Tuesday, July 31, 2018
Comments on Traditional Genealogical Research
As genealogy, either seriously undertaken or casually pursued, continues to dramatically change, it is important to reflect on whether or not the changes in genealogical methodology occasioned by the claimed technological advances add real value to the process or are only window dressing presented as advances. At the same time, we need to consider the plight of those who cling to traditional methodology and make sure that we are not abandoning much that has a continuing value.
Presently, those who adhere to traditionally oriented genealogical research methodology are decreasing in numbers rather rapidly. 1975 is the date of the introduction of the first personal computers and that date can represent the watershed between the strictly traditional method of doing genealogical research and all the subsequent changes. A quick calculation shows that, as of the date of this post, if you were born in the year personal computers were introduced, you would now be 43 years old. But in reality, if you could push the 1975 year date back at least ten years because those younger than 10 years old in 1975 are not likely to remember a world without personal computers. So the effective watershed date for those who began doing genealogical research before personal computers became available is limited to people who are in their late 50s or early 60s.
Why then do we still have people who distrust and eschew the use of computers in genealogical research? Probably for the same reasons we have a significant number of people who reject modern society in its entirety and still use horses for their major means of transportation.
What are the main features of the "traditional" pre-computer genealogical research? Well, these features are shared by research in almost any topic or subject. Since I did a significant amount of original research prior to 1975 and much more before computers became generally available in the 1980s, I have a personal perspective on the changes. I started doing genealogical research in 1982 and that happened to coincide with my first purchase of a personal computer; an Apple II. Of course, early genealogical research before the introduction of the internet was merely a computerized replication of paper-based genealogical research. The cumulative impact of technology is still being felt and appreciated.
Over the years that I have been publically writing about genealogy as a topic, I have addressed this issue several times, but since technology continues to rapidly evolve and as those who lived before personal computers continue to die off, I feel it is important to understand where technology is taking genealogical research and whether or not we are losing anything in the process.
Let me start with a hypothetical situation. Let's suppose that M was beginning her genealogical research in the pre-computer era. M could start by recording what she personally knew of the names and associated information about her immediate ancestors. Assuming she had contact with some older relatives, she could also write letters asking for further information. If she was acquainted with others interested in genealogy, she could reach out for help and suggestions. She may or may not have decided to record her information in a pedigree and family group record format. Unless she happened to be submitting her research to some sort of organization such as a genealogical society or for publication, her method of recording the information she obtained would be entirely idiosyncratic. Depending on her persistence, over time, her genealogical records consisted of pages of notes, letters and responses, photos, documents and other memorabilia.
Where did she get information about her family before the internet and when she ran out of living family members to question? She had to physically visit libraries and archives and copy out the information she found. However, there are some issues that were going on that are not obvious. M had little or no way to determine if other members of her extended ancestral family were working on the same individuals and families. As a side note at this point, I would mention that I spent more than 15 years doing genealogical research and accumulated a two-foot-high pile of family group records before I decided that I have probably acquired most of what had already been done about my own family. Here we have the core issue of pre-computerized genealogy: the total lack of ability on the part of a researcher to determine if other people had already done the research. In my hypothetical, M could spend her entire life doing genealogical research and find out that much of what she had done was duplicated somewhere else. In effect, it does not matter how meticulous or careful M was in her research, there was always a possibility that she was simply rehashing what someone had already done and likely published. This fact is abundantly illustrated by the huge number of duplicate entries in the current online genealogy family tree programs.
Even if we minimize the impact of the potential for duplication, M's ability to discover information about her family beyond what had been accumulated and shared with her, was extremely limited. It could take years for M to extend her family line a few generations. The next major obstacle was M's ability to determine if the information she had acquired was accurate or not. Since the norm at that time was that researchers worked in total or semi-isolation, it was always possible that she had made a wrong conclusion based on faulty or insufficient documentation and was researching unrelated families. As I reviewed the work that had been done in my own family primarily from the accumulation of family group records in the Salt Lake City, Utah Family History Library, I found and I am still finding inaccurately connected families.
What happened to M's research when she died? In some cases, it was passed down to another interested genealogist. In many cases, it was entirely lost and the subsequent researchers had to start over from scratch. I had the benefit and burden of inheriting a huge amount of family history. I am still working on sorting and recording all of the tens of thousands of pages of information about some of my family lines. At the same time, I am painfully aware that some people have almost no information about their families when they acquire their interest in doing research about their family.
Let me extend my hypothetical situation a little. Let's suppose that M works through all of her research and publishes what she has found in a book. We have many of this type of book available to us today. Because M was the only person actively doing research, the book is mainly based on her opinions and conclusions. Since she had done all the work to compile the information, she saw no need to justify or provide sources for her conclusions. It never occurred to her that anyone would disagree with what she had written. In fact, this isolation allowed M to reproduce her own interpretation of her family history. She could ignore the less attractive aspects of her family history and emphasize the more appealing ones. Because M was the "authority" on her family's history, subsequent researchers simply copied her work and passed it on as true. In a sense, the stories and information in the book became almost scriptural. It became heresy to question M or her conclusions.
There was another aspect of genealogy that arose in this pre-computer time. Because access to original records was severely limited and because genealogical research was hugely time-consuming, people would pay others to research their families. Genealogy as a persuasion became genealogy as a profession. However, the supply and the demand for professional genealogists were extremely limited. The number of "professional" genealogists in the entire world was limited to a few hundred active individuals. These professionals were clustered around the major sources of information such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and other such institutions and archives around the world. Additionally, the professionals, because of the limits on time and availability, became "expert" in doing research in defined geographic areas. We still have significant vestiges of this geographically oriented genealogical research today.
We have a tendency to view "traditional" genealogical research in the same category as we would a piece of fine art or handicraft. We often think of traditional genealogists in the way we view extensive fine handicraft today. We tout the craftsmanship of "traditional" values. The reality is far different. My opinion, much of the work done by traditional genealogists has questionable value. I could give hundreds of examples. The main thrust of the information revolution vanguarded by access to computers and the internet has been to provide us universally with information to verify and correct the work done previously. Some of it is correct and valuable. DNA testing, online family trees, and vastly improved access and communication have all contributed to the reduction in duplication, and wrong conclusions of the past. We still have a huge overburden of traditional research methodology. But that is a topic I have written about in the past many times and will probably write about again.
Just as we would not now go back to riding horses to travel across our country unless we had a specific goal or reason to do so, we are not about to go back to the "traditional" ways of doing research.