Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Genealogy Searching Then and Now - Part 2: Now (2013)

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):

I wrote 
Genealogy Searching Then and Now - Part 1: Then (pre-1999) on 4 January 2013, describing how many researchers did research before 1999 and back into the 1980s.

1)  Genealogy Research "Now" (2013):

*  Libraries, archives, courthouses, vital record offices, family history centers, genealogical societies and historical societies still hold many linear feet of books, periodicals, and paper records, and only some of them have indexes.  Some records are on microfilm or microfiche at the repositories.  You have to visit these repositories, and it still takes awhile to browse through all of the paper on the shelf!  Fewer researchers visit these repositories now.  Researchers write letters or visit to government record offices or repositories requesting information, especially certified copies of vital records.  Photocopy machines are used to obtain copies of records, records are still abstracted or transcribed, but some repositories have microfilm machines or book copiers that put page images on USB drives.

Some, but not nearly all, of the vital records for a county or a state are in online indexes or databases, and a few provide free images of vital records.  Some counties have put their recent probate and land records online, and a few have their historical probate and land records online.  Some historical land, probate, town and church records for specific counties and states are available online.

*  Many local FamilySearch Centers now have rows of desktop computers with access to the Family History Library collections and many commercial or free historical record collections.  The microfilms can be ordered online, and the fees have gone up significantly.  Researchers can copy page images on microfilm printers to paper or to USB drives.

*  Online record collections are offered by a number of commercial companies or free organizations.  For U.S. records, there are many online databases for vital records, for U.S. and state census records, for military records, for passenger lists and naturalization records, for historical newspapers and current obituaries, etc.  

*  Researchers now collect digital images of historical records, collected from online record collections or by scanning paper copies from their paper collection.  These digital images are often attached to persons, events or sources in their genealogy software program.

*  Genealogy software in 2013 is much more complex and capable than software before 1999.  Users still have to enter data (names, events, dates, places, etc.) into the software program, have source templates to help them create standard source citations, can standardize place names and see the places on a map, can attach media (photos, documents, audio, video) to persons in the database, and can write standard genealogy reports and books using software.  

*  In 2013, researchers correspond with and interact with other researchers via email, or by using  online family trees, message boards and forums, websites or blogs, or on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, etc.).  Some historical record providers help the researcher by offering Hints (Ancestry) or Record Searches (MyHeritage)  for persons in their online family tree.  Some online family trees can be synchronized with a genealogy software program (e.g., Family Tree Maker 2012 with Ancestry Member Trees).  Some genealogy companies provide apps for smart phones and tablets that interact with the user's online family tree.  Amazingly, the same computer "tool" is used to transfer family tree data between persons or between a person and an online family tree as was used in the 1980s - GEDCOM!

*  Not every genealogy researcher in 2013 is computer-savvy, uses online family trees, has mobile devices, or is aware of social media.  

2)  How long does it take to obtain certain records in 2013?

*  Obtaining a U.S. census record (from 1790 to 1940 census records) takes minutes if the target person was enumerated and indexed correctly.  Wild cards for names, and other data items, can be used to aid or narrow searches.  However, only Ancestry.com has every index and image available - other sites have some of the census records but not all are indexed or imaged, and not all are free.  

*  Obtaining a Massachusetts vital record (from between 1841 and 1915) in 2013 takes minutes if the target person was listed and indexed correctly in the digitized records.  FamilySearch has these indexed records and images for free, and Ancestry and AmericanAncestors have them in their subscription collection.  

*  Obtaining a historical land record or probate record in 2013 can take an hour or less if the target person lived in a state that has been digitized by FamilySearch and the researcher knows where they lived or died.  Most of these collections are not indexed and must be browsed.  If the state records have not been digitized, then the FHC must be used to order the Index film, find the probable entry(ies) in the Index film with volume(s) and page number(s), then order the correct volume(s) with the record(s), find the record(s) of interest, then transcribe, abstract, photocopy or obtain a digital image of the information.  This task may take four to 10 weeks to complete, depending on how many microfilms have to be ordered to obtain complete land or probate record entries.  Alternatively, a trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City may reduce the time to less than one day.

3)  In summary, the availability of online historical record collections and online family trees has made the research task shorter in most instances.  However, not ALL genealogy and family history records are online (perhaps 5% to 10% now?), and it takes about the same amount of time as it did in 1999 and earlier to find records that are not digitized.  My guess is that fewer researchers are going to the libraries, courthouses, societies, archives, etc. to do research.  Many are waiting for their needed record collections to be digitized and indexed by FamilySearch, ancestry or another provider.  

While I greatly appreciate the availability and accessibility of online record collections, I sometimes wonder if the significant reduction in time spent to obtain records causes us to not spend enough time to  critically evaluate the records themselves, and reduces the perceived need for family group sheets, data lists, to-do lists, research plans, research logs, etc.  I often think to myself "What else is there to search for?" and "I can sure make mistakes a lot quicker these days."

The URL for this post is:  http://www.geneamusings.com/2013/01/genealogy-searching-then-and-now-part-2.html

Copyright (c) 2013, Randall J. Seaver


Sharon said...

Good article Randy, but I guess I must be older than I thought. I could relate to everything in Part 1. It even brought back the smell of those old coated paper photocopies!

As for 2013 land records and probate. There is one more possibility. Some county recorder offices have indexes online for these records, and some indexes go back to the origin of the county. Once in a while I run across a county that even has old images online -- for free!

John said...

Agreed, nice article! In fact the first part inspired me to write about genealogy research 1904 style with examples of my great grandmother's efforts and results. It is on my Sat., Jan. 6th post on my new Blog at http://filiopietismprism.blogspot.com , which you mentioned last Saturday in your new blogs posting -- THANK YOU Randy!

David Newton said...

The thing about the online records now is that they are frequently the most used and also the ones that you find the first information about a person from. That way you can start your research a lot faster and get quite far before you need to go offline.

The other advantage of online records is that you can search indexes in many, many ways. Previously for example BMD records might have been arranged by year and then by surname and then by forename. However say you have an index that also records the maiden name of the mother of a child. Doing a search by all those whose birth was registered in a particular year whose mother has a particular maiden name is now easy. Previously it would have been so labour-intensive as to have been impossible.

Anonymous said...

I saved this article and Part 1 cuz I thought they were so good, I wanted to re-read. I really started in earnest in 1996. The reason, computer database! Before I'd spend 1/2 my time re-writing charts etc. (Erase erase) Databases took some of the hard work out of it. My base has 22,000 people (long story) No way I could keep that on paper.