Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Technology and the Future of Genealogy Research

Yesterday I listened to an interesting broadcast on Radio Boston; Boston's National Public Radio (NPR). There was a conversation between David Lambert, Chief Genealogist at the New England Historical Genealogy Society; Steve Brown, radio reporter and amateur genealogist; and the broadcast host, Meghna Chakrabarti.

You can listen to the broadcast at

The conversation focused on the impact technology has had on the field of genealogy. Like so many fields, including my own occupation as librarian, technology has changed the way people get things done. Technology has changed the way the general society thinks of about information, connection, research, and truth.

Online databases and DNA tests have really transformed the pastime of genealogy but will the need for paper records really disappear? Will the role of librarian ever die? 

The broadcast was born of a recent article in The Verge, an online technology, science and culture site. The author of the article "Who am I? Data and DNA Solve One of Life's Big Questions," Laura June claims that digitization and DNA is the "endgame" for genealogy. She puts forth that those innovations resolve the genealogical quest for who we are and where we come from; and that, in short, those human mysteries will be put to rest by the technology within our time.

I do not believe that these questions of identity and our ancestral past will ever disappear from our human nature. Technology has simply intervened in facilitating the search. A need for and understanding of quality research is still very much a concern. Don't you remember your grade school teachers telling you not to believe everything you read? Just because you can type your grandfather's name into a database and pull up a full family tree does not mean that information is correct. 

Additionally, just because you have downloaded every document you can find on your family does not mean you have preserved them for prosperity; data storage is unstable in comparison to paper that yes, can be destroyed as well but has existed for centuries. 

Lastly, as Chakrabarti so keenly points out in the broadcast, what about the dash? That thin line perched precariously between you ancestors date of birth and death; what do you know of that individual's life. Why exactly are you researching your genealogy? 

If you are anything like me, you're researching your family history to glean a sense of place in the world, to understand why your family is the way it is, and to gain a greater respect for the human struggle. Before I began my search into my heritage I truthfully felt very alone in the world and burdened by my gene-pool. I was plagued by pondering why I feel so fucked-up; did my parent's do this to me? Is it environment? Learned behavior? Genetics? How did I get like this? How did they get like that? Why am I physically/mentally/socially in the spot where I am?

I have yet to come across the database that can answer all that for me.