Friday, August 28, 2009

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.

[Note: While I'm on vacation, I'm re-posting some of my self-anointed "Best of Genea-Musngs" articles. This one was originally posted in Genea-Musings on 22 April 2008].


debbie said...

How about using the words in part " the far corner of the library.." To think of it, the genealogy section isn't found smack in the middle of the library or off to the side of the room. Ours is upstairs and conpletely on the far end of the room.

David said...

Brick Wall Buddies (because not being online is sort of another kind of brick wall).

Terri O'Connell said...

I like David's name, Brick Wall Buddies!

Celia Lewis said...

Great idea, Randy. I've shown a number of friends/acquaintances and assorted friends of friends - the basics of how-to search on the web, evaluate searches, and most importantly, save a copy of any documents found (right click, then... etc., email to self), no matter which computer used. Every branch of our area library has computers, which helps immensely.
Thanks for your suggestion of individuals "passing it forward"! Cheers - celia

gsgenealogy said...

We have an open house at the SDGS library and I had the privilege to help people with their research. The library is open to the general public on Thursdays from 10-4. (They will be moving in October to a Kearny Mesa location). I was able to help with using the SDGS online library catalog, general research websites, Shelly D.'s Internet site for Jewish Genealogy and give tours and help people use the library by giving orientation tours and finding books they needed.
Also, as the Chair of the Lost Treasures committee I mentored temporary volunteers in the process of research and finding living descendants to place items. Bonnie Fago at the SDGS is now continuing this work and mentoring volunteers. She is always looking for SDGS members who want to mentor for Lost Treasures research.