Sunday, 9 August 2015

Internet Genealogy - is this progress?

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 38 years of seriously pursuing my ancestors. By the way I did start very young!
In the old days, finding our family was a much slower process and involved travelling to various record repositories. Those of us in England 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, online 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 Christians 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 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 in 2013, 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. When the big-name genealogical data providers make their periodic  ‘improvements’ these are frequently followed by an avalanche of complaints. Frequently, these changes appear to lack any single benefit for the serious researcher. The impression is that changes have been motivated by profit and carried out by those who have no idea what researchers require. 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.

Janet Few


  1. Nice post Janet, and a subject I feel strongly about too. There are some subtle taints of "genealogy" caused by the revolution of Internet-based genealogy.

  2. Having come to genealogy as at the age of 62, after parents/grandparents/aunts/uncles/cousins had mainly died - both parents having been babies of their families - I find this article not particularly relevant to myself. I had to use the internet since I retired on no pension (poverty makes one creative). I very quickly sopped as much education as I could from genealogists' blogs, podcasts, and webinars, began to build a careful tree with whatever I could find as relevant high quality sources, and mainly worked on the internet. I searched and found free sources of commercial databases, and/or saved my to-do list for their free days, and used the resources of the local family history libraries (LDS).
    I ignored the "one-tree" famiy trees until very recently - now I use them only in relation to my brick walls to try for one more clue of where to look, requesting sources, etc. Books, histories, printed censuses, etc. - there were and are many other sources other than internet-based that I could find. My local genealogy society was/is very helpful. I wrote to various clerks and archivists for particular documents, and saved my shekels to pay for them. I have several friends to talk with about genealogy. Lack of interaction? I don't feel any lack at all, with friends, cousins, and genealogy society in my life.
    As for complaining about a commercial company - having owned a business during the decade or so when I was married, I'm only too clear that a business is a business trying to make as much money as it can. Period. It's not a benelovent person. It is what it is. I can't be bothered getting fussed about a business not being as helpful as it could be (yes it could be improved, that's not the point). Yes there are errors - but that's exactly why one always looks for more than one rendering of any database.
    While I would love to travel to see originals, and would be thrilled to do so, the reality is it isn't going to happen. In the meantime, I'm carefully cultivating a niece and one of my daughters as future guardians of the genealogy research I've been able to do on our various lines. And I'm positive they'll be doing much of their research on the Internet... I'll try to help them see other sources as we go along in the learning process.
    Cheers from a computer-bound amateur genealogist.

    1. Celia, I'm pretty much on board with your perspective, but I had a couple of years of great research opportunities before I started on a path pretty much like yours. I'm pleased with that, because I came to appreciate the digging in the files part... and know that is still where much of the information is buried. I was able to travel one full summer to those repositories... but that was about all. The Internet has been great, but is not the only way. And, we won't find everything there.
      Great comment. Thanks for adding it to the discussion! ;-) P.S. Randy Seaver had a great blog post in response to Janet's post, today! ;-)

  3. Indexes are not records.
    I tell this to "researchers" young and old.

  4. Internet genealogy has been a positive for me. I started back in the 1970s and got as much information as I could from my family members but if I had to travel to find information, I wouldn't have nearly as much as I have found online, including some free documents from


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