Five dangers of only doing genealogy online

Danger One: Health. Too much time at the computer or on your tablet can lead to eye strain, back problems, loss of fitness. In the past, we would walk to the archive, physically go to the filing cabinet and get the film, wind it on, go back to the cabinet for the next film, now we risk RSI from typing and mouse clicking. I used to be so fit from standing up all day and physically lifting the books at The Family Record Centre, now I am not.

Danger Two: Record Context. We become divorced from the context of the record. We no longer feel and smell the paper or parchment, no unwrapping of ancient string tying bundles of documents together. No more dirt on the hands either, and it is better for the documents not to be handled, but all the romance is lost. Not only this, but even if you have the images online in front of you, you don’t always have the front and end pieces, or even all the page, or know what could have been written on the back. You have probably not looked at a catalogue, so don’t understand how the record fits in with other records in the same series or set either.

Danger Three: Speed. It all happens so fast, we tend not to make notes or record what we do. Click, click I am here, click, click now I am somewhere else. Where did I just see that result? Click, click, now I have lost where I was, and I am looking at something totally different.

Danger Four: Descriptions confusion. There needs to be a new language for describing results found online; some of the old definitions are creaking under the strain, what do we really mean by source or record in an online context? Some of the citation advice is overly complex and off-putting to many, but we need a common and standardised way of telling others or reminding ourselves where we found things that is not overly complicated, yet takes into account the shifting, changing nature of online resources. The big data websites do not help by using different language to describe the same source, or by not being accurate in their description of what it contains. If we don’t describe things accurately then confusion reigns.

Danger Five: Too many results. As data websites get bigger and bigger and include more and more record sets from around the world, it becomes increasing difficult to drill down to find what you need to search. Blanket searches across all data sets bring in far too many results, yet knowing what indexes are available on any website and how reliable they are is becoming more and more important. I used to know what people had searched if they told me they had looked at the IGI or searched on findmypast, now I do not have a clue. Family historians are not educating themselves as to what a website actually contains and it therefore makes it really difficult to explain which databases are more trustworthy than others, if indeed any of them are. I am no longer sure. Perhaps we are going to come full circle and start teaching people that they will have to look only at original records in an archive office if they are to be sure of their research, because only then will they know what they have looked at.  I used to be such a big advocate of online genealogy, but if it is starting to frustrate me, I don’t know what it must be doing to those who don’t have a sound background in the original records.  It could be putting them off completely.

What do you think?

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15 Responses to Five dangers of only doing genealogy online

  1. Gail Roger says:

    As a first-generation Canadian, archives in Canada have little relevance to my family research. (My parents came to Canada from Britain a year before my birth.) My dream is to someday have a lengthy stay in the UK, so I can hit the National Archives, the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales, other relevant record offices and archives in various counties…. I may need to stay a few years. Maybe I should start buying lottery tickets.

    Until then, I’m online, but I can suggest a couple of antidotes to the shortcomings you’ve mentioned.

    1) Anything that forces me to re-examine records: making my own family history maps using Google Maps; drawing up timelines (I have twenty-one covering branches of my family and that of my husbands, and add to them on a rotary basis); querying what I find on online trees. This last one is tricky, as no one, including myself, likes being corrected, but in making my case, I have to have another look at my documents, which means having to find them again (!) before re-reading them and re-interpreting them. I always find something that I hadn’t noticed before.

    2) Belonging to a family history society. This gets you away from the computer, and gives you face time with other researchers of varying levels of experience. From there, you attend lectures and conferences which, again, provide you with fresh perspectives.

    • helenosborn says:

      Thank you for the antidotes Gail. I appreciate that not everyone can visit an archive in person, but at least you do know what you are doing. 21 timelines sounds impressive!

  2. Helen,

    Everything you say is true, however, for most of us, ever seeing the original records or visiting a record office is a dream, especially when we live thousands of miles away from where our ancestors lived and died.

    The answer is not in ignoring online sources but embracing them in a way – and with some education and training such as that provided by Pharos – that we can address concerns about sources, accuracy and context. The web is here to stay. And people who are interested in finding out more about their families are going to be using it in hoards.

    Yes, remind them about the dangers of sitting too long in front of a monitor (go ahead and remind me about my arthritic joints every day, please) and pulling too much information down all at once (that you can never find again on your hard drive). Most importantly, remind them that one has to have a plan, keep notes and focus on simple objectives. Each time you sit down to search, it should be for a specific item or person. Yes we all get sidetracked – it’s the nature of the beast – but proper instructions and training may eventually get people to write down their objectives and plan how they will attain them.

    I know that in every Pharos course I have taken, your instructors have gone to great lengths to get students to think about what they want and how to go about finding it. Keep up that good work. The online data, especially if it is an image of the real record, is not a bad thing. And most online databases now have a quick summary of where the information came from to use as a citation. What is a bad thing is allowing yourself to get off topic and blanket search for all entries, just as you say.

    Reading of Genealogy, Essential Research Methods, by Helen Osborn, should be a required prerequisite for all genealogists. If only I had the time (sigh)!

    Thank you for all your help with all of the above.
    Yours truly,
    Wayne

    • helenosborn says:

      My comments are not really directed to people like you Wayne. Of course online genealogy is wonderful when you live far away from the source, (I do enough of it myself!). However, I am meeting more and more people (who have only ever used Ancestry or findmypast or other peoples online trees) and don’t seem to have the faintest clue that these are indexes to actual records and that those actual records exist in a world outside of the online database. They don’t read the information about records on these websites, and in fact it is becoming harder to find that information if you are not shown it. As a teacher I need to find suitable metaphors to explain things clearly, and I am struggling with that. What do we say to people who tell us they have been searching online for a year and have their ancestry back to the 1600s, and now they would like to be professional genealogists?

      • Gail Roger says:

        I have noticed a huge change over the past ten years, running into more and more people (some styling themselves as professional genealogists) who believe that building a family tree is simply a matter of clicking and saving. It’s easy to dismiss these people as clueless (not so easy if they’re people you actually know), but I appreciate that you can’t afford to do that, Helen. Your whole enterprise depends on bringing inexpert would-be family historians into the fold, and demonstrating that there is little point in having a family tree full of someone else’s relatives.

        I suppose, being a rank amateur, I can afford to alienate people (I can’t really – I need all the friends I can get), which is why I mentioned the technique (?) of challenging what I find in other trees. It’s not a way to become popular, but after years of vacillating, I have decided it’s worth it for the most selfish of reasons — it advances my own research because, in gathering my evidence for the argument, I go over records I haven’t re-visited in a while. I’ve accumulated some ground rules: 1) to wait three days (to cool down); 2) to write what I really want to say — and then re-write it so it isn’t out-and-out rude; 3) to limit myself to errors affecting my direct line; 4) to always give the other person an escape route to save face (i.e. “You are free to ignore my message”; “I could be wrong”; “Would you consider removing . . .?” etc.) 5) to never forget there is actually a flesh-and-blood human being behind the call-name.

        I have, of course, learned these rules by breaking every single one of them. Sometimes I get a gracious and thoughtful response. Sometimes I get flamed and blocked. Usually, I get no answer at all. People do not enjoy being corrected – me least of all! In every case though, I learn something new about that particular branch of the family.

  3. jaygen2014 says:

    I think there are things to be said for and against online genealogy – but for me (and many others), most of it has been positive.

    I agree that record context is important, as are accurate descriptions by websites. As I’ve mentioned on the forum, a so called marriage for two of my ancestors, turned out to be a record of marriage banns and the marriage didn’t actually take place at that particular church. Being able to view the original image solved the mystery for me…though one thing to bear in mind, the intended marriage was at a parish I would never have looked at had it not come up in a search.

    I couldn’t agree more that the speed of finding records, can easily make you lose your way (forgetting where you found things and missing more clues along the way), unless you’re very organised and self disciplined. I’ve always started with a narrow search and widened out – but I hate the new searches that just give too many results. You only have to look at reviews on Ancestry since they’ve changed their search to see that it certainly is a “turn off” for newbies “putting them off completely”. And yes, it’s sad that people are happy to have family trees full of ancestors that don’t actually belong to them. I’m not sure it’s getting any worse, I was encountering this problem ten years ago.

    On the other hand, I’ve actually paid a professional research agent to find two ancestors for me in the military records of TNA and sadly, she was unable to locate them. So, I had to pay another agent to find those same records, which she did. One ancestor was in the RHA which is notoriously difficult to follow – so the search isn’t complete. Add to that the fact that it takes some skill and experience to search those particular records (which most of us don’t have), as evidenced by the first professional who found nothing. However, if those records are ever put ‘online’ I’ll have a field day pinning down the actual movements of my ancestor who served during the Napoleonic Wars! I would be able to find and compare muster rolls for people of the same name. Being able to find people this way in such complex military records should surely make the task easier or at least more doable? Of course you’d have to take the trouble to understand the background of such records to benefit fully – but isn’t that true of all records?

    Also, It was due to parish registers being made available on Ancestry that I was able to locate the mother of one of my ancestors. Even though her name was badly mistranscribed I was able to ‘page through’ the register to find her. This ancestor was a member of the Strangeways family which takes me as far back as William the Conqueror through various pedigrees in county histories. While I try to make sure that these are referenced and backed up by actual documents – just how long would it take to locate and access all this ancient material? Would it even be possible to do so, especially as some documents are in private collections? Another problem – although I live in the UK and have used two local archives in my research, I’m afraid I just don’t have the time, resources or health to be able to travel to various repositories.

    I agree with Wayne, it’s important to embrace both online sources and training.

  4. John says:

    Helen, you don’t get to the future going backward. Did you try a genealogy week without online databases? Maybe then you could post on the dangers of not having online data.
    Just as most would agree the theatre is a richer experience than a film, and a live concert better than recorded music, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.
    And surely as a purveyor of online education you jest about danger 1. Did doing genealogy ever make a substantial contribution to fitness? And what about the back pain from physically lifting the books at The Family Record Centre? In fact the time you save not travelling to an archive or other repository could be dedicated to a more effective fitness regime, but I read only 5% of us actually follow a fitness program as recommended to health professionals. I’m with the majority.

    • helenosborn says:

      John
      I speak from a purely personal perspective here, and I do very well remember before anything at all was online, and even before Google, and I am prepared to have a genealogy week without being online quite happily. It would be a holiday! It would consist of looking at original documents in an archive, and browsing printed works in a library.

      My pre-internet life consisted of visiting the various record offices in London several times a week where I met other professionals and had a great deal of interaction with archives staff and lunch meetings with my friends. Walking around kept up the levels of fitness and lots of social interaction kept at bay the isolation of being at home in front of the screen. When I first started out professionally I visited the Family Records Centre 3 or 4 times a week and I noticeably lost weight. So, for me (and quite a lot of others who were regulars, not all of them professional) I would say that the GRO indexes definitely made a contribution to fitness!

  5. Helen, I definitely agree with number 2. It was always great to see people’s faces when you set down a gigantic volume in front of them, when they were expecting just a piece of paper with their ancestor’s name on it. Also when they got to see their ancestor’s actual signature on e.g. a title deed, knowing that their ancestor had touched it.

    I also agree with danger 5 (and danger 4). When I reviewed the main 3 websites FMP, Ancestry, The Genealogist https://everydayarchivistblog.wordpress.com/2015/03/16/family-history-websites-which-one/ in which I look at the main databases on each site. I referenced these where possible, but have to say it was quite difficult to find and in some cases I had to guess from context (I had no subscription so didn’t have access to records to check).

    Danger 1 – I have to disagree with slightly. I am pretty certain my eyesight has got worse from close palaeography work with documents. A zoom function online is so much easier to look at tiny handwriting then hovering over a document with a magnifying glass!

    • helenosborn says:

      I totally agree about zoom functions! Just the other day I was struggling with my eyesight and a long document at Kew which was not allowed to overhang the table and which I couldn’t clearly see the top of, even leaning over the table.

  6. Jackie says:

    As someone who began my family history the old fashioned way ie BC ( before computers) I’ve spent hours in archives, libraries and family history centres using microfilm, microfiche and original records, writing out everything by hand. I travelled thousands of miles visiting and photographing places where my ancestors lived and died. I’ve had the thrill of handling original documents that contain their handwriting. I know that my sources have all been checked and in some cases rechecked where my writing has been illegible while rushing to write things down before closing time!! I’ve written dozens of letters snail mail and waited weeks for replies. Now in the 21st century I’ve encountered most of the aforementioned dangers but having access to online genealogy sites has helped me to find many of the missing pieces of the family jigsaw, in places I would never have considered looking. I have avoided having a family tree on line because I have come across so much wrong information that people have copied and pasted from other people without so much as checking their sources. When asking them where they found the information – the reply is from the internet. I am happy to share my information and do reciprocal checking of records for people in other parts of the world. With a click of a mouse and by using email and social media I can get answers to my questions quickly. I greatly appreciate digitised records on line but some source citations are not always accurate. I’m afraid I don’t tend to trust transcriptions of documents on the main genealogy sites, preferring to see a digitised copy but they can at least guide you where to search. Having tried to index and decipher these myself I know the pitfalls. There is quite a lot of free information available on the internet that has been now been included on the pay to view websites, which I’m not too happy about. The Internet Archive is a great source of out of copyright material . There seems to be a race as to which site can provide the most records but too many results prove problematic and beginners are finding it too difficult to find the records they want. I believe the basics of tracing your family tree are just the same as they were before computers. Check your sources, be methodical and organised and fit it round an exercise plan!

  7. helenosborn says:

    Hello Jackie

    Thanks for your perspective. I too avoid putting my own trees online.

    There is no doubt that putting records & indexes online has been a wonderful boon to researchers, particularly those who are unable to travel to the original archive. Out of print books on Internet Archive are wonderful. However, it is not quite as good as examining the real thing. A wonderful substitute, but not the same as having those books in front of you.

    I agree about the race among websites as to which site can host the most records. To my mind this puts quantity over quality. The best data websites are those which concentrate on one specialised set of records – eg FreeBMD. or The Clergy Database, things like that. I am losing patience with findmypast and Ancestry to a certain extent. It is not the weight of information that matters, it is the structure and the meaning of that information.

  8. Jill Cooke says:

    PHAROS Blog Comment

    Thank you, Helen, for such a thoughtful article to start this discussion. I am going to take up Danger 1 – Health > Eyesight, rather than add to the specific comments made about research methods, online trees, visiting archives and so on.

    Computer use can put a strain on the eyes, particularly if – like me – you wear varifocal glasses. (A varifocal has a graduated lens: distance at the top, intermediate in the middle and reading in the lowest section.) I used to find myself leaning forward and then cocking my head slightly to get the focus just right; and that, of course, made my neck stiff, resulted in poor sitting posture, and aggravated a sometimes troublesome back.

    There was a simple answer to this problem: ‘computer’ glasses, which are glasses with an intermediate-only lens. The focus is, I believe, set at about 60cms, but you can discuss this with the dispensing optician. Wearing glasses with this intermediate-focus lens means that you have to keep your distance from the screen and sit upright; if you lean forward, you lose the clear focus – but, I assure you, you don’t do that more than once because you adapt quickly to being able to read the screen easily. So problems with a stiff neck and poor posture just disappear. (And, yes, I do use zoom functions too where necessary!)

    With the spread of computers into just about all areas of life and so many jobs, I feel that much more emphasis should be put on for appropriate eyeware. For a start, optometrists/opticians need to draw your attention to the matter when you have an eye test and employers should be aware of the potential problems with screen-use and know how it can be overcome.

    I have now been using intermediate-focus glasses with a laptop for several years. They really are good, I assure you. And where did I learn about ‘computer’ glasses? That’s right – online!

    • pharostutors says:

      Thanks for adding to the discussion Jill. Eyesight is precious and so are our backs! How the screen is set up can also be important, not only to seeing but also for comprehension when reading online.

  9. hjl says:

    I was interested in your comment “Blanket searches across all data sets bring in far too many results”. One frustration I experienced with findmypast is that when you put ‘India’ in as the location for searches, you also get every entry for ‘Indiana’ as well! Not even a space after it helps.

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