Ask any veteran genealogist: in terms of broad access to historical resources, we live in a great time for genealogical research. Online databases like Family Search have rapidly expanded their efforts to digitize documents that for years have only been accessible (beyond their hard copies) on microfilm, and it seems a newer, more specialized database arrives each year, whether to do with military documents, emigration records, or even U. S. State archives. It’s as if we’re discovering our histories anew with each technological advancement. While nothing we’re discovering is properly “new” (little is in genealogy, when you think about it), the tools and interfaces we use to read and conduct our research are (if only partially). But how do we weather these changes, and what in our thinking and practices changes when to research means going to a digital archive first?
Cultural awareness of family history, I’d argue, has reached a new high recently: Ancestry.com runs ads on major television networks (as well as its own programs), and the genealogical DNA craze has extended so far it seems to pop up (at least for some of us) in casual conversation. There aren’t many archives in the world for which we have the same “brand-awareness.” Mention 23andme to an acquaintance, and there’s a good chance they have heard of it. But will they be familiar with their own local or county historical society? Resource offerings at the public library? Granted, a library and an archive are not the same thing, necessarily, even if they serve similar functions, but as libraries and archives both shift more of their materials online, we’re called on to think carefully about what else might be changing, and not simply in terms of pros or cons.
In the U. S., if there’s one thing we can count on, it’s that genealogical databases backed by or run as businesses will usually outpace local, state, and national organizations in their efforts to digitize and publish records. There are multiple reasons for this, most of them to do with that “other” resource that tends to affect genealogy research—money. State archives and record holdings, though containing the greatest wealth of resources for United States families, seldom have the funding or manpower to keep pace with corporate-backed projects, and they depend greatly on the efforts of volunteers, paid interns, and even associated bodies like state universities. Anytime one of these efforts gets shortchanged in the State Budget (think carefully, folks, about all the purposes of higher-education institutions), there will be a setback. An archive or library might have to downsize their holdings, cut staff (that other, other great resource!), or even alter what services they can provide to the public. Universities and archives, though they certainly have their own “economies,” aren’t businesses, and when we expect them to operate like one financially, they will usually red-line.
What this means for you is that even as digital powerhouses like Ancestry, Geneanet, and Family Search expand their offerings, the primary and secondary sources you need from state and private archives will likely keep lagging behind. Although there are certainly corporations in the genealogy world, the logic of that world isn’t shark-eat-shark, and no company will get so big that it becomes a one-stop shop or Amazon.com. Obtaining access rights to archival info isn’t a piece of cake, and many records are protected by law. Up until recently, if you wanted access to German Protestant church records, you would need to either a) contact the church parish itself, if it retained the records or b) contract or visit the state archive that oversaw that region for access. To this day, if you want city government records (like land/inheritance records), you have to go to the city archive, and few of them have digital resources, partly so that they can protect rights to the original hard copies.
The other issue that pops up as we shift more and more to the Internet is what in archival terms we would call “curating.” Who reads, edits, and transcribes the records on a website? Who determines their layout and presentation on the website itself? Who will make decisions regarding what to keep for the sake of space or management, and what other factors play into that process? In this regard, the curating of a physical archive and the curating of a digital one share a lot of the same issues. Digital space is not infinite (it costs money, energy, and materials), and it is most certainly not self-managing.
The answer to the management part of things as of late has been crowd-sourcing: setting up trees in the style of a Wiki, or a document that can be edited by any individual who joins a group. The latest Family Search family tree system is an example of a Wiki, and Ancestry’s “suggest an edit” system on transcribed documents is crowd-sourcing. As Wikipedia will show you, crowd-sourcing is a powerful asset. For decades, the LDS Church has relied on volunteers (arbitrators) to help transcribe documents for their database, and this enabled them to keep access to the information relatively free of charge. Having more “people on the job” doesn’t necessarily mean better curating, however: on Family Search, census records for Great Britain have been transcribed, but the images of originals not posted, and in the process of transcribing and indexing these entries, every individual was given its own entry divorced from the family group and page on which they were originally listed. This means that every single person in the census record has been cut off from the rest, and you have nothing else to go off of besides name, age, and residence to identify them. Good luck trying to match John Smith, Sr. to John Smith, Jr. in Glasgow!
Crowd-sourcing has some subtle advantages. Although the common complaint about FS’s new Family Tree is that folks feel their research has been edited or replaced by other folks, the truth is that this system draws people out of the woodwork and more or less forces them to join the scholarly conversation about their ancestors. Don’t think your ancestor John Smith’s date of birth should be changed from 1810 to 1811? Edit the tree, and publish your source: all cards on the table. The “Wiki” tree isn’t a replacement for the traditional, single-researcher/curator tree, but it has its advantages in the Digital Age because it’s easy to get hooked on “click-attachments” for your own tree, kind of like putting stickers on lunchbox when you’re kid. We get used to thinking it’s somehow all our property. With the single-author tree, other folks have less incentive to point out to you your mistakes or where alternate interpretations might be useful.
At the end of the day, what we’re after is a better sense of where our ancestors came from, which is to say, a better, more historically and culturally grounded story. We can’t get to that story on our own, and what’s the use in a story we can’t share? The age of the digital archive doesn’t mean the weight of thinking critically about our stories has been lifted: it means we as researchers have to become more persuasive and careful storytellers.