Saturday, September 22, 2007

Genealogy and History Thoughts - Column One

This column was not exactly the one I originally planned on posting, but I could not pass up commenting on Mike Elgan's "Coming Soon: The Mother of All Genealogy Databases." I realize that Jasia, Randy Seaver and others have already posted their thoughts on this article, but I feel as though I need to add my two cents worth as well.

After reading this article, I believe Mr. Elgan's concept of genealogy is incorrect. I realize that Mr. Elgan is writing from the view of someone in the computer field, and that his interest in genealogy is only related to the networking that has been occurring in genealogy lately. The social networking with other genealogists over the internet is only a small part of genealogy. Most of a genealogist's research is done off the internet, in libraries or other repositories. Most of the records that genealogists use are not on the internet, and even with information found on the internet, that information has to be verified with information not on the internet. I know that not everyone believes spending time digging for old documents interesting.

Of course, I can't resist commenting on some of Mr. Elgan's remarks.

"Millions of people around the world spend hours tracing their 'roots' as far back as they can. I've always suspected that people are really searching for self-identity."

It is possible that some people who do genealogy are searching for an identity, but that is not the reason why I got interested in family history. I got into genealogy primarily because I was interested in the history of my family. Most of my relatives do not know much about the history of our family, and it was my Grandfather who originally began to do research on our family. I took over because I was curious.

"Unfortunately, many uncover unpleasant family secrets. Instead of finding aristocrats and royalty, people are likely to discover war deserters, criminals and illegitimate children. Even more common is to find family origins in countries not part of the family lore. Genealogy isn't for wimps."

This was precisely the reason why I got into genealogy. I wanted to find out the truth about the history of my family.

"Many Americans who consider themselves white or black are in fact both to one degree or another."

This doesn't shock me at all. Racial mixing between Europeans, Native Americans and Africans has occurred before. Quite a bit of racial mixing occurred as a result of slavery. I have to wonder, though, just how well known is this to most Americans. It does make me wonder how well history is being taught in schools.

"The biggest genealogy hobbyist site,, claims to have 5 billion records collected globally, including census, immigration and military records; newspaper and magazine clippings; court, land and probate files and other records going back to the 16th century. The site enables its users to do the work of piecing together who's related to whom. It's an impressive database. You can simply enter names - your mother's maiden name, for example - and get back dozens or hundreds of possibilities, which you can then narrow down and use the result as the foundation for a new tracing."

Sometimes, I wish it was that easy. I must stress, though, that Ancestry is just a tool. I can't just use the internet to create my family tree. I have to find records offline, and most of the records are not online. I still have to do fact checking, and I can't assume that a John Smith in a database is my John Smith. It's more complicated than that.

In the next ten years, there will probably be more records online, but I do not believe tracing my family history will be as simple as typing in my name. I do not believe I would come up with an accurate tree. There any many trees with incorrect data online. I will still have to go to the places that my ancestors lived, as that is where the records will be. There will still be more records offline than online, especially when one thinks about all of the privacy concerns today. Also, I believe most of the world's records will still be offline because those repositories will not always have the funding to digitize records and put them online. It would be nice if all of the world's records were online, but the reality is that it takes many hours to transcribe and digitize records before those records can be put online. One cannot expect the records to be put online in weeks; the process of making a searchable database with records takes years to complete.

Well, that is my two cents on this issue. Does anyone agree or disagree with me? As always, you can leave your thoughts as a comment.

1 comment:

wanderer said...

Yes I agree with you Jessica - not all the information can be found on the Net. I have used for the English census material, to back up information I already had some clues about. I have discovered a celebrity on my tree, 'removed' as they say, but related nonetheless. By using the site I was able to get touch with another family line.
We swapped pictures, letters etc. and,'yes' , we were able to confirm our common ancestry.