A version of this article first appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of Ancestry Magazine
The tune goes on to enumerate the various negative impacts technology has on genealogy. It recounts issues such as poorly formed e-mail requests for research information, websites that don't work properly, genealogy mailing lists that talk about everything but genealogy, floods of inexperienced researchers on the Internet, etc. After hearing this song rendered several times with differing degrees of shrillness, it's clear to me that technology is not really responsible for these problems.
Genealogy has always been affected by technology. The printing press caused a nearly incomprehensible change from manuscript production of pedigrees to printed, standardized, and reproducible pedigrees. Alphabetical indexes made finding things in printed books simple. Libraries brought vast amounts of genealogical information together under one roof. The advent of photography and its spread into popular culture let people view pictures of their long-gone ancestors for the first time. The microform technology of the 1930s and the LDS Church's program of copying records provided access to copies of original records without the need to travel to the source. The photocopier made sharing printed research results simple. The personal computer, the Internet, and the other technology we use today are simply the current end of a long line of technical innovations that have impacted genealogy.
Technology is a tool; it is neutral. It is the uses to which technology is applied that might be viewed as good or bad. Human behavior directs technology. Some genealogy experts argue that technology is destroying genealogy. They see the flood of popularity brought by technology and conclude that technology is the problem. But they are confusing technology with how people use technology.
Perhaps a fellow researcher wants the complete history of the Smith family in Frostbite Falls, Minnesota. Unfortunately, our personal research, our expertise, and the holdings of the institutions we work for are focused on Maxfield Parish in Louisiana. In this instance, the researcher simply asked the wrong person for assistance. Other times, a researcher does not include enough information to allow us to help them. Maybe the researcher has an unreasonable expectation as to how soon he or she will receive a response or the researcher wants professional help at no charge. Perhaps they did not include the magic words of "please" and "thank you".
The way to solve this problem is not to wail that e-mail is a bad thing. The solution is to educate the humans at the other end of such correspondence. As experienced genealogists, we should:
I use various pre-written replies that I can send out in a few seconds to generically assist the confused and lost people who write to me about genealogy. These form letters aren't perfect for every situation, but they are certainly better than nothing.
There is something we can do about this problem. If you are on a genealogy mailing list that talks about everything but the topic it was formed to discuss, get the list owner to instill some discipline in the discussion. Mailing lists don't have to be free-for-alls. As a subscriber, you help set the tone of the mailing list by keeping your posts on topic and objecting to off-topic messages and unseemly behavior. If you can't get the mailing list owner to enforce some rules, the best solution is to start another genealogy mailing list on the same topic. Then you can enforce appropriate behavior.
But sloppy research practices, unsourced information, and bogus pedigrees have been with us for a far longer time than the PC and the Internet. From the medieval monks who "improved" royal pedigrees to Sir Bernard Burke and Gustave Anjou, there have always been "errors" in genealogy and those willing to perpetuate those errors. Technology lets us see this problem on a daily basis now. Before the Internet and e-mail, we had to wait until it was in print, or until it arrived snail mail letter, or until we met with fellow researchers to discuss it. I would change the above verse to: "Never before have we seen so much bad information shared so quickly."
What do we do about it? The same thing we have always done - educate. It is our collective responsibility to teach researchers the correct methods of research, the correct forms of source citation, and the ethics of publishing family information. Experienced genealogists should:
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