It seems obvious that since genealogists are primarily researchers, they would use online resources for their research. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Many genealogists find themselves on the disadvantaged side of the digital divide. From the genealogical perspective, this division is caused by demographics: people who, for a variety of reasons but primarily age, motivation, and access, have not taken advantage of modern technology. This lack of technological ability can be as simple as discomfort with all things electronic to a rejection of everything having to do with technology from smartphones to the internet. I have friends who are interested in genealogy, who can't type, do not have a smartphone, will not look at a computer and do not have an internet connection. I am not writing this series for these people.
If you have adequate computer skills and a desire to do genealogical research, I am writing to you. You may even have attended classes on using technology for genealogical research. But classes on the subject of online research usually focus on websites and resources rather than methodology. This series is not exclusively about Google or any other specific website. It is about learning how to use online resources in a way that materially assists you in finding your ancestors and other relatives.
Of course, Google Search and all the other Google programs are an important and vital part of the online research process. But research online involves more than familiarity with a few websites, it involves a major adjustment in the way genealogical research is conducted. Some classes that focus on using Google Search and other online programs for genealogical research go into great detail about complex and often arcane ways to optimize searching using formulas and boolean algebraic functions and other specialized programs but neglect the important factors that make searching online productive. The Internet is more than just using Google and genealogy programs and genealogists need to adapt to the methodology that produces successful online research.
This is not a new topic for me. I have written a number of blog posts and have several widely watched videos about using Google and other online resources for genealogy. However, technology changes constantly. The tools and programs I have today and vastly different than those I had ten or so years ago when I started writing this blog online. This series is my attempt to articulate what I have learned over the years and update it with information I have accumulated since my previous posts.
Despite the dangers of repetition, it occurs to me that the topic needs to be given more intensive coverage with very specific examples.This continuing series is going to focus on augmenting the current genealogical methodology in a way that reasonably and exhaustively includes the sophisticated use of online resources, including a large dose of Google, to achieve genealogical research success. We are well into the information age and it is tragic how little of the vast online resources available are used by most genealogists.
I might suggest, right up front, that what I have to write about will challenge some of the well accepted and traditionally comfortable ways genealogy is being taught and practiced by nearly everyone. The whole point of this series will be to move forward into genealogy based on information technology.
Let's get down to basics
To take advantage of the vast amount of online information that is presently available and constantly increasing, we need to readjust our way of viewing genealogical research. Before getting too much further into this topic, I need to acknowledge the constant genealogical response to any reference about online resources that not everything is online and that you have to do "traditional" genealogy sitting in a library or archive to find much of the information that has yet to be digitized. As I have said many times before, that is likely true, but the people who use that as an excuse to ignore online sources cannot articulate what is and what is not online in any meaningful way. I am painfully aware of the amount of information that is still locked up on paper, but I also recognize the vast amount of information that can be accessed online. I suggest that almost all genealogists can add significant amounts of information using online sources and if there are sources that are still only on paper, the existing online resources give you the ability to locate and gain access to those records.
One of the important things I have learned from my time digitizing records at the Maryland State Archives is the vast amount of information that exists about people who lived in the United States. I am also learning home much of that information is being digitized every day, day after day. It will still be many years before all the Maryland probate records are digitized, but this is only one project by one entity, in this case, FamilySearch, digitizing records around the world. Another thing that has impressed me since I have been here is that so many of the people I talk to about genealogy are totally unaware of the freely accessible records on FamilySearch.org. Just two nights ago, I was helping a friend find records for a family from Mexico. We were unsuccessful in finding information about the parents but had been adding information about the children in the family. We did some additional searches on Ancestry.com and found the parents' marriage record with the names of both sets of grandparents. This experience illustrates part of the methodology I will be writing about.
The first basic principle here is to think of genealogical research as a web. The tree analogy is pervasive in genealogy but it is really much more complicated than a tree structure. In fact, the tree structure is both misleading and outdated. For example, my parents are second cousins, more specifically, they have the same ancestor. He is my mother's maternal great-grandfather and also my father's maternal great-grandfather. How do you represent that on a standard tree structured pedigree chart? That same individual, the common ancestor appears in two entirely unrelated places. If I go to the FamilySearch.org Family Tree and click on the link to show my relationship to that common ancestor, Jens Christensen, I will see the following:
This does not tell me that my father is also a descendant of Jens Christensen. In this instance, my parents knew about their relationship. On the other hand, let's suppose that I was researching further back in my family line. How would I know whether or not individual ancestors were marrying relatives? In fact, there is a well-developed genealogical principle called "pedigree collapse" that illustrates the fact the not only is it possible that our ancestors married cousins, it is for all practical purposes inevitable even if it is not always demonstrable. There is a program that illustrates this principle called Relative Finder. That program uses the data in FamilySearch.org Family Tree to search for possible ancestral connections and then shows possible shared relationships. A recent study done by MyHeritage.com's Science Team and reported in an article published in the journal "Science," found the following:
The team found that industrialization profoundly altered family life. Before 1750, most Americans found a spouse within six miles of their birthplace, but for those born in 1950, that distance had stretched to about 60 miles. Before 1850, marrying in the family was common — on average, fourth cousins married each other, compared to seventh cousins today. Curiously, they found that between 1800 and 1850, people traveled farther than ever to find a mate — nearly 12 miles on average — but were more likely to marry a fourth cousin or closer. Their hypothesis is that changing social norms, rather than rising mobility, may have led people to shun close kin as marriage partners. See "MyHeritage Science Team’s Research Featured in the Prestigious Journal Science."What is the point I am making with these examples? The point is that genealogy has traditionally been a linear pursuit based on extremely limited information. It is now changing into a loosely organized web-like pursuit based on an overwhelmingly large amount of information and there is a direct relationship between the explosion in the availability of information and the breakdown in the traditional viewpoint of genealogical research.
In the past, some genealogists have been involved in what has been called "cluster research." The idea of cluster research is that more information can be obtained from researching the family members, relatives, friends, and surrounding neighbors of our ancestral families and in many cases the research that results is more accurate. But cluster research was extremely difficult and time-consuming. It also seemed pointless to most researchers since they weren't obviously related to the people being researched.
How has that changed? We now have the ability to search vast databases of basic information about our the places where our families lived. We can extract information that gives us the ability to bring our family into sharp focus. This series is about that process.