.


  1. Yes research is done so differently today. It is hard to imagine the changes that have come about will will continue to change the face of genealogy.

  2. I feel that autosomal DNA analysis techniques, that are only now being developed, may change our task again, to simply assigning the names to the boxes of our ancestors that the analysis has already connected for us.

  3. I tend to agree with Chad Milliner’s comments (to first post) regarding digitising original manuscripts rather than microfilmed copies.
    Microfilming misses many marks on old manuscripts and digitising the result compounds the problem.
    Having said that I can also see the logic of digitising the microfilms (speed, easy access and automatic processing) rather than returning to the originals and starting from scratch, but we must remember the result will be a compromise and in the case of some records a very poor compromise.

    I would be interested to hear what you mean by “In fact, how I do genealogical research today has changed substantially over the past two years and will continue to rapidly change in the very near future.” As I do not really understand what you mean.

    Surely the way you research has stayed the same, you move from the know to the unknown by a series of assumptions or possibilities that then are ascertained by finding other records to add weight to your argument for that particular choice or discard a choice when records show it could not be correct.

    This process does not change just because records are available online rather than by visiting distant repositories, or do you mean you are willing to accept options supplied by computed results based on a programmer’s logic?