The future of genealogy

3 February, 2012 at 5:32 pm 5 comments

There are many excited genealogists at present, partly because of the huge RootsTech conference currently running in Salt Lake City. I could not join the 3,000 people attending RootsTech live, but I can still benefit by downloading the syllabi (handouts from the talks) and also by joining the many thousands more, listening over the internet to some sessions being broadcast live.

However this set me thinking about the changes that have already happened in genealogy during my lifetime, and wondering what will happen in the future?

Marian Pierre-Louis wrote a great blog post entitled ‘Top 3 changes in genealogy‘. According to Marian, those ‘top 3 changes’ are:

  • Increased visibility, due to eg the increasing popularity of television shows like Who do you think you are? I would add to that – the online advertising of Ancestry.com tells people how easy it is to find your ancestors and that you don’t need to be an expert. (For my views on such advertising, see my earlier post ‘You only have to look‘.)
  • Education and outreach, including courses for amateurs and professionals, some face-to-face but many now available over the internet.
  • Technology – including blogging, social media like Facebook and the digitisation of records.

When I started my family history research, access to records meant either visiting libraries, archives and genealogy societies in person, or writing letters. It was the sort of ‘hobby’ mainly undertaken by retirees with time on their hands.

Now technology brings access to digitised records and indexes, but also to opportunities to learn from others, even experts in the fields – (almost) wherever in the world you and they might be. Only a few years ago I could not have sat at my desk here in Australia and listened to a lecture being delivered in Salt Lake City.

But the changes in technology bring dangers too:

  • Not everybody is able (or willing) to embrace technology, and that will leave behind some people, as more information becomes almost only available online.
  • Just as information is made readily available online, so errors are broadcast more widely too.
  • Many seem to expect to find all information easily available online, so traditional sources that require more time to explore are being ignored (or at least until they are digitised!)
  • Because some questions are answered easily and quickly, many no longer see the need for education and learning ‘how to do research’. So they don’t learn that the first apparently matching record found might not be the right answer. The preferred solution becomes ‘whatever is quickest and easiest’ – and that could well be adopting somebody else’s family tree – warts and all.

So back to my original question – what of the future? Can the number researching their family trees continue to grow at the current rate? Is there a limit?

The average age of genealogists seems to be getting younger and perhaps that is partly because of the attractions of technology and ‘saving time’. Can the current trends continue?

More than one website has attempted to ‘stitch together’ family trees, aiming at one world-wide family tree. Mostly that has been fraught with errors – there are too many coincidentally similar people’s names, dates and places. Considered weighing of evidence and acknowledging that some conclusions are at best unreliable is needed in our own trees, and so I wonder how could any computer program reliably make that decision for us? Apparently there is already one family tree for everyone in Iceland, could that eventually be true for the rest of us?

Is DNA the answer? Certainly DNA tests can already predict the probability that we share a common ancestor with someone, but cannot tell us precisely who that common ancestor must be. More traditional methods of genealogical research are needed in conjunction with the tools provided by DNA.

So – what of the future? Technology will continue to race ahead – that is probably the only thing that is certain. It will become easier, perhaps more fun, to find more records and publish our conclusions. Will those family trees  be any more accurate than now?

What do you think? Can you make any predictions for 20 years? 50 or 100?

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kerry Farmer  |  3 February, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    3,000 people attended RootsTech 2011. I’ve just read that on day 1 (today) 2012, that number has risen to more than 4,400!

    Reply
  • 3. Kylie  |  4 February, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    Hi Kerry
    Being in my early 40s do I fit into the younger bracket of genealogy researchers? I certainly get my share of funny looks when I go to my local genealogical society :-)

    I do have the advantage of loving technology but I also share that love by teaching others how to use it too. I use the Internet for research but I also visit libraries, societies, museums, towns where my ancestors lived etc and read, read, read!!!!

    “My ideal” for the future is that people would share more. Share their knowledge, finances, resources, and expertise so that fewer people are left behind.

    Kylie

    Reply
    • 4. Kerry Farmer  |  4 February, 2012 at 2:44 pm

      Hi Kylie,

      I do think in early 40s still counts as “younger bracket of genealogy researchers”, but I have found more people younger still at some of the talks I’ve given.

      As the age range of those researching grows, it should become easier for anyone to go to eg a genealogy society, hopefully without getting ‘funny looks’. The ongoing learning required (about the genealogy ‘facts’ but also the technology required to find those facts) means that there is something for all of us to learn. Hopefully the chance to use the latest technology will attract a younger audience too.

      I applaud your sharing by teaching technology – I’ve found genealogists usually extremely generous with sharing and helping others. After all most of us learnt by the generosity of others sharing with us.

      What do think will be possible for genealogists where you live, even 20 years from now? Will the smaller genealogy survive the shift to more records online? Any ideas about how (or whether) we’ll be searching for records say in 30 years?

      Kerry

      Reply
  • 5. rebelhand  |  7 February, 2012 at 9:21 am

    Thanks, Kerry, a very useful and thought-provoking overview. I share your concern about the quick and easy answer and the copy and paste approach to a family tree.

    Reply

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