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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Do We Rely Too Heavily on Technology?
by Rhonda R. McClure

April 17, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

I have often said that genealogists have one foot in the past and one in the future. They adopt new technology and understand that how modern conveniences, like computers and the Internet, will aid them in finding the past.

By the same token, though, we should sometimes step back and see if the research we are doing is really research at all. Do we rely too heavily on the modern technology to the point that we are just downloading names and adding them to our family trees? Do we assume if we cannot find someone in a census index that they are not in the census?

Technology should be teamed with tradition.

Technology is Good

Let me start out by saying that I really do appreciate the many wonderful tools we now have at our fingertips because of computers. There are so many aspects of genealogical research that I can now accomplish in a fraction of the time because of increased availability of records, transcriptions and more. The volunteer and commercial sites that make this information available help to make genealogy resources more available to everyone. No longer must we take a day off to go to the library to search the census. In addition, communication has been made faster through the computer.

I was recently extolling the virtues of ordering vital records online through VitalChek.com to someone. They were astounded when I said I had requested the death record at about midnight on a Tuesday and I received the certificate in question in Saturday's mail. Of course I probably could have gotten the document cheaper had I followed the more traditional approach of mailing a check to the county courthouse, but I was in a hurry and really need the record in question. For a few dollars more I shaved weeks off the time it would take to get that document. This is one of the ways communication has been helped through technology.

I was reminded of this again as I contacted a county courthouse via e-mail. I had got to the usual places to try to find the information I needed. I wanted a divorce record and had been unable to determine if the county clerk had these records. In viewing the Web site for the county, I found a "contact us" link with an e-mail address. I wrote an e-mail to the county requesting information as to availability of the records I needed. Within a day I had an answer and the phone number of the circuit court clerk to follow up on the records.

We tend to think about the online databases and the other gizmos in genealogy sites when we are researching online. These two examples though show us how technology is making the world smaller. I can't say that I have been online recently and not found an answer to a question I was wondering about. From information on Angel Island to the birth date of signer of the Declaration Charles Carroll, I have found the Internet to be my library, open twenty-four hours a day.

Yes, I like the Internet. I like being able to plug in a name to an index and find the census page for my ancestor. I like having an answer in a day. I also realize that the Internet is not the only research tool at my disposal. I truly believe in combining traditional research with the marvels of the technology.

Taking it Offline

I remember reading an article in Heritage Quest Magazine some time last year in which a man who found his ancestry in between flights at an airport. As I read it I thought, how sad. For me the search is half the fun. I love to analyze what I have found and think about where I need to go next. If it were all compiled and downloadable, I fear I would need a new hobby. This is not to say I don't appreciate a good compiled family history from time to time, but I do like to seek out the individuals as well.

I am disturbed by the trend, though, of GEDCOM data being downloaded from one database, added to the researcher's own data file and then uploaded again to share with others. The number of individuals being shared from one to the other is staggering. It is obvious that some researchers have no idea about the individuals or misinformation they're sending around the world with each new uploaded GEDCOM file.

Just last night I found about twelve entries for Charles Carroll of Carrollton in a GEDCOM database file only to discover that three of them were almost completely wrong. Charles and his wife were born in the mid 1700s, and yet the files in question had a child being born in 1812. The problem? Charles' wife died in 1782. In looking at the sources that were cited in one of these databases, I can't say that I was surprised to see that the sources were other people's family files. It appeared to me that the person who was now sharing this information had no idea where it came from or what they were sharing.

I do a lot of preliminary research online. I visit many different genealogy sites as I am compiling history, genealogy and miscellaneous facts to aid me in my research. The key here is that I am doing preliminary research. Once I have compiled my working facts, I then take it offline to repositories including courthouses, libraries and archives. I compare what I found online to the original records found in these valuable repositories. I try to back up every piece of information I have with an original record.

I have found time and time again that information I find online tells only half the story. Perhaps my offline research revealed more children than the computerized index of births showed. Perhaps I was unable to find the family in the census, but when working with the city directories, and the enumeration maps from the federal government was able to find the individual in the census. Who knows if he was simply overlooked during indexing or if his name was just completely misread. There are many reasons why a person who isn't found online can be found in the original record.

Where Are We Going?

My husband loves to predict that in a matter of years I will be doing all of my genealogical research online. At first I balked at such an idea. I don't think it will actually happen, but as long as the original records continue to be digitized and made available for me to look at then I don't think it would be such a horrible thing. I love visiting repositories, but if the records truly were all online what a wonderful time I could have each evening.

I do fear that genealogists who have been introduced to the hobby through the availability of information online are getting a misconception about the hobby. Too many throw up their hands when they cannot find their ancestor online and assume that there are no records. Perhaps in the far distant future this may be the case, but today all that means is that you must look to the more traditional records.

And, when will the computer start to think for me? Too often the reason we cannot find a person online is because of the variation in spelling of either the surname or given name. As an experienced genealogist, I know to look in indexes for more than one spelling. When might a computer begin to take this over for me? To a degree, sites that offer a soundex search are already doing this, but soundex is only as good as the spelling of the surname. There are some misspellings that would forever be ignored. Only as I compare the ages and the individuals in the household can I say, "Yes, I am sure this is the right family." I don't see computers being able to do that any time soon.

This doesn't mean, of course, that I won't embrace the next wave of technology that helps me do my genealogy. I love the chase. I read mysteries and the mystery of my family history is the biggest challenge of all. Despite advances in technology, it still needs my human intervention. The problem is that too few humans are actually intervening with some of the information available online. Too often the files are downloaded, added and reuploaded without anyone taking a look at them. This is not genealogy, this is just file moving.

In Conclusion

Technology is great. So often it helps to save us time. There are those instances, though, when I actually save time by using records the old fashioned way. Regardless of how many online avenues I use, I still temper them with traditional methods and turn to original records to verify what I have found online. I think I will always want to have access to original records because of the satisfaction from digging around in the records or walking through a cemetery.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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