Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Pace of Genealogy Research - Post 2

In my first post in this series, I wandered a bit through genealogy research history and noted that the use of the Internet and online genealogy databases has speeded up genealogy research in general. It also has had the effect of leaving some very experienced, but computer-leery, genealogists behind.

Today I want to address the effect of this increased pace on "new" or inexperienced genealogy researchers. In the extreme cases, these people start with online genealogy research and never get into a library, FHC or genealogy society. They happily cruise through family trees, VR indexes, census records, immigration records, online newspapers, cemetery records, etc. and proudly add information to their social network genealogy databases. They then get "ancestrally challenged" when they can't find more records to take them back to earlier generations - either because of too many or too few people found with the right name. The temptation then is to select one name that looks "right" and to continue merrily along the online genealogy highway. That part of research really hasn't changed - I think we all did this when we started out.

Fortunately, many of these new and inexperienced genealogists start to educate themselves about doing genealogy research, using online resources, reading books and periodicals at a library, or joining a genealogy society and asking for help. They often learn about the original source and primary information documents that are not online - the vital records, deeds, probates, naturalizations, town records, etc. But some of them get frustrated because they have to go to the FHC and order microfilms and wait two weeks for the films to come to the FHC, and then they aren't indexed... Welcome to Genealogy 102! It is exactly these original source and primary information documents that prove relationships and events. Some of them get it, others never do. I see both types in my local society.

One of the hazards of the increased pace of genealogy research using online resources is that the expectation level is raised - researchers want the critical document or database now, indexed, in digital form, and readable. In short - many researchers are spoiled by the riches of online genealogy resources.

Another hazard is that the every-name indexes and OCR text are imperfect - each of us needs to learn to do wild-card searches, vary the search parameters, and try to understand what is or is not available in an index. I did this yesterday - I used "Bohemian" as an origin and the record said "Hungary" (probably in error). It took an hour for me to not search for "Bohemian."

A third hazard is that not all records, for many record types, are available online or in repositories. Vital records are a great example - some states have indexes online but many don't. Not all deeds or probate records are on microfilm and very few are in online databases. Not all historical newspapers are online. Not all cemetery records are online. In many cases, you have to write to or visit the locality to find these records, often with a lot of research time.

The benefits of the increased pace of genealogy research resulting from online resources is that the availability of every-name indexes and document images has enabled researchers to find records that were difficult to find otherwise. For example, without the 1910 census index, I never would have cold searched through many microfilms of Chicago Illinois census records to find the Charles Auble family (I had checked Soundex, but he was indexed as Aubbe, and I finally found it when the index became available).

Another benefit is that the "survey" phase of the research cycle is faster and easier to do online and at home - using surname and locality books, VR indexes, census records, immigration records, historical newspapers, family trees, etc. We can find more information about a person or family faster now - often in hours. We can then move on to the "search" part of the research cycle finding and using original source and primary information documents. Unfortunately, we can also "make more misteaks quicker." The adage that "the faster I go, the behinder I get" is often true!

A third benefit for genealogy societies is that many of these new and inexperienced genealogists eventually ask for help from a society and its members. Using online resources can provide a feeling of success for the newbie and a good experience for the society member who helps. Many newbies join the society where they got help. The lesson here is that we all still need to follow the principles of the Genealogical Proof Standard - especially the first point - "doing a reasonably exhaustive search." Reviewing only online resources is not "reasonably exhaustive" - at least, not yet. Maybe in the future when the LDS has imaged and indexed their microfilm and microfiche collection, but certainly not now. In 2008, we still need to go to libraries, FHCs, and society repositories to find the critical documents that prove relationships and events.

I have several more posts planned on this topic. What other benefits and drawbacks are there because f the increased pace of genealogy research? Tell me.

NOTE: While I am on vacation, I am republishing some of my "Best of Genea-Musings" posts. This post was originally written on 24 April 2008.

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