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.


  1. Very well said, Cousin April! It's so funny that you chose to write about this because I was actually pondering a lot of this last night. I was watching a tv show on archaelogy and it was making me want to work on my family tree - it was talking about history and answering questions about how people lived, and for me, that's a huge part of genealogy - as it should be for all people researching their families! When all I have is a name, a date, and even a place, that frustrates me - I want to know the "dash" - what did they do for a living? Did they live on a farm or in the city? Did their parents die when they were young? Why did they emigrate? Were they involved in their communities? What did other people think of them? Etc.

    I was also considering how technology has made genealogy so much easier and probably most importantly, opened it up to so many more people - but how genealogy, like archaeology, is still about the field work. You can find the census record on line, but you should still visit the neighborhood your great-grandparents lived in. You can find the death certificate online, but you should still visit the cemetery. You still need to see what's out there beyond the Internet.

    I was going to write a blog entry about this but you beat me to it - we are definitely related! :)

  2. Some of what and big companies like that are doing to genealogy is creating a mess; people copying over wrong information without researching anything. But I suspect genealogy has for some always been about just filling in the tree.

    The greatest thing that ancestry and DNA is doing for genealogy, in my opinion, is connecting cousins. They did that for us!

    I love you, Cousin Mary! And I'd love to read your post on the same topic. Please still write about it.