Monday, August 10, 2015

Yes, Janet, Internet Genealogy is Progress!

Janet Few wrote Internet Genealogy -- Is This Progress? yesterday on the Worldwide Genealogy ~ A Genealogical Collaboration blog.  In her post, she reviews how it was done in the "olden days" before the Internet, and bemoans the lack of interaction with other researchers in the present day genealogy world.  As Janet notes, having access to record images online is a benefit, but they often are a transcription of an original record.  She asks "Have we compromised thoroughness in the pursuit of speed."

1)  Let me reminisce about how I started my own research journey, and the research practices at the time (1988-1992).  Based on family information, I was able to find information about my ancestral families (great-grandparents and further back) by finding genealogy, family history and locality books at the local libraries and the local Family History Center in San Diego.  The FHC had the International Genealogical Index on microfiche and the early U.S. census records (up to 1860) also on microfiche.  I was able to search  the 1880, 1900 and 1910 census records on microfilm using Soundex cards, and then find the original census pages using that information.  Gradually, I started ordering microfilms from the Family History Library to extend my family lines, especially using probate records.

I vividly recall two to three hour sessions of cranking microfilm to find one little bit of new information, making photocopies of the microfilm images, and having to use my magnifying glass to read the information.  It often took two to three weeks to request and receive the microfilms, and then another week or two to review all of the information on some of them.  To obtain an actual probate record, say, often took two to three months because one had to look for an estate index on one film, obtain a case file number, then search the Estate Proceedings index to find all of the papers in a probate file, then order all of the films (for perhaps 5-10 different probate court volumes), then search them for the actual record.  I often ordered five microfilms each week.

I also sent letters to family members, and sent letters and checks requesting vital records to town clerks.  I posted queries in several genealogical magazines which rarely resulted in a response.

I also took several family/research trips to New England to see and share with my cousins, to research in repositories, and walk cemeteries.  I obtained Personal Ancestral File and organized my genealogy data in the program, while adding paper to my many 4-inch notebooks as I gathered information, separated by surnames.

I started attending two local genealogical societies which provided more contact with other researchers.  This greatly improved my genealogy education and I had some advice from other researchers.  I joined NGS and NEHGS and learned from their peer-reviewed publications.

2)  My first forays on the Internet was on the Prodigy genealogy message board were in 1992-1994, and I quickly found and enjoyed interacting with other researchers with my surnames and in my localities.  There was plenty of information interchange.  Eventually, the Rootsweb message boards, and message boards, were formed, and I participated in those from 1995 to 2005 or so.

I continued going to the FHC every Saturday, and was able to find data to help me fill out my family tree.  Some folks were able to find information in the Ancestral File and add families to their tree that way.  I did some of that back in the "olden days."

3)  Fast forward to 2015 now.  I've been an Ancestry subscriber since about 2005, and MyHeritage subscriber since about 2009, and a Findmypast subscriber since 2013.  I was on FamilySearch from the earliest days of the record databases.

Those record providers early on provided the "low hanging fruit" - the search engines found names with other bits of indexed data in census records, vital record indexes, passenger lists, etc.  We could capture the record as a digital image and file it in a computer file folder for a surname or a family.

In recent years, FamilySearch has indexed over a billion records from microfilm, and put billions of digital images online in "Browse image" collections.  The latter are not "low hanging fruit" - they require a concerted effort to find the actual record on this "digital microfilm."

I can now find that probate record file in minutes and capture all of the record images in an hour as digital images.  I can transcribe the record information, add the event, the record transcription, the source (in EE format), and attach the media in an hour or less.  Things happen much faster than 20 years ago, but my knowledge and education have progressed also.  I usually know what I'm doing.  My research skills are more sophisticated.

I think that I have not replaced "thoroughness with speed" - I'm able to do more research in original source material (vital records, land records, probate records) much faster and with better analysis tools than I could 20 years ago, or even one year ago.  I have added "speed" and "ease-of-use" to the "thorough research" I was doing some time ago.

However, we all now that only about 10% of all records are available online in indexed or imaged format.  There are many genealogical records that are not indexed or digitized, and they are in homes, businesses, record offices, courthouses, repositories, and archives.

(used by permission from California Genealogical Society and Library)

4)  I think that there is much more interaction now than there was 20 years ago.  Because I blog about my ancestral families and my research and have "cousin bait" online family trees and websites, I receive research information and advice, in addition to requests for information from cousins, and have much more interaction as a result.  Over 4,000 persons read my blog every day via the website, an RSS reader, email, or Facebook.  I know that not everybody has that many readers, but it can be achieved with diligence and effort.  A Google search of the names of a couple surfaces my blog posts readily.

The Rootsweb and Genealogy message boards are still there, and are found in a Google search, but now we have social media outlets like Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, Twitter and many more.  There are many surname and locality groups on Facebook and Google+, in addition to groups and pages for genealogy companies and projects.  A user can post a question on one of these groups and usually receive comments or answers within a day or two.

Genealogical societies still exist for education and contacts, conferences and seminars abound for education, even more books and periodicals are available, and there are crowdsourced genealogy wikis.  Rather than just these outlets, the online world, including online family trees, websites, and social media, have broadened research and educational opportunities.

5)  So, "Yes, Janet, I think the Internet is Progress."  The basic methodology for how we do genealogical research hasn't changed that much.  We still need records to support conclusions for names, dates, places, and relationships.  Research in many record types can be performed quickly online.  The learning process is gradual, although now it is more interactive and online.  Researchers still make mistakes as a result of poor judgment and lack of education, but now they can make them more visibly and a lot faster.  And there are many more persons interested in working on their family tree and the stories of their ancestors.

Those are my views.  I welcome the views of my readers in Comments.

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Fax said...

I couldn't agree more with your comments, Randy. I followed the exact same path, starting in 1991, with just a few exceptions. I still have tons of original documents acquired in those earlier days that need to be scanned and I do not blog about my research. However, I too find that I have much more contact with people who turn out to be distantly related because I share everything online. DNA testing has been the greatest boon to solving puzzles and breaking down brick walls. Almost all my research time is now spent on analyzing results and communicating with matches to me and my cousins (most of them found through DNA).

Cathy P said...

I totally agree. Thanks

Jacqi Stevens said...

I'm right there with you, Randy! Well...other than having to use a magnifying glass to read those microfilms 30 years ago (although I have to do so, now--yet another reason to be glad for the Internet!).

I saw Janet's post the other day, too, but just didn't want to go there, since it seems those posts are sometimes a breeding ground for dissention. But now that you mention it, I'd like to make a couple observations.

If the focus is on lack of interaction, now that we're all isolated on our computers, I tend to disagree. Frankly, I've always liked my research day trips to libraries...but I certainly wouldn't want to have interaction when I do that kind of research. I relish the chance to get away to somewhere quiet and isolated, where I can concentrate on what I'm reading. No time for interaction, there!

When it comes to interaction, I can't think of a better way to facilitate connecting with people than via the Internet. I've met more people researching lines of personal interest, helped more people and been helped by others, and discussed research problems and bounced brick wall solutions off many more people stuck in the same situation than I'd ever be able to do, the old way. The Internet allows me to go faster and farther with the thoroughness I've learned to practice. Thorough research practice is not gained by witholding the medium; it is accelerated by the right medium. People are going to use the research discipline--or lack thereof--they've already gained from their training, not from how facile they are at their computers.

I've always loved Elizabeth Gorrell's poster, sold by the California Genealogical Society. I wish our local Society could put one of those posters by our reference collection at our local library. We still need those old-time research skills to access that 90% of material--and when we do, we sometimes see those brick walls come tumbling down. Yet, I've never gone so far, so fast with my research as when I've crowdsourced my research quandaries via online interaction and resources.

While I'll likely never get those 4,000 readers-per-day you enjoy, Randy--and while, to be fair, I should actually go and read Janet's argument in her own words--my best interaction with other researchers comes either from Internet-facilitated connections or through the wonderful genealogical conferences that provide face-to-face educational opportunities. Maybe rather than knocking the medium of the Internet, we should have a better role model for positively presenting those face-to-face (versus digital) interactions so that others see them for the benefit they still provide. After all, in a way, we are all creating our future. We need to be a positive force for the direction we feel is a better way. I think that is much more effective than simply trying to apply the brakes to inevitable progress.

Unknown said...

Thanks for picking up on my post Randy. Actually I think we agree! We can interact via the internet and that is now becoming a substitute for society membership and provides opportunities for people who might not have face-to-face opportunities. Sadly some people are still not taking those opportunities for interaction or learning.
The main thrust of my argument related to:-
1.amount of material that is NOT on the internet, which some people are blissfully unaware of - illustrated very well by your graphic
2.the ease with which some people (probably not the people who might be reading this blog or attending hangouts like Myrt's) can grab a poorly research tree from the internet and claim it as their own, without bothering to check it (and I come across many people who do this)
3. the fact that people interrogate a source via a search engine without understanding that source and its possible inadequacies
There are many thorough genealogists who use the internet extensively (I am one)but whilst being an essential and valuable tool, the internet also opens so many doors for bad genealogy, in a way which pre-internet research did not.
Glad to have sparked a discussion.

mbm1311 said...

Hi Randy,

I was reading the Spring 2015 issue of American Ancestors from NEGHS and a gentleman involved in sketching out the plans to update the second phase of people in the Great Migration Series (1635-1640) commented on how many compiled genealogies he looked at for a group of among arguably the most studied in America. He indicated that there was a lot of bad published genealogy. I wish he had given a ballpark percentage. So much for the theory that there was all this great and accurate research going on before the Internet!

Most people just want to know about their families a few want to do the research and stick to standards. Was true then and it’s true now. Doesn’t bother me the way it bothers other people.

Mary Beth