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

Friday, May 12, 2017

Dealing with the Deluge of Information from a Genealogical Standpoint

Smartphones, social networking, email, newly digitized sources, new programs and apps, updates, books, music, videos, all of this and more clogs our online world. As genealogists, we can always "opt out" of the online chatter and ignore what is going on, but the danger of doing this is that we will be marginalized and ineffective in our research. So how do we deal with or even control the deluge?

Genealogical research is based on examining historical documents. Millions upon millions of those documents are constantly being digitized and added to online programs every day. How can we possibly know whether or not the particular information we are seeking is already online or has been recently added?

Let me give you a hypothetical situation. Suppose that you are doing research in the early 1700s in Rhode Island (like I am doing right now). Depending upon your degree of sophistication in doing such research, you may or may not be aware of the many types of records that were created during that time period. Let's further suppose that you are a sophisticated researcher and know all about town records, tax rolls, land and property records and all of the other types of records which may possibly be available. Traditionally, your investigation would be limited to examining those records available locally in your own libraries or possibly available from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah through microfilm rental. Today, your task is far more complex. There are literally hundreds of websites that contain digitized records from Rhode Island and more are being added every day. Returning to the past, when you ran out of locally available records, your only option would be to take a "field trip" to Rhode Island to do research in the original repositories of the records.

Again, in today's world, you could ignore all of the online records and take that road trip to Rhode Island. What you could find, however, is that many of the records you are seeking have been rendered unavailable due to the fact that digital copies now exist. As an example, this is happening with the microfilm records previously available from the Family History Library. So not only would your trip to Rhode Island be unnecessary but it may also be totally unproductive. I am not suggesting that trips to libraries and other repositories are not necessary. I am merely pointing out the fact that the information who are seeking may be available online and determining whether it is or is not as part of the challenge of doing research in today's world.

My example is tended to illustrate the need to be aware of the stream of documents and records being digitized and made available online. Of course, there are many other tools and programs online that will measurably increase your research capabilities. Unfortunately, dipping your toe into the deluge does not measurably affect your ability to utilize all of these records online. You actually need to jump in and start swimming.

It is way too easy to get caught up in reading distracting entries from Facebook, watching trivial videos and spending time on other nonproductive activities. I can write about this firsthand because I spend a considerable part of each day in front of a computer screen. My main defense against inundation is utilizing "filtering" programs that either limit the amount of information I receive or put it into a format that can be quickly reviewed for pertinent data. For example, I subscribe to around 300 blogs or other websites. First of all, I do not feel a compulsion to review every one of them every day. I use a reader program, such as to organize newly posted content in a headline fashion allowing me to review hundreds of posts in a matter of a few minutes. Obviously, I'm going to miss some pertinent information. But it is the nature of the Internet that anything of substance will be copied and repeated and thereby increasing the possibility that I will eventually see a notice of any significant changes in the genealogical community.

I use the same type of filtering mechanism with email and all other online offerings. I spend very little time reviewing the endless stream of Facebook posts because I have a notification system that will send me an email about any relevant postings. The filters allow me to focus on genealogical issues. Whenever the filters become overloaded, by simply delete any remaining content and start over.

When I am specifically doing research, I begin by focusing my efforts on determining the availability of online sources. This becomes an ongoing task. For example, Rhode Island, Vital records, 1846-1898, 1901-1953 were added to as recently as 11 April 2017. I may or may not make these records, but it takes only a few moments to determine if any new records have been added to

I do get distracted from time to time and it does take a degree of discipline to return to the task at hand. It helps to treat my genealogical research as if I were working in an office that had strict rules on accessing outside distractions such as social media.


  1. Re: New England genealogy sources. I'm new to genealogical research, but I spent most of my life in New England, where my father's family landed in the 17th C. My search for digitized primary sources has shown me that Massachusetts has kept extraordinary records and makes available images of vital records in log books. Although my ancestors mostly settled in CT before the Revolution, occasionally they traveled up the CT River into Massachusetts to find a spouse, and the records of brides' and groom's relatives have provided the hints necessary to identify a previous generation in CT that had been a brick wall. Same thing with Massachusetts Death records. I also must have slept through the history classes in elementary school in RI that covered the fluidity of colonial borders. And I'm sure no teacher mentioned that there was a separate New Haven Colony and later a confederation of new england colonies that encompassed areas as far north as Salem and as far west as the Hudson River. RI did it's own thing pretty much from the beginning, but Brown University has a superb historical collection which is probably available through the Hathitrust which I just discovered this week. I had to register as a Friend of U Mich to get access which was easier to accomplish than trying to go through the institutions I hold degrees from.

    1. It sounds like the teaching of history in schools would be a good topic for a post. I haven't mentioned that issue for a while. Thanks.