Genealogy Research in the 21st Century Part I: Genealogy Research is Still Hard
Genealogists have seen amazing advances in technology over the last 40 years. These advances have made many genealogical records more accessible and increased the speed of communication. But how has it affected our research habits? Do we fall victim to the random search-and-click hunting encouraged by the slot-machine effect? What can we learn from the pre-1980 era of genealogy research? How has the addition of DNA as a genealogically relevant source affected our research?
Thomas W. Jones, PhD, CG®, CGL®, FASG, FUGA, FNGS addressed this in his lecture, “The Advance of Research Habits over Recent Decades—And the Downside” at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG) in January. The lecture was part of the “Meeting Standards with DNA – Research Strategies” course coordinated by Karen Stanbary.
I’m sharing some of Dr. Jones’ recommendations for overcoming the “downsides” and my thoughts about them in a four-part series:
Part 1: Genealogy Research is Still Hard
Part 3: Collaboration and Personal Communication
Part 4: Learning to Use DNA and Standards
Before 1980, Researchers Knew Genealogy Was Hard
Dr. Jones described what research was like for genealogists prior to 1980. They knew that genealogy research was hard. It required sending and receiving letters from county clerks and travelling to find needed records. Writing about family history on typewriters was a tedious process, often requiring white-out and re-typing. Finding a relative on a census meant scrolling through every microfilm image of a county’s federal census returns to get to the appropriate page.
Because of this, genealogists learned lessons that we may not learn today. Pre-1980s researchers spent more time with each record they found, pondering what it might mean and analyzing it. They looked at more original records because there weren’t many indexes. They saw their family’s census enumeration in the context of all the other households in the county. They noticed possible relatives who lived in the same county.
In contrast, some genealogists today think genealogy is easy. Some don’t click through from the census transcription to view the original image. They spend an hour attaching hints for a family and consider it done. If a complex question of identity arises, they find no place on the website to record the problem so they give up.
The very tools that family history websites have created to make things easier for genealogists can make genealogy research more difficult by excluding context and helpful methods.
Do Technology Designers Recognize the Complexity of Genealogy Research?
Product managers at the big family history websites have studied genealogists and worked to design features to assist them in their searches. Some product managers have ignored the recommendations of genealogists in order to simplify the user experience. For example, Dr. Jones was on an advisory committee for a website indexing death certificates. The genealogists on the committee recommended that the index include the informant. The product managers ignored this suggestion because they noticed that most informants’ surnames were different from the deceased and concluded they were not related.
One of the ironic downsides of advances in technology is that unknowing website designers, in the name of making things uncomplicated, have eliminated the methodology that actually makes genealogy research easier.  Because of this, many beginning genealogists think that “everything is online” or that the absence of vital records is brick wall.
How to Help New Genealogists Learn Good Research Habits
More people than ever are interested in genealogy. This is good! But it can also be a problem if those who call themselves genealogists aren’t willing to follow the guidelines and standards that have been set up over the years.
Jones quoted Elizabeth Shown Mills, who said, “If I called myself a golfer and I went out to the tenth hole and whacked away at pomegranates with a pogo stick, would others call me a golfer? No, they would call me a wacko. Even hobbies have rules.”  Hobbyist genealogists might learn methodology more quickly if the main family history websites included more tips in their email newsletters or in their tree-building workflows.
FamilySearch’s reason statement is a good way for new genealogists to see that changing information in the tree should have a reason or source behind it. WikiTree does not let you add a new person without a source. However, one of the biggest problems over the last few years, in my opinion, has been the repetitive copying from other users’ Ancestry trees without a specific citation to which tree it was copied from. The automatic source citation created by the website just says “Ancestry Member Trees.”
Jones gave several suggestions for how family history companies can help beginners learn sound genealogy methodology. Please consider sharing these ideas with the companies using their feedback forms:
– Teach new subscribers about five basic practices: keep track of sources, be concerned with accuracy, interact with other researchers, research and publish ethically (don’t re-publish others’ work as your own), seeking to understand each person in the tree is just as important as filling in dates/places
– Teach new subscribers that records may contain inaccurate information
– Include information about offline materials along with the online materials, including how to access related off-line materials and how these materials can aid one’s research.
– Instead of generating hints based on name similarities, prioritize record relatedness (i.e. if a census enumeration indicates land ownership, suggest land and record collections)
– Index the informants on death certificates and other individuals that don’t seem to be related. Adding these data points to search engines can help find elusive ancestors who created few records but may be mentioned on others’ records. This can lead genealogists to additional research about friends, associates, and neighbors of our ancestors and help build a case of indirect evidence.
———————- “Genealogist-ologist-ologist,” 27 October 2010, The Ancestry Insider (http://www.ancestryinsider.org/2010/10/genealogist-ologist-ologist.html : accessed 18 March 2020). Tom Jones mentioned this article in his lecture. It goes into more depth about the idea that product managers often try to simplify genealogy at the cost of years of collective learning about the best way to do it.  Elizabeth Shown Mills, “Genealogy in the “Information Age”: History’s New Frontier?” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 91 (December 2003): 260-277; image copy online, National Genealogical Society (https://www.ngsgenealogy.org/ngsq/ : accessed 18 March 2020).