Thursday, November 14, 2019

Genealogy and the Internet

"Which genealogy service is the best?"

Now there's a question you frequently see in online groups and forums. My answer is always the same: "whichever service provides the records and/or other tools you need." Costs and other practical issues factored in, it's really that simple. If genealogy done well is all about finding authoritative information, your access to that information is of paramount concern.

Enter the internet. In so many ways, this wonderful tool has made doing genealogy cheaper and easier for millions of people. I certainly don't know where I'd be without it. It gives me access to records at the click of a mouse that may otherwise have taken years and many dollars to obtain. There's no getting around it: the internet is an indispensable means for genealogical, indeed any academic, research these days.

But (and you knew there would be a "but"), this tool that has "set genealogy free" has also limited genealogy. The very bounty and accessibility made possible by the internet has numbed many of us to the necessity of looking beyond it. You see proof of this all the time in online work: even family trees that have good sources attached to them will often only have sources that can be found on the internet. It's as if these genealogists assume that their comfy computer chair and jammies are the extent of the required setting for research.

Let's be honest: if you're serious about doing genealogy well, you're going to have to face the necessity of visiting physical locations at some points. Many, many records are not on the internet. Some of them may not be on the internet for a long time, if they ever will be, despite even the colossal digitization efforts that are ongoing. I have found lots of vital certificates and other documents on and, to name just two services. Nonetheless, I have found a great deal more of these things at physical county clerk offices, archives, and libraries. Genealogy done well is not about where you think the records ought to be; it's about going to where the records are. Doing so will sometimes require travel.

Ultimately, you should embrace these realities. Why? Because the more skilled you become at research, the more you realize how special the places are that house your needed records. When you go, take a moment to appreciate the collections you visit, the treasures they hold, and the unique value of what you're looking at. Don't let your dependence upon the internet dull your appreciation for the written word and the hard copy. If you have time, look beyond what you initially went to these places to access. Walk through the collections you're allowed to see. What else is there that may be of use and interest? What could a visual sweep of the "stacks" reveal that is difficult to learn or appreciate simply by typing something into an online catalog search bar? Some of my best discoveries have entirely been cases of serendipity.

Finally, the repositories you visit will often be at or near places where your ancestors lived. Soak in the surroundings, and think about the fact that they were once your forebears' surroundings, too. Let the whole experience enrich your mind and imagination. There are things you can learn by "being there" that transcend what you gain merely by looking at images online. I count the days, weeks, and months between visits to such places. You should, too.