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

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Ignoring the Online Miracle with Misconceptions: Part Two - The Paper Trap

To some genealogists paper is reassuring. It is familiar and seems permanent and durable. On the other hand digital technology seems evanescent and transitory. If I give my email address to someone who is paper-based, they will try and find something to write on and a pencil or pen. If I give my email addresses to someone who is tech-based, they will take out their phone and put me in as a contact. As long as I can remember, I have been bound to a calendar and a "day timer." Keeping track of my schedule has been one of the major challenges of my life. On the other hand, with a centralized, online calendar, I have managed to keep a complex schedule going for many years with a minimum of missed appointments even with almost constant changes. Probably one of the most obvious examples of transition is the computer with rows of paper Post It Notes stuck across the bottom of the screen.

The issue of paper vs. digital is a much deeper and more complex problem for genealogical researchers. It is true that much of the world's genealogically valuable information is still on paper or the equivalent microfilm. It is also true that some people simply feel more comfortable looking at a piece of paper than they do working on an electronic device. But if you look around, you will start to see that this is not an either/or situation but an issue of obtaining a balance between the two forms of record keeping and communication.

For example, my wife is not likely to stop sending paper birthday cards to our grandchildren any time soon. She would not consider sending an "electronic" card. Equally, some genealogists will always refer to a paper pedigree chart or keep paper copies of documents and research notes. But in thinking about this subject from time to time, I realize that the main reason that almost everything I do is not on some type of electronic device (I am writing this on my iPad Pro) is because it is a huge and difficult effort for me to hand write anything for any period of time. I learned to type in high school and have been typing almost everything since then. I also love the way my computer corrects my spelling and most of my typos as I am typing along.  What I see as a major obstacle to digital integration is an inability to type (or keyboard or whatever).

Why have I returned to one of my common themes in the context of misconceptions? Because there really are a lot of misconceptions about the transition from paper to digital. The first misconception is the idea of paper's permanence and durability. A paper copy of my calendar, for example, can only exist in one place at one time. If I misplace my paper calendar, which I have done by the way, I am essentially lost. On the other hand, as I add entries to my online, electronic calendar, I instantly have a copy of the entry on every one of my devices. If I go to the library and do some research and write all my notes on paper, like I used to years ago, I often fail to look at that research ever again and I often lost the notes in my huge pile of similar notes. But if I enter the information immediately into my centralized and ever present family tree program, I always keep going. Sure, the paper is durably lost in my piles of paper.

When I was young, one common occurrence, especially in the summer was having our electricity go off and thereby plunging us into the dark. Today, barring a natural disaster of some kind, our electrical power is rarely off and if it is off, it is only for a few minutes or so. Some genealogists cite a loss of power to electronic devices as an incentive to keep writing things down on paper. The misconception here is that they would be doing genealogical research in the dark during a power failure. We can all imagine dystopian scenarios where there are no longer any of the more common, current devices available, but really, are you also imagining yourself doing genealogical research in an end of the world type situation?

One of the most common genealogical issues I encounter is the situation where someone is trying to find the origin of an immigrant ancestor. I was recently helping a patron at the BYU Family History Library with some research about her ancestor. She had spent years looking for his origin. We made some progress, but she had to leave. She returned at a time when I was not in the Library and asked for help from another missionary. She discovered that this missionary was a relative and had been searching for the same ancestor and making progress. This is the misconception that we are all alone in our search for our ancestors which is reinforced by having all the research on paper and isolated from all the other family members who might be working on the same problem. If we work online in a collaborative environment, like the Family Tree, then we have a much greater possiblitity of finding other relatives with more information than we have been able to find.

There are obvious advantages to working on electronic devices and most of these advantages are only apparent to those who have integrated electronic devices into their research. It is a misconception to think that a paper based system of research is somehow superior to a digital one.

See the first part of this series here:

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