Genealogical research has been and always will be limited by the content of the preserved historical records. Inexorably, as we move back into the past with our research, there are fewer records to find and utilize. But for the last two hundred years or so, the number and variety of records is enormous. Today, we live in a virtual avalanche of records. Any one living in a developed country today, can usually trace their ancestry back four to six generations. Of course, there are always exceptions, but they are exceptions.
The Information Revolution is defined as the proliferation of the availability of information and the accompanying changes in its storage and dissemination owing to the use of computers. The key here is the word "availability." This and the fragmentation of the records into various repositories are the two most serious limitations on genealogical research. The large online genealogical records database programs have barely dented the vast accumulation of records.
The barriers to genealogical research go by different names: copyright, privacy, legal restrictions and ownership, but they all have the same effect of limiting our ability to do research. The reason a particular record is not available for research is not as important as the inability to discover our ancestry. For example, during the past hundred years or so, access to records of adoption procedures in the United States have become more and more restricted. There are several social and cultural reasons for these restrictions, but the net effect is that doing genealogical research is made either impossible or much more difficult.
So why am I taking the position that genealogy and genealogists have not yet bought into the information revolution? The answer involves the issues I have already discussed, but also involves an overwhelmingly pervasive practice of compiling and maintaining separately compiled family files. What I have in my file on my computer and what you have in your file on your computer is no more available than if the information was still locked up in a repository on a paper record. Here are a few of the scenarios that are rampant in the genealogical community:
- I am not going to share my information with anyone until I am good and ready.
- It spent all my time and effort compiling this family's record and I want credit for what I have done.
- I'm not ready to put any of my work online, I am waiting until it is completely done.
- I don't know much or anything about computers and paper is good enough for me.
- I am afraid someone will steal my identity and so I can't let those records go online.
- Something may happen to my children or grandchildren if I put my genealogy on line.
- I am not going to put my book online until I recoup the publishing cost from sales.
As usual, the list could go on and on. So here we sit. We know there are uncounted billions of records out there but due to the fact that they are scattered all over the world and yet to be digitized or otherwise made available we cannot even know that they exist. In addition, we are restricted from accessing many current records even when they are digitized because of copyright, ownership claims or other restrictions. We realize that there are millions of people around the world looking for and accumulating the same information we are seeking, but we have no adequate way to identify those people and even if we did, many would refuse to cooperate or collaborate.
In order for genealogy to become part of the Information Revolution, we need to have a proliferation of the availability of the information. You might have the opinion that this is already happening and you would be right. There is certainly a lot more information available today than there ever has been previously. But so far this availability of information has not resulted in much of a change in the genealogical community. My list above illustrates part of the problem We are also severely limited by the computer programs that have been developed so far to record and share information. Each of the online record repositories is still locked into a unique format and moving information from one program to another is slow and difficult. In this way, we are still missing the dissemination part of the definition of the Information Revolution.
More to come.