Friday, January 4, 2013

Genealogy Searching Then and Now - Part 1: Then (pre-1999)

I talked genealogy research with my brother-in-law over the holidays.  He did quite a bit of genealogy research in the 1980-1985 time period and has done nothing since.  We searched for records on some of his ancestors over the holidays online and he was amazed at how much is available online and how fast results can be obtained.  Then I showed him RootsMagic and the genea-magic it could perform...

I thought that it would be interesting to compare "Then" (say pre-1999) and "Now" (2013):

1)  Genealogy Research "Then" (before 1999):

*  Libraries, archives, courthouses, vital record offices, family history centers, genealogical societies and historical societies held many linear feet of books, periodicals, and paper records, and only some of them had indexes.  Some records were on microfilm or microfiche at the repositories.  You had to visit these repositories, and it took awhile to browse through all of the paper on the shelf!  Researchers wrote letters to government record offices or repositories requesting information, especially certified copies of vital records.  Photocopy machines were used to obtain copies of records, or records were abstracted or transcribed.

*  After about 1980, the LDS Family History Centers had the Family History Library Catalog, 1790 to 1850 U.S. Census index, International Genealogical Index and Ancestral File on microfiche.  As CDROMs became available in the 1990s, family trees were published on CD, as were additional census indexes for 1860 to 1880, as were other resources.

*  The local FHCs had some microfiches and microfilms in their file drawers, and more could be ordered from Salt Lake City.  My local FHC had most of the available census records on microfilm at the center.  I usually had to order films of manuscripts, typescripts, state vital records, state census records, military records, immigration records, and much more.  The ordering process took two to three weeks, and you had to order the items at the FHC, pay the rental fee, and wait for the phone call that the items had come in, and then you had to go back to the FHC to review the item within two to four weeks.  There were usually microfilm and microfiche printers available.  I spent almost every Saturday between 1988 and 2002 at the local FHC.

*  Researchers collected paper - the photocopies and microfilm copies of book chapters and records - for each surname or locality, and created more paper - family group sheets, pedigree charts, research logs, to-do lists, etc. - to organize and plan their research.

*  Genealogy software became available in the 1980s with Personal Ancestral File, and then other programs were developed over time to automate the data entry process, to make charts and reports, etc.  By 1999, Family Tree Maker was the most popular software program, and was "improved" every year.

*  Researchers corresponded with other researchers found through the LDS Ancestral File, other LDS resources, or through genealogy periodical/magazine articles and queries.   They exchanged information by handwriting or typing information, and in some cases by photocopying their charts or copied records.  By the 1990s, personal computers were used to create reports and charts that could be sent via letter, or via email, to correspondents.

*  I'm sure I've missed some vital points here due to memory loss...

2)  How long did it take to obtain certain records before 1999?

*  Obtaining a census record before 1999 involved searching one or more microfilms one image at a time at the FHC, eventually finding the family of interest, and transcribing or abstracting the census information.  If I was lucky, there was an index to help me.  This often took one to six hours depending on how many microfilms I had to search.

*  Obtaining a Massachusetts vital record (between 1841 and 1895) before 1999 at the FHC involved ordering the Index film, finding the person in the index film with volume and page number, then ordering the correct volume with the record, and finding the record of interest, then transcribing,  abstracting or photocopying the information.  This task took at least six weeks to complete.

*  Obtaining a land record or probate record before 1999 at the FHC involved ordering the Index film, finding the probably entry(ies) in the Index film with volume(s) and page number(s), then ordering the correct volume(s) with the record(s), finding the record(s) of interest, then transcribing, abstracting or photocopying the information.  This task often took six to 15 weeks to complete, depending on how many microfilms had to be ordered to obtain complete land or probate record entries.  I ordered multiple microfilms (often 6 to 10) at a time to keep my projects going.

3)  I will post about "Now" in another blog post, since I have to take the grandgirls to meet their mother to go home today.  I may even get to work in the database this afternoon!

How did you do genealogy research back in the old days Before Computers (B.C.) and before 1999?  Tell us in your own blog post, or in a comment to this post.

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Copyright (c) 2013, Randall J. Seaver


Tamura Jones said...

> "Genealogy software became available in the 1980s with Personal Ancestral File, and then other programs were developed"

No. The notion that PAF was first is a myth so persistent, that A Brief History of Personal Ancestral File specifically addresses it.

Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

I remember driving all the way from New Hampshire to Boston, Massachusetts to the Boston Public Library. It was the closest place to look up patent records. I had to use giant indexes to find the correct volumes, which were in closed stacks. It all involved using a librarian to do the heavy lifting. Now I can just use Google patent to look up any patent by number, name, etc. It takes less than a minute.

Anonymous said...

It was a good time back then with much more personal contact with "new" cousins. I think the finds were more rewarding as there was more "work" to it. Although I still like genealogy, I find it is rather anti-social. A keyboard is not as stimulating as looking through the "real" things and one-on-one contacts. Sherry Pries.

Linda Schreiber said...

Hours and hours pouring through books and directories. Hours, sometimes days, and lots of eyestrain headaches, looking through microfilm readers page by page by page. Many hours in courthouses and other repositories, most of the time spent waiting for the my record request to come up in the queue when most of the employees were busy with current-day customers. They had time to look up my 'genealogy thing' when there were no other people in line....
Taking the bits and pieces home, and trying to analyze and record everything by hand, on paper.
*Really* careful and meticulous set-up of the filing system so I was not just buried in paper!
And it was still fun, believe it or not. But I like today much better! said...
This comment has been removed by the author. said...

FHL Lookups. Pre-1999 it could take up to 15 weeks to receive records from FHL. Then the time required was shortened to just a few weeks. Now, it only takes a day or two to receive your records. The research firm Rootsonomy provides lookups of books, magazines, fiche, or film at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City in fewer than 72 hours. Simple 2-step process:

1. Locate the desired collection in the FamilySearch Catalog: OR

2. Facebook users can send the request by going to: and clicking the button "Request Research or a Lookup".

All others can submit requests at:
w, it's just a day or two.