Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Does genealogy have a future? Don't ask a journalist.

"The eternal search for our ancestors is reaching its end game," claims the two-year-old on-line magazine The Verge, which covers "the intersection of technology, science, art, and culture."

Senior features editor Laura June dropped in on RootsTech and concluded that, between on-line records and DNA advances, genealogy and genealogists can only go downhill from here. "In the next five to 10 years, it will become increasingly simple to find out who your ancestors were even several generations back, with relatively little effort . . . . It’s not hard to imagine a future where the mysteries most of us have in our ancestral past will simply no longer exist." Uh huh. And when I was a kid it wasn't hard to imagine a future when we would all have personal flying cars.

It's a good article in that it is well-written and long enough to convey multiple points of view. Unfortunately, its length was not put to that use. Instead, it confirmed the author's (and no doubt the magazine's) preconceived view. (Hat tip to Stephanie Hoover, who sparked an ongoing LinkedIn discussion on the subject in the group Genealogical and Historical Research, with the somewhat different headline "Another nail in the coffin of professional genealogists...:?")

June did not quote or mention any of the top genealogists now working -- people who might have challenged her assumption that everything executives say is gospel. She noticed that the Family History Library is built in the architectural fashion known as modernism, with straight lines and planes and glass and stone. She wants to think that genealogy is about to become equally shiny and clean and well-defined, no more dusty attics or dank basements or old paper that shatters when you touch it. I say, dream on.

The part of genealogy that is going away is the lookup. (The article makes some sense if you think lookups = genealogy.) I recently was hired to go to a remote county in Indiana where the property records had not been microfilmed. That's an anomaly and it will go away. I got my first glimpse of genealogy from my mom's first cousin back in the 1980s, who spent much time sending letters to relatives and typing her results on multiple carbon paper copies in typewriters. She did valuable work but at the end of the day it was a good-sized journal article, nothing more. That world is gone, and few of us miss it.

Genealogy is changing and will change a lot more, but will it become so easy to find any ancestor that genealogy will be as outdated and trivial as a printed table of logarithms? Not likely, for at least five reasons, none of which got any hearing in The Verge:

(1) Most records useful to genealogists are not microfilmed, not digitized, and not indexed. (More records are useful to genealogists than even we can imagine.)

(2) Even if everything were digitized tomorrow, genealogists still need to know how to find the relevant records. One genealogical fact Laura June didn't disclose: often key records in a proof do not name the person of interest.

(3) Much of the "information" Ancestry makes available is in the form of user-supplied family trees, which are notoriously unsourced and error-prone.

(4) Some of the "mysteries we all have in our past" can be solved by better search engines and DNA and shared documentation. But not all. The unchanged facts of genealogy are that records are scarce; they can be hard to understand; they contradict each other; and they confuse each other (common names). It takes first analyzing individual records and then correlating multiple conflicting records. If Laura June talked to anyone who knows this, such as the author of Mastering Genealogical Proof, she kept it out of the article.

(5) As for the fate of professional genealogy, the possibility of doing it yourself (DIY) in any field rarely translates into the universality of DIY. There are plenty of tools on sale to help anyone grow their own garden, or maintain a vast lawn, but last I checked plenty of professional gardeners were working.

None of the above is meant to disparage or minimize the enormous value that FamilySearch,, and other on-line repositories and search engines have brought to genealogy. (Just ask those of us who were around when they weren't!) It is meant to disparage and minimize popular articles that move straight from preconception to conclusion without finding more than one point of view.

Laura June, "Who am I? Data and DNA answer one of Life's Big Questions," The Verge, 7 May 2013 ( : accessed 10 June 2013).

Harold Henderson, "Does genealogy have a future? Don't ask a journalist," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 12 June 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.] 


Marian B. Wood said...

Well said. Thanks for making some very good points about the future of genealogy!

Randy said...

I wonder if the term error-prone shouldn't be changed to dead-wrong?

Unknown said...

There's another aspect of genealogy that the article skimmed by without touching on, and that's the story-telling that draws so many individuals into the search in the first place. It's far less interesting for my to know that my grandfather came from Michigan than it is to know that he studied in a one-room schoolhouse, where the teacher relied upon him to keep the woodstove supplied, disrupting his efforts to actually learn something.

Harold Henderson said...

Thanks, Pamela. That could have been a sixth point: Computers can't tell stories! And in order to know the context for the story, IMO you do have to go non-digital places and see non-digital things.

Sonja Hunter said...

I wonder if the author watched a couple of episodes of WDYTYA or absorbed one too many ads in which they say "all you have to do it look." They make it look easy to fill in a tree with names. As you and other commenters said, the story is the thing that keeps us digging for more.
She may also have drunk some of the Kool-Aid that makes people say silly things like "there's no future in science because we've discovered everything."

Greta Koehl said...

This isn't the first time I've seen evidence of the paper-thin depth of knowledge journalists often have of a particular subject area/profession. I have been reading articles for years that machine translation is going to replace human linguists, a misperception extends to artificial intelligence in general. Complex concepts confound people like this.

Melissa Barker said...

I fear that with articles like this and the concept "everything has been put on the internet" that amateur genealogist, family historians and other researchers will become "lazy" when it comes to their research methods and not use ALL the resources available to them. I am a professional genealogist and have transitioned to being my counties archivist. Our archives has many, many records that are not online, yet.

Harold Henderson said...

Thanks, Melissa. Long time no see! That is perhaps the most important point to emphasize, that such an article could actually lead someone into a brick wall!