Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Thursday, March 2, 2017

How Much Has Genealogy Really Changed?

Oh, for the good old days of piles of books and papers!!! Yeah, let's get real. We still have all the paper. It hasn't gone anywhere. But now we have some way to manage all that paper without it driving us crazy. After thinking about this subject over the years, I have decided that for most of us, computers have had only a very superficial impact on the real work of doing genealogical research.

It is time for an analogy. When I was very young, we drove across the United States in an old Cadillac Limousine. It took us many days of travel. Years later, I participated in another cross-country trip across the United States. This time in a Rambler Ambassador Stationwagon. We spent about three weeks driving and sight-seeing along the way. A few short years ago, we helped two of our children with their families move across the United States where they now live in eastern states. These trips took four days, one way, pulling a trailer with our Chevrolet Silverado Pickup Truck. Just a few days ago, my wife and I flew across the United States to the East Coast in about 10 hours with a layover in Chicago.

Now, the analogy to genealogical research. Years and years ago, I spent weeks and weeks, year after year, in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. The real research I accomplished was negligible. Eventually, I got into looking at microfilm and the time it took me to do some research decreased but the issue was obtaining access to the microfilm. That took two weeks, at least, and I still have to spend the time searching through the rolls. Now, much of the information I used to travel to Salt Lake and order on microfilm is instantly available on my computer at home. Hmm. But the process of actually doing the research hasn't changed. I still have to work my way through the records, many times, page by page and line by line.

What has changed are just the same things that changed in my travels across the country; I can get there a lot faster and not spend so much time on the trip. But when I get there, it is essentially the same experience. What is not usually evident when we talk about technological advancement is that the advancement is mainly in availability and speed and has little or nothing to do with the finding, evaluating and processing part of research. Hmm. But what about indexing? What about finding aids of all kinds like record hints? Potentially, these technological advancements have the potential of improving the overall accuracy of the research process, but in a lot of cases, these "advancements' only really benefit those who are competent is "traditional" research methodology.

Could technology automate the entire process of genealogical research? Could I submit a DNA test to a tech company and have them provide me with a "complete" pedigree? As a matter of fact, yes, the potential is there but achieving this level of accuracy is still a long way off.

What is the next big technological advance? Will it finally affect the way we do genealogical research? Right now, we are in a transitionary time. We have the access and the speed of searching but we are still overly dependent on the levels of evaluation and the insight into the mechanics. For example, I can go into one of the large online database programs and receive hundreds (thousands) of record hints, but I still need to carefully evaluate these hints and utilize the information effectively. We wring our hands over the inaccuracy and superficiality of the online family trees, but this situation will not change until there is a uniform standard for data exchange and a way to rank the dependability of the conclusions made by the researchers.

So, what do we need to make progress?

Tentative steps have been taken by in evaluating the accuracy of the data accumulated in the Family Tree with their Data Problems icons and an even greater leap into the future has been implemented by's Tree Consistency Checker. When you combine this error and consistency checking technology with highly accurate record hints, there is a potential to dramatically improve the accuracy and consistency of online family trees. But will that alone change the way we actually do genealogical research? No, not that much. What about extensions in OCR and Handwriting Character Recognition? Yes, again, both these technologies speed up the process of extracting data from historical documents, but there is still the time-intensive component of learning how to evaluate and apply the information that is only acquired after extensive time and practice.

All in all, I am the beneficiary of the new technology. My ability to acquire information, some of which is pre-evaluated, has tremendously increased, but all in all, I am doing the same things I have been doing for the last thirty years, only faster. But I also realize that a significant percentage of the larger genealogical community is not able to take advantage of the new technology due primarily to a lack of awareness of the advantages and the ability to incorporate the changes into a workable methodology.

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