Although I now have to be surgically removed from my laptop, I am someone who started my family history in the years B.C. (before computers). I thought therefore that I would just mention some of the pros and cons of the changes I have seen over 37 years of seriously pursuing my ancestors. By the way I did start very young (wait for Y for more on that topic).
In the old days, finding our family was a much slower process and involved travelling to various record repositories. You went to London, ordered a birth certificate, waited for it to arrive and then waited again for your next trip to London in order to search for the marriage certificate of the parents of that individual. This can now all be done from home and the turn around time is much quicker, so a big tick for the internet on this one.
In order to find someone in a census return a visit to London or the relevant county record office was required. Then you peered at reels of microfilm as you spent two hours winding your way through the whole of Hackney in pursuit of your ancestors. Alternatively you could hope that there was a paper index for the area and decade that you were searching. These indexes were carefully and accurately compiled by family historians whose motivation was to assist their fellow researchers, with no hint of financial benefits. Today’s countrywide indexes are a huge bonus, especially if searches can be made using fields such as occupation and birthplace, instead of by name, thus opening up these records for use by social and local historians. The quality of these indexes is however mixed. Many of them have been created by those with no interest in the work, by those who have no knowledge of British place or personal names and by those whose prime motivation is financial. In Peter Christian’s The Genealogists’ Internet, he looks at transcription errors in the 1891 census indexes that appear on the main subscription websites. In 2009, when the survey was done, 43.5% of the surnames in the Ancestry transcription were incorrect. Hopefully many of these have been corrected in the intervening five years but this is a very high error rate. Don’t get me wrong these indexes are valuable and I know that if their production was left to philanthropic family historians, with the skills and motivation to get it right, we would still be waiting but it is not all good news.
I applaud and welcome the opportunity to download digital images of original documents from my arm chair. Sadly most of these images are accessed via a transcript and many internet genealogists rely on those transcriptions, never progressing to the originals. At a conference last year, lecturer and author John Titford coined the phrase ‘genealogy for grown-ups’. By this he meant the sort of genealogy where original sources are consulted and referenced. He was referring to research that encompasses recreating the lives of our ancestors, not just collecting names and dates and the use of more than just the mainstream sources that are available on subscription websites. The internet helps ‘grown-up’ genealogists beyond measure but to come of age in the genealogical world you do still need to leave your keyboard behind on occasions.
Now family trees can be downloaded at the press of a button (the result may not be an accurate family tree but a family tree emerges none the less) there is the opportunity to acquire a pedigree without foundations. More people can open a computer file labelled ‘family tree’ but they lack basic knowledge about the lives of those individuals or the sources that have been used to create that pedigree. Does this actually matter? It is surely a good thing that more people are beginning to engage with their past, particularly as this has resulted in a dramatic lowering of the average age of the family historian. Am I concerned that these people are barely scratching the surface and are not doing things ‘properly’? At the risk if being labelled a genealogy snob, well yes I am. Surely the satisfaction comes from ensuring that your pedigree is as accurate as possible. Trying to recreate the context for our ancestors’ lives is truly paying them the respect they deserve. Yes, everyone should be able to pursue their ancestry in their own way and with a degree of rigor of their choosing but I still lament the trend towards ‘grab it quick’ pedigree hunting. Along with the internet has come instant access genealogy but have we compromised thoroughness in the pursuit of speed?
We are now in thrall to the large subscription websites. Yes, there is a choice but currently it is a frying pan – fire choice. In the last few weeks there has, rightly, been an avalanche of complaints about the ‘improvements’ made by more than one genealogical service provider. Suffice it to say that these changes appear to lack any single benefit for the serious researcher. The impression is that ‘improvements’ have been motivated by profit and carried out by those who have no idea what researchers require. At the moment the family history world is holding its breath, hoping fervently that the providers will actually listen to the needs of their customers. The provision of online resources is only progress if the system allows researchers to find the record that they need in a manner that is neither convoluted nor cumbersome.
The sad loss for the new generation of internet genealogists is the lack of interaction. True there are forums, chat rooms and opportunities for discussions via Hangouts on Air but are these really a substitute for a cosy chat over a genealogical brick wall with a group of fellow enthusiasts? I am not an unalleviated Luddite. I do appreciate that internet genealogy is not only here to stay but has a great deal to offer researchers. I am however aware that we maybe in danger of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water.