Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Pace of Genealogy Research - Post 1

I've been thinking about how we can help society and community members find their elusive ancestors. One observation is that the "pace" of genealogy has increased significantly over time.

One hundred years ago and more, genealogy research was performed mainly in town halls, court houses, libraries, churches and in family homes. I am always amazed by how much information was obtained by researchers in those times - especially in New England. The searchers used the mail to correspond with others and horses and trains to travel from place to place.

By the 1950's and 1960's, the mode of travel had changed to automobiles and airplanes, but research was still performed in essentially the same places. Many researchers had extensive correspondence with distant cousins and others with the same family surnames. One big change was that genealogy societies and libraries flourished and many had a significant collection of books and periodicals - that was great if you lived near them. The National Archives had census and other records available, but the researcher had to travel to them.

By the time I started my research in the 1980's, the LDS church had opened Family History Centers in many locations and had created databases - the AIS 1790-1850 census indexes, the International Genealogical Index and Ancestral File - all on microfiche. You could go to an FHC and rent microfilm for many records, or you could visit the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Researchers still used personal correspondence with cousins, other researchers, repositories, etc. I started my research in 1988, and visited the FHC weekly and other local libraries regularly.

In the 1990's, the Internet started up and services like Prodigy, AOL and CompuServe had genealogy groups where people exchanged information similar to the way message boards are used today. Email gradually replaced written correspondence for many researchers. More records and indexes came online over the years to the point where several record types are 100% available online. In 2008, I can do a single census lookup in minutes (sometimes it takes an hour or more to find it, abstract it, capture it, print it) that took me two to three weeks to perform in 1988 (go to the FHC, rent the film, wait for it to come in, go back to the FHC, mount the film, search it page-by-page, try to get a printout). If I was lucky, the FHC would already have it on file and the lookup would take two to three hours (assuming we didn't have a page number from an index).

The pace of genealogy research has quickened considerably. With all of the resources available online in free databases, commercial databases, contacts on message boards and mailing lists, and near instantaneous genealogy news via newsletters and blogs, a research survey for a specific research problem can be performed in hours or days. The biggest change in recent years is the increasing number of free and commercial databases available online, plus the every-name indexes for databases, newspapers, documents, etc. More is on the way as Ancestry, WVR, Footnote, FamilySearch and others add content in competition and cooperation.

On one hand, this is really great for those of us confident, enthusiastic and ept at doing online research. On the other hand, it is very frustrating for those who do not have a computer or are leery of using one. These people attend society meetings where the speaker flashes record after record on the screen and extols this web site and that (I'm guilty of this - in spades), and they wonder "has genealogy research passed me by?" They hesitate to ask for instruction from the very busy "computer-literate" society members who use the computer, or for help accessing databases online. My educated guess is that about 25% of my local society don't have a computer, and that only 25% of my local society members are really computer literate and comfortable searching online. The rest use email, try online searches don't make much progress, and admire or envy the speaker presentations, but they are really frustrated by online research.
One potential solution for this problem is to match up patient researchers who are computer literate with access to databases with those who don't have computer access, or database access, and to try to help them by sharing time with them. CVGS has a monthly "Computer Group" in which the leader demonstrates web sites and databases to the attendees, many of whom are computer-leery. One other thing we've tried at CVGS is asking an experienced online researcher to offer a "free certificate" for one hour of research consultation at the library or FHC as part of our "opportunity drawing" at our meetings. I've done this twice, and besides being fun and successful, I've learned a bit about slave research and passenger list research.

I have an appointment tomorrow at the library with a lady who called today - she needs help finding her mother's immigration record but doesn't have a computer or know how to use one. I'm willing to invest an hour with this lady, whom I've never met, because it is an opportunity for me to connect with a potential society member and to help her pursue a family history interest. I've done this type of thing before, but I've learned not to do all the research for them. Instead, I've learned to let the inquirer try and succeed at doing research with the free databases available (our library has Ancestry Library Edition).

If my society has ten people willing to do this on an appointment basis, we could probably help ten to twenty people each month. I think that we have the ten people - we need to find the people who need help. What to call it? A mentor program? It sounds too teacher-student, doesn't it? And the so-called "student" may be able to teach the so-called "mentor" a thing or two about genealogy research. A "Help me solve my genealogy mystery" program? Perhaps, but it has to be couched in the right terms to lure the computer-leery member out of their bookcases of paper and into the library.

What do you think? How have you helped people with their research? What works for you or your society? Please share it with us!

This is the first of several posts on this subject that I've been mulling for awhile - I will have more posts about the Pace of Genealogy Research.


GrannyPam said...

Great idea. I think exposing non-computer users to the computer use, one problem at a time, is an excellent way to dispel the adversarial dialog that sometimes results from discussions of computers for genealogy. One problem, on solution, one glimpse at the potential!

Sally J. said...

Randy, I enjoyed your timeline of research before and after the internet.

Does anyone else remember those green bound volumed called the Reader's Guide? Back in the day, it took a whole morning just to find a few magazine articles.

Google launched their first browser when I was working as a researcher at American Girl in 1998. The first thing I ever googled? "Metropolitan Museum of Art." I was looking for a phone number.

Sounds like your computer literacy programs are a win-win solution. Good for researchers and good for your society.

I'm just curious...

How many researchers do you think become computer users eventually? Is is just a matter of learning basic computer skills and access to a computer? Or are some folks just dead set against it?

As a hardcore researcher I can't imagine *not* taking advantage of what's available online.

Keep up the good work, Randy!

Sally J.
The Practical Archivist

Charles said...

Randy I started genealogy in 1991 and shortly after joined the Prodigy genealogy bulletin board. I also started in 1993 as a volunteer at the library called a gene helper. In 1998 I had a chance to switch from gene helper to doing research for others, and since then I have answered all the queries that come to our local genealogical society. Research has changed over the years, early on I did a lot of census work as well as courthouse searching and of course obits. Today I seldom ever check a census, and while more and more records are coming online there is still a lot of research that will never be online, but the online databases are wonderful and getting better all the time.

Charles Hansen former Prodigy Genealogy bulletin board Mem Rep.