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Jan 21, 2022

What I See in My Crystal Ball: The Future of Genealogy Research

As we look back at 2021 and also look forward to 2022 and beyond, I see many changes for genealogists. The most obvious changes are caused by technology. Specifically, the World Wide Web is allowing all of us to access records that previously were difficult or expensive to find. Many of us balk at the expenses of traveling to libraries and archives. A single trip to a library only a few miles away may require significant payments for gas, tolls, parking fees, and more. A trip to a library further away, such as in Salt Lake City, is out of reach for many genealogists even if they have the time available.

For many people, time is the biggest obstacle of all. For people who are raising children and are employed full-time, finding enough hours to visit a genealogy library or archive during normal business hours is impossible. Luckily, the World Wide Web is coming to the rescue.

Thanks to FamilySearch, MyHeritage, FindMyPast, Scotland’s People, Ancestry.com, Archive.org, and many other web sites, we all can now sit at home and view images of ORIGINAL RECORDS that are of interest to genealogists.

Genealogists have always been plagued by bogus claims of ancestry. Originally, these claims were published in books. As technology has improved and speeds have increased, the unproven claims moved to the Internet. A search on most any online genealogy database built by submissions of the site’s users can produce laughable results. I have seen claims of white children born in Vermont in the 1500s and of marriages in Montana in the 1600s. History disagrees emphatically!

For years, all the genealogy information available online consisted of “genealogy claims” that varied widely in accuracy. However, in the past few years, images and transcriptions of ORIGINAL RECORDS have been added. Now, instead of reading someone’s claim of a relationship, we can view images of original census records, wills, pension files, and much more. The amount of material that has been digitized and placed online is still a fraction of all the paper documents in existence, but the percentage continues to grow every year. Based on what I see in the industry, I believe that the number of images of original documents will continue to increase for many more years.

A second change presently underway concerns the personal record keeping and analysis of information performed by individual genealogists. Not too many years ago we all used paper, much of it stuffed into filing cabinets or 3-ring binders or perhaps simply placed in various piles scattered around the desk and bookshelves.

We have come a long way since those days! Most genealogists today use specialized genealogy software installed on personal computers to keep track of ancestors and extended family members. Such record-keeping is easier and faster than ever before, allowing us to spend fewer hours organizing our records and more hours researching. Indeed, many of today’s Windows, Macintosh, Android, iOS, and Linux genealogy programs are very sophisticated and are also easy to use. However, I see these programs as aging and increasingly are becoming outdated.

The move to mobile devices, such as tablet computers and even “smart” cell phones is simply a matter of convenience, not a change in methodologies. To be sure, carrying all your genealogy data in a shirt pocket is much more convenient than keeping the data locked up inside a 25-pound computer on your desk; but the typical genealogist often still enters the information manually, uses the computer to sort and filter the information as needed, and then displays the result on the screen or on paper, as desired.

Manual input and manual output is typical of 1980s computing! However, the world is changing around us.

Today’s online images of original source records and even the sometimes inaccurate online claims of relationships certainly are more convenient than anything available in the past. but still require manual searches and manual analysis followed by storage and future retrieval of the information. I hope the manual analysis part exists forever; I don’t expect any computer program to ever decide which people are my ancestors! I want to make that analysis myself. Perhaps that will change someday when artificial intelligence improves greatly, but I do not see that happening during my lifetime.

The big changes we will see in 2022 and beyond involve advances in searching for records. Whether looking through books, hundreds of reels of microfilm, or thousands of web sites, manually searching through millions of records for possible ancestral “candidates” is still an inefficient method. We have computers that should be able to reduce the drudgery involved!

Here is a question for all genealogists: Do you want to spend most of your time LOOKING for ancestors or most of your time LEARNING ABOUT your ancestors?

In an ideal world, new genealogists should be able to use a computer or a bank of powerful computers in the cloud to find all their ancestors who left records behind. The genealogist then would have time available to study the lives of these people, to learn about their hardships, their successes, their failures, and perhaps their medical problems. The future genealogist could then learn what he or she inherited from those ancestors, ranging from medical issues to political beliefs, religious beliefs, and much more. I believe that all of us are the products of stories and morals that were passed from generation to generation over kitchen tables and in front of fireplaces over the past few centuries. In addition, all of us have inherited medical tendencies, including both good and bad conditions.

Yes, in an ideal world the “grunt work” of identifying ancestors will be done for us by computers. We are rapidly moving to being able to to push a button and see a filled-in pedigree chart within seconds. That is becoming more and more common but sill does not exist for all ancestors. “Push button genealogy” has already appeared. Today we already have automated processes that will search records, using information we provide, to identify records of possible interest. That technology is only going to improve as the years roll by.

Early efforts at automated matching of records were primitive, often laughable. Any genealogist who has been using online services for a few years probably has had an experience or two of searching for an ancestor born in Virginia in the 1840s, only to receive as a result information about a person who died in Colorado in the 1970s! Many genealogists, including myself, soon learned to dismiss such fairy tales. However, the programmers did not give up. They continued to work and to fine-tune the algorithms until the search results have now become much more accurate.

Probably the leader in today’s automated genealogy record search technology is MyHeritage with the company’s “SuperSearch,” “Record Detective™”, and “Instant Discoveries™” technologies. MyHeritage customers can let these software tools research their family trees automatically and notify them whenever records relevant to their family are found. The process works even if the customers’ computers are turned off at the time; as all searching is performed by banks of powerful computers installed in data centers “in the cloud.” The searches also work in multiple languages.

Indeed, this is a good use of computers! Searching for and analyzing records is an ideal task for computers, freeing the humans from the drudgery and allowing more time for analysis and for adding personality to your family’s past.

Disclaimer: I will point out that MyHeritage is the sponsor of this newsletter. I am sure that some people will think I am biased as a result. Indeed, that may be true. However, I honestly believe I would write the same or similar words about SuperSearch, Record Detective™ and Instant Discoveries™ even if MyHeritage was not involved with this newsletter.

In addition, no one company will lead this technology forever. You can rest assured that programmers at other companies are working hard to match and to improve upon the technologies that are already available today. Just because one company is a leader at a technology today does not mean that it will be the leader forever. Just ask Sperry Univac or Honeywell or Burroughs or RCA or even Compaq. All of them were leaders in the computer field at one time but have since disappeared from the computer business. (Some do remain as viable companies in other lines of business, however.) While still in the computer business, neither IBM nor Microsoft dominate their markets in the manner they once did.

Early computerized “name matching” services would try to find records with names that matched your ancestors and, in most cases, records from locations near your ancestors and roughly within the years of your ancestors’ lives. While this was a good start that sometimes produced a mix of good and ludicrous results, today’s advancements search for much more before declaring any single record as a “match.” Today’s technology not only looks for matching names, dates, and locations, but also searches for matches (when available) in the names, dates, and locations of parents, spouses, siblings, and children.

For instance, a search for “John Williams in Kentucky in 1840” on an early name matching service would return a long list of men of the same name who are (hopefully) all from Kentucky or nearby states and also (hopefully) of records produced within the years of John Williams’ probable lifetime. The newer SmartMatching and Record Detective services do all that, plus they also look for relationships. If you specify a search for “John Williams in Kentucky in 1840” and also specify he had a wife named Mary and parents named Ezekiel and Charity and a brother named Jeremiah and a sister named Lucy and children named John, Jacob, Jennifer, Judith, and Jeremiah, the new searches will look for matches for as many of those names as possible. Not all searches will find matches for all that information, but many times two, three, or four of the names will appear in a single record. Census records would be a prime example, typically showing parents and siblings or, in the case of older individuals, names of a spouse and children in the same household. Wills almost always mention other family members, as do pension applications.

With this technology no human has to initiate a manual search. Instead, the genealogist’s entire database is analyzed, one person at a time, and automatic searches are created, looking for matches for each person in that database. Computers can sift through millions of records looking for these sophisticated matches faster and much more easily than a human can. Best of all, today’s banks of high-powered computers can perform these searches and send notices of the findings while the genealogist is sleeping or otherwise is off-line.

Looking to the future, I suspect that all of MyHeritage’s competitors will release competitive services soon. MyHeritage probably will not be resting on its programmers’ laurels, either. In addition, new companies may spring up that provide quantum leap advancements over what is available today. That’s just part of the fun of watching the use of technology within genealogy!

Changes in Software

Record keeping has always been important to genealogists and probably will remain so forever. However, the manner in which those records are identified and saved has already changed dramatically and undoubtedly will change even more. The piles of paper, the filing cabinets, and the 3-ring binders have already been replaced by computers. However, until recently, each computer was an “island” unto itself. Each computer stored only the information that one person put into it, and typically that person was the only one who could retrieved the information.

Today’s “always on” and “always connected” technologies allow for much more collaboration than ever before. Two, three, or even hundreds of genealogists researching a single family can easily compare notes, share records, share pictures, and even discuss the accuracy of different records. In some cases, today’s descendants can “work together” on family trees without even knowing the names or locations of others working on the same family trees.

The people working together on these collaborative efforts may be located in different states or on different continents. The results of this collaborative effort may not be perfect, but they are usually much more accurate than the same genealogists working in isolation only a few years ago. “Collaboration” seems to be the genealogy buzzword of the next decade.

By working together, we can all improve the results obtained by each of us individually. To quote Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Applying this quote to today’s – and tomorrow’s – genealogy, working together will yield many more valid, fruitful ancestral limbs than any one of us could hope to achieve in a single lifetime.

The cloud has expanded in capabilities. Genealogy software of today is moving to the cloud where the information and results of multiple people working together can be made available to many more people. In some cases, a genealogist may simply open a web browser and navigate to an online genealogy service. In other cases, the genealogist may use a program (or “app”) installed in his or her own computer or tablet or cell phone that stores data locally but also communicates as needed with large, collaborative online databases. There are differences in the software, but the results are the same: working together with other genealogists who share the same interests that you have.

The important thing is that, in either case, the user can access images of historical records, learn of the thought processes of others who have already seen those records, and contribute his or her own opinions as to the meaning and accuracy of all such records. Even better, all of this can be done at low costs without leaving home. It can even be done in one’s spare time when in a hotel room or riding an airplane or at any other convenient time or location.

Family Historians and Name Collectors in the Future

The word “genealogy” is an umbrella term that covers several different interests. For the moment, I will subdivide the meanings and focus on just two of the distinct sub-interests: name collectors and family historians.

In my definition, a name collector is someone who does enough genealogy research to find the names of his or her ancestors, along with dates and places of birth, marriage, and death. Name collectors usually gather very little additional information. While these name collectors may be happy with the results they obtain, I feel they miss out on most of “the good stuff.”

In contrast, a family historian is a person who collects the names, dates, and locations in the same manner as a name collector and then goes on to collect as much additional information about each individual as possible. A family historian looks for life stories, difficulties surmounted, wartime experiences, the growth or reduction in each family’s financial picture, the years of good crops and bad crops, the medical problems, the historical events that shaped the life of each ancestor, and much, much more. Simply put, the family historian is the one who studies and begins to understand the lives of his or her ancestors.

In the past, the study of genealogy has focused on the act of finding records. While important, I would suggest that this is of secondary importance to the family historian. The prime importance is studying those records and anything else that can be found to better UNDERSTAND the lives of the ancestors.

With today’s technology, genealogy is slowly moving away from simply finding records to focusing on the lives of one’s ancestors. Today, more and more records are available online where they can easily be found and analyzed by other computers. The technology is still in its infancy, but today’s cloud-based computer services are becoming better and better at finding records of potential interest and weeding out the irrelevant records. In short, computers are becoming better at finding records through software matching, leaving individual family historians more time to learn about the lives of their ancestors.

The changes will benefit the name collectors as they can find more with less effort. However, the primary beneficiaries will be the family historians.

We are now entering an era where we can focus on the lives of our ancestors and also can learn what our ancestors passed on to us: family morals, appreciation for many things in life, and also inherited medical conditions that they gave us.

I will suggest this is true family history.