18 June 2013

Twenty Years From Now I'll Be Done

The longer I am involved in genealogy, the less inclined I am to read articles about genealogy written by non-genealogists that claim to have made some "discovery" about genealogy or to have noticed a "trend" in family history. A recent article on The Verge indicated that in twenty years the pursuit of family history will be "different" and all the problems will be solved.

Please. Most of these articles in the general media are not written by individuals with a serious sense of what is going on in family history. At the very best these articles include interviews and opinions of genealogists and others "in the know." At the very worst, they include only quotes from press releases from the major genealogical vendors. Most articles fall somewhere in between.

The article in The Verge claims that there will be no genealogy questions without answers in twenty years. One needs to take care in making suck sweeping statements.

I'm still waiting for the arrival of the paperless office and for calculators to improve the math skills of the general population. I'm also still waiting for the United States to adopt the metric system.

Family history is changing, but to think that all the questions will be solved and answered in twenty years indicates a lack of understanding about what family history is and perhaps a mindset similar to the "type it in and the answer will come" marketing approach of certain genealogical data providers.

There have been changes in genealogical research with the advent of the internet, but having been involved in research actively for thirty years, I fail to see answers coming to every question.

What is changing about genealogy is that the way researchers access some information. Some information that is, not all. Despite claims of all information being online, there are still significant collections of genealogically relevant material that are only available in paper format. Will some of these collections eventually be digitized? Yes. There are others that may not be converted to digital format for some time, if ever. In twenty years, every piece of paper created by humans will probably not be available online. And there's always the chance that that one piece of undigitized paper holds a key piece of evidence to a genealogical mystery. That's the reality of genealogy research.

There are indexes now to records that genealogists never dreamed of twenty years ago. It is significantly easier to access some records via any internet connection and it is much easier to share/broadcast compiled information that ever before. Indexes and finding aids allows all of us to find some pieces of material that would have  been impossible before.

Indexes do not tie individuals together. Finding aids do not reach research conclusions. And large databases of compiled genealogies often contain numerous errors, some of which are obvious and some of which are not. Easy access to data and information does not necessarily mean that conclusions will be more accurate than before. And even if there is an index that leads the researcher to a 17th century Virginia land patent, that patent still needs to be analyzed and correlated with other information.

And some of those records containing clues on an ancestor may not even mention the ancestor. Indexes and finding aids do not locate those "unwritten" references that are sometimes the biggest clues. And indexes and finding aids do not indicate to the research which John Smith is yours and which is not.

I tend to view these finding aids and indexes as calculators and computing devices. These tools can make those who know how to use them more efficient. The tools themselves do not make anyone a better student or mathematician. We've had calculators for years and math skills of most students linger at the same level they have for decades. Research is about more than simply performing quick lookups in an index and assuming that the "same person" has been found.

I'm excited about the future of genealogy research. The tools I have now have helped me to answer questions that I thought I would never answer. But answers have left me with more questions and new tools allow us to ask questions we never could have dreamed of twenty years ago.

I still expect to be looking for answers to family history questions in twenty years. Typing a name in a box and getting all the answers is not going to happen. For that to work, every compiler submitting information would have to be correct in every instance.

And none of us do that.

In 2033, I see myself working on family history questions and untangling families using records I might not have had easy access to before.

Post a Comment