Tuesday, November 26, 2019

More Thoughts on Genealogy and the Internet

In the wake of my last post on this subject, I witnessed an interesting conversation on social media. One party was making the (proper) argument that physical archives and their workers are indispensable for serious genealogical research, and that not everything is available digitally. This party also (rightly) showed concern that contemporary genealogy too often amounts to looking at whichever digital images happen to be online.

The responses this party received were both telling and alarming. Somehow, their tried-and-true wisdom got cast as "elitism." How? It went something like this: you see, not everyone can make it to physical archives. Sometimes, digital images accessible at home on the internet may be all that is available to certain researchers, and to suggest that they're not doing enough is unfeeling and discriminatory.

While one should empathize with how some might find it difficult to access certain collections, there are nonetheless several options open to nearly everyone:
1. Contact the repository, explain your situation, and see what they can do to accommodate your needs.
2. With their help/awareness, enlist someone to access the needed records for you.
3. Perhaps the workers at this repository would be able/willing to digitize, email, or post online the desired items. I've routinely requested copies of records to be sent to me that are housed on the other side of the country from where I live. With some unfortunate exceptions that apply to everyone (and for which we now have the great group Reclaim the Records), local archivists and librarians are happy to help people use their resources. I cannot recall a time when this was not the case for me, either for my musicological or for my family history work. These folks are a researcher's best friends. 

Of course, what the second party was really arguing is that beginners shouldn't have to hear how they can improve as long as they're "having fun." After all, that "reasonably exhaustive search" stuff in the Genealogical Proof Standard is mainly for professionals, right?

Actually, it's for anyone who wants their research to be maximally useful to anybody else. This means understanding the limitations of our work and what needs to be done to make it stronger. Either one has traced and consulted the important sources for a particular project/question, or one has not. The more one has not, the more holes there are in the research. The more holes there are in the research, the less useful it will be to anyone else whose concern is finding trustworthy information. And I've got news for you: if all you do is consult online records, your work almost certainly has some massive holes.

No research is perfect. Lots of even good research usually has at least a few holes or avenues for further exploration. But we must always be honest about what we have, and what we don't have...about what we've seen, and about what we haven't seen...about what we've searched for, and what we haven't searched for. Until we're reasonably sure that we either have all available primary sources for our facts, or that primary sources have eluded due diligence and may no longer exist, our work will be incomplete. Facing up to these things is not snobbery, and it's not meant to put others down. It's merely a pre-requisite for quality work. If you're sour that someone is respectfully pointing out any of this, maybe "elitism" isn't really the problem here.


  1. Interesting post...as someone who lives a continent away from the majority of the records pertaining to my ancestors, I admit to relying on what has been digitized and made available online. That said, as a historian and librarian, I'm well aware that there are other ways to obtain records and have done as you suggest above and met with various degrees of success. In the end, I've learned that the worse than can happen when contacting those who likely hold records of interest is that they don't yet have the capability to duplicate them in any way. Or, as in the case of the marriage register for my 2nd great-grandparents, the minister said it would cost £30 + postage - which would be a lot of money in Canadian dollars. Understandable, given that it would all be on him to do the work. So, for now, I've put that record on the back burner (I have the civil certificate, so it's not absolutely necessary).

    OTOH, I've received many records/transcriptions going through e-mail or filling out forms online and receiving via snail mail.

    A lot of the problem lies in that people expect something for free, or, at least not, extra. They've paid for Ancestry and feel they should be able to get everything there. But that's not even remotely possible...But the tv commercials for Ancestry make it appear that you can find your family with just a few clicks. Very misleading. The reality is so different.

    I think some of the reaction comes from the tone in which the "do your research in person" is delivered. I too have had bad reactions to those kinds of posts - I can't just jump in my car and take a genealogy trip to obtain records. Sometimes the message isn't delivered in the most tactful way and it's easy to get defensive.

    1. I perhaps should have mentioned that my suggestions don't come with 100% success rates. But I intended them more for people who don't think to look anywhere else but online for what they need. I've been VERY fortunate to have eager county clerks and archivists who have pushed my research forward by miles. I guess what I'm really saying is that people really should try. Good research is about exhausting possibilities and documenting what's been done. Ancestry is wonderful, but one must really look beyond it and Findagrave and the usual popular refuges.

      I agree about tone. I hope I have been firm but decent here...at least that's what I was going for.

      Thanks for your comment!