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

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Technological Impact on the Future of Genealogy

The huge website presently has digitized 22,794,565 books. presently has about 453,000 digitized genealogy books. The has 17,217,620 digital books on its website. The National Library of Australia's website has 20,266,228 digitized books and a total of 6,475,456,068 digitized documents and webpages. In 2019, Google Books claimed that the company had digitized over 40 million books. See also, "15 years of Google Books."

As we start a new decade, I can sit here at my computer in Provo, Utah and look out my window at the melting snow and access millions of books. The largest physical library in the world, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., currently has a collection of about 32 million books and other print materials. Look at the numbers above. Technically, here at my computer, I am sitting in the largest library in the world and I have not even listed the online collections from thousands of other libraries.

What does this really mean to genealogists? Well, for nearly all of the ones I know and work with across the world, not much because few of them take advantage of these huge collections. What about the genealogy collections? I have published some of the figures recently but here are a few more:
  • number of searchable online records: 4.85 billion
  • about 20 billion records
  • as of the date of this post, 11,091,106 records
  • over 2 billion records
None of these numbers are actually comparable because each company counts its records differently but the idea here is that there is a lot of information online. How many other records are online? No one really knows. One example of what is available is the Washington State Digital Archives. This state-based free, online archive presently has 22,901,566 records preserved with 73,983, 465 searchable. The total number of digital records is clearly in the billions upon billions. 

Again, I will ask the question: what does all this really mean to genealogists? I think that what we see now with "traditional" genealogy is going to start to change dramatically. For many years, all of my primary research was done in libraries. Not too long ago, I spent some time at the Library of Congress looking at its genealogy collections. The Genealogy and Local History Rooms of the Library had been closed and the "genealogy" collection was a relatively small section in the stacks with no real place to study. Granted you could haul the books out of the stacks to the main reading room most of the available books and other publications were stored offsite and would require days of waiting to access. I wondered why I would need to visit the Library of Congress? Even if I decided to visit the Library of Congress for some reason, I would need to spend some considerable time searching the online catalog and determining if the material I was interested in researching was not available online on one of the other websites. 

The main argument against change is still that "not all records have been digitized." The answer is that this is certainly the case and that many important records may never be digitized but before you jump on an airplane and fly off to a remote repository, you should probably check to see if the records you are looking for have been digitized and are online. It is time for another example. Have you investigated the Central European University's Hungaricana Portal? Did you know that this resource even existed? The Hungaricana Cultural Heritage Portal has millions of digitized records. Do you think it would be a good idea to check this website and some others before making a trip to Hungary to "do genealogy?" 

What is the main challenge we have in the future? Maintaining a central clearinghouse for maintaining a universal, combined, family tree that will allow us to see what all the researchers around the world know about the human family. Oh. Guess what? We already have such a program. It is the Family Tree. But you say, that website isn't professional. It isn't up to your standards. Well, do you have another suggestion that would address the issue of the massive duplication of effort from billions of individually maintained family trees? A free, collaborative, website without the possibility of future loss due to commercial failure? 

Again you protest. The Family Tree is inaccurate and the unwashed masses can change the entries. Guess what again? The future of genealogy is in the unwashed masses. You forget, there are 7.8 billion people on the earth and in 50 years or so they will be everyone's ancestors. In 100 years, for most people, genealogy will consist entirely of looking on whatever version of the internet exists at that time. For these future people, genealogy will not really exist as such, it will all be recorded on government computers. 

What about artificial intelligence? I think that very shortly computer programs using the available records and DNA testing will be able to compile pedigrees with more accuracy than almost any genealogist living today. When you take a DNA test (which will become mandatory in almost all countries of the world) you will immediately be placed in a family going back generations. Right now, my pool of DNA relatives is a relatively small number of thousands of DNA matches, but those matches are all over the world and I can imagine that the connections of those thousands of people probably links me to most of the world's population. 

So are we going to focus on finding that remote ancestor or do what is right before our eyes, connect all the people presently on the earth into one huge family?  Oh, I guess the old stuff is useful also, but we need to get handwriting recognition software to really get into all the old records. 


  1. Well said.Thank you. As I talk to other researchers they always complain about the cost to subscribe to various services and I always remind them that there are many free alternatives.

  2. An excellent, forward looking, and thought provoking post. To add to your point with respect to the LOC (Library of Congress), when I was in law school in Washington, DC in 1978 - 1981 and living on Capitol Hill two blocks behind the main LOC and the Jefferson Bldg. (but before the Madison Bldg. was opened), I spent countless hours in the law reading room in the main building of the LOC. Among the stacks at that time there were perhaps only two or three rows of genealogy materials When I grew tired of law studies I would decompress by taking some time to do genealogy research in those limited stacks. While one could call up additional books by going down to the main room -- and they would appear usually within an hour or two back then -- the limited stacks in the law reading room was all there was for immediate, hands on, research or browsing. It is amazing how times and technology have changed genealogy research at the LOC since the!.

    1. Thanks for a historical perspective. The number of readily available books on genealogy has increased at the LOC but the total is far less that at the Family History Library or the Brigham Young University Family History Library.