Research Tools and the Death of Genealogy

[Editor’s Note: WikiTree team member and genealogy thought leader Thomas MacEntee shares his take on the current and future state of genealogy.]

Recently, at WikiTree we announced that member registration had reopened after being limited to an “invitation only” basis since January 2012. This action was taken for various reasons: mainly to fine tune the WikiTree site and set some parameters as to how users upload information and help build a collaborative world family tree.

The announcement was picked up at Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter (thanks Dick!). One reader made an interesting comment sharing his views that genealogy may be slowly dying as a hobby, possibly due to technology advances which make it easier to find information about one’s ancestors and to do so much quicker than in years past.

The basic gist of the comment: The joy of the genealogy hobby is in the discovery. People in the future won’t get to experience this because their genealogy will already be done and freely available on sites such as WikiTree.

Market Research Indicates the Growth of Genealogy

A variety of recent news articles indicate that the pursuit of finding one’s ancestors is alive, well and growing here in the United States. But market research can’t possibly convey what “the hunt” means for those genealogists submerged in the process and how that search has changed over the past 30+ years.

Is It The Same “Hunt” With Different Tools?

The desire, and even the need, to know more about one’s precursors has probably existed since the first family units existed. Over the centuries, the tools genealogists used in the search or the “hunt” have changed and the change has been more drastic in the last few decades.

Fast forward to the late 20th century and genealogy saw the introduction of the personal computer being used in the research process.  At that point, the PC was more a tool to record research and keep it organized. The search element was not really forged with the identity of the personal computer until the advent of online communities like AOL and bulletin boards.

Remember those days of connecting with a 600 baud Hayes modem? Hearing that unique sound, knowing that you could check message boards and forums to see if there was any new information about your ancestors? There was excitement, there was wonder, there was the thrill of discovery.

Some Tools Are Actually Endangered

All of this talk of new, shiny, efficient tools is great, but in the focus on what most think as progress, are we actually in danger of losing certain skills and abilities? A recent example: the demise of cursive and the fact that more schools no longer teach it is another recent cause for concern. Who will be available to interpret handwritten documents from earlier periods? Will we see “cursive experts” crop up to assist 22nd century genealogists?

New Tools Don’t Negate The Wonder of Discovery in Genealogy

In the years and decades to come, even with yet-to-be discovered tools, that sense of wonderment, that excitement of discovery will still be part of genealogy research, even for hobbyists.

Now in the Internet age, besides social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, we have the wiki concept where collaboration is more than just connecting and sharing.  At sites like WikiTree, it is all about “building” a tree and then making that information available to other users and to the genealogy community.

Do these sites make it “too easy?” Not really. Face it, how much fun was it using Soundex to find your ancestors on census pages via microfilm? While it was enjoyable to snuggle up with the latest issue of Everton’s Genealogical Helper, now via sites like MyGenShare, you can search your surnames in Everton’s in seconds.

For some of us, the good old days of genealogy were not always so good. We have new tools, more efficient methods, but one thing will always ring true: genealogists will always have that sense of discovery, that sense of excitement which energizes them and propels them forward in their research. It may be using a mobile app to compare the latest DNA results with newly-discovered cousins.  Or it might be on WikiTree, sharing thoughts about common ancestors, swapping advice and connecting with other genealogists.

What Are Your Thoughts? Is Genealogy Really Dying?

Very often when we encounter new ways of doing what we love, we fear losing the passion involved in that pursuit. The same is true of genealogy.

Do you feel that genealogy is dying? Or is it just that we need to move to a new level of research while still striving to retain that excitement we first had when we got started finding our ancestors?

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  9 Responses to “Research Tools and the Death of Genealogy”

  1. Personally, I think it makes it more exciting. Instead of spending all of my research time trying to make sure that the Mr. Jones I’m looking for in the census is the correct Mr. Jones, I can confirm that *relatively* easily, and move on to the meat of family history – the stories, the newspapers, the content that truly makes the work enjoyable. The passion is in finding the historical tidbits that make their lives seem more real. Also, it opens time to spend hours among dusty shelves in the basement of the local court house!

  2. 600 baud Hayes modem? That’s double the speed of the revolutionary wall-plug Hayes device that was part of Prodigy’s initial package in the late 1980s. But I digress …

    While the genealogical task of ancestor discovery might ultimately decline as all available records are scanned, reviewed and persons accounted for … I think its “death” is still quite a long way off. But what’s most significant to me is that our new technologies and tools have greatly increased the number of people who find they can be productive in discovering their own family histories … and create/preserve their own stories for their descendants.

    Through message boards, for example, I’ve found quite a few cousins I didn’t know I had who had solved various branches of my family tree. That allows me to concentrate my efforts on those parts that have not been resolved. (And I hope to consolidate my family’s photos and documents into publications that are so much easier to produce than in the past.)

    Looking at the hand-written family trees and correspondence of my ancestors makes me realize how wonderful we have it today.

    Thanks, WikiTree, for creating such an excellent place for us to post our findings.

  3. For those of us who got so excited by the guy saying, ‘You’ve got MAIL!’, your points are well taken. I started my search back in 1996 when sites like Cyndi’s List, RootsWeb and the like were just getting some traction. I spent hours at libraries, just trying to track down where to locate records, and then weeks waiting to hear back from correspondence sent out through the post office. Now, the records it took me months to find and an exorbitant amount of money to purchase (from the Utrecht Archives as an example) are available online for free. I paid $16.75 for a marriage record I received a clear, crisp PDF of in about a nanosecond. And still, I looked out with childlike anticipation yesterday as the mailman delivered my mail waiting for, not one but two, envelopes that will hopefully have some fabulous tidbits of genealogical wonder in them.

    I believe the answer to your question, rhetorical as it may be, lies in the title, “Research Tools and the Death of Genealogy”. Genealogy, by definition, is the study of a family’s history. And, the term ‘research’ means to search again. Not just search, but search again. So, will the tools we use to search again kill the study of our family histories? I say never.

  4. Loved this article & all the observations!
    Basically, I don’t think genealogy will ever die. Change, yes, but not die. First, will we ever really find ALL our ancestors? Second, there is always the Brick Wall (or ten!). And finally, even if we did theoretically find everyone, we would never know all about them. There are so many family stories to add color to our trees. To me, that is the most fun part!
    I was just thinking the other day what a great time it is to do genealogy, with all these neat new tools in our belt!

  5. More and more people are capable of and are searching and discovering their personal family history because of the Internet and its ramifications, both search and available records to search. It is growing, not dying. This is just another “unexpected consequence” (to those unfamiliar with how the technology and especially the Internet has and continues to change our world) it is having on every crook and cranny of our existence. Excellent article and thoughts, Thomas – as we have come to expect from you.

    I’m currently reading “Maker” by Chris Anderson on how that soon, anyone will be able to MANUFACTURE anything from their desktop – Think about that for a moment. Genealogy is just one piece of the universe that is changing. Everything is… and, overall, for the better. Some older folks will never appreciate the changes ( and I’m quite old, I realize), but they are almost always for the better, for most folks. Especially when more people have the opportunity to participate in more new and different things, on a personal, hands-on, level! ;-)

  6. I think we as family researchers embrace the technological changes. When I first started researching my family tree, the process was slow and bogged down, and I think due to lack of information and time to research in libraries and archives interest sometimes waned.

    New technologies have provided so many more people with the opportunity to research their ancestry and understand their identity. It is now so much easier to connect with other members of their family tree, to share resources and family stories. Now, I can not only find out the date of birth, death or marriage of a relative, I can also read about the times they lived in, the recipies they used, find photos of the towns they lived in, access maps of the towns at the time they were living,look at their census records and the list goes on. I think the role of the family tree researcher has evolved and genealogy is moving more into the area of the social research. Genealogists are now interested in more than their lineage. When I have time I like to browse the world of Family Tree/History Blogs. These blogs give us family stories, memories, record interviews with older families, capture memories of times in the past.

    I think that there is always some resistance to change, no matter where it is coming from, however, with a little more education and information, most people move through that change (at their own pace) and embrance the new changes and innovations.

  7. [...] Research Tools and the Death of Genealogy A recent comment from a reader in relation to WikiTree now being reopened to member registration, was that “The joy of the genealogy hobby is in the discovery. People in the future won’t get to experience this because their genealogy will already be done and freely available on sites such as WikiTree.” This is looked at in more detail. Read the full story … [...]

  8. The idea that new tools and easier access to an end result might make people less inclined to use them is bizarre! How many of us, when camping or barbecuing, regret the passing of flints and tinder as we click our piezo-electric gas lighter? It doesn’t make us less likely to enjoy the fire. I started computing using an IBM PC in the early 1980s and I certainly don’t miss that when I sit at my modern desktop or tap away at my iPad. It’s all about obtaining a result, not the ease (or pain) of getting it.

  9. I have not been a member of Wiki Tree very long, but I feel that most tools I have used on the PC have been a tremendous help for me, especially as I use them more and become more understanding about how and where to find the information. I have worked on my family lines for about 20 years and the more I try to learn how to use some things the more I find out what I was looking for. The world of information out there is just tremendous, but you have to be correct with your approaches and don’t be afraid to try new things. The more you learn the more you become an eager beaver. I’m 73 now and just love the fact that I can use some of the things out there. The real problem is when I try to talk to my grand kids and pick there brains, they get to far ahead of me to quick. They are beginning to understand that problem, but sometimes a little slow down on both parts and communication can get done.

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