Quit Blaming Technology

A version of this article first appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of Ancestry Magazine

By Mark Howells

One of the refrains I hear sung with gusto at gatherings of genealogists goes something like this: Bad things are happening in genealogy today and the cause of those bad things is technology.

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.

Trouble with E-mail Messages

Our e-mail boxes overflow with messages about genealogy. A large percentage of these communications are poorly formed requests for research assistance. Some messages have the entire question in the subject line and no content in the body and are often automatically trashed.

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:

  • Take the time to explain to a sender why you can not understand their message: too long, too short, mis-spelled, unclear what they want you to do, etc.
  • Tell them that they have sent their message to the wrong person and suggest where they might turn next (if you can).
  • Explain that typing in all capital letters is considered rude.
  • Make it clear when their demands on your time are inappropriate.
  • Point them at websites which explain the appropriate use of e-mail. See Cyndi's List - Nettiquette at http://www.CyndisList.com/internet.htm#Netiquette for examples.

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.

Trouble with Mailing Lists

Some of us have been on the receiving end of electronic smear campaigns. Genealogy mailing lists can be used to viciously attack others. Small wonder that some of us get bitter about genealogy mailing lists. Even when subscribers are not behaving like unsupervised children in a playground, many genealogy mailing lists often lack any sort of decorum or direction. Many would say that the technology enabling mailing lists is the cause of this problem. But the printing press, the photocopier, and the postal service have all conspired to facilitate this sort of behavior long before the advent of the personal computer. Mailing lists and newsgroups simply make possible the same bad behavior at greater speeds and with lower entry costs.

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.

Proliferating Incorrect Information

One of the verses in the anti-technology song goes something like this: "Never before have we shared so much bad information so quickly." After this stanza, the problems of data accuracy, research reliability, and source citations on the Internet are usually summarized. This issue is a particular favorite among genealogists. They believe that with so many new, uneducated hobbyists sharing the results of their "research" on the Internet, a great deal of bad, unsourced, and inaccurate genealogical information is being passed around. The technology that enabled this sharing is incorrectly being blamed for this problem. It is true that bad genealogical information hosted on websites, shared via e-mail, or submitted to large databases is more visible these days. For the first time, these new technologies are allowing us to view the results our fellow genealogists' research techniques on a large scale. We don't seem to like what we see.

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:


The problems that technology makes more readily apparent in genealogy are not due to the hardware or software. The source of the problems is the meatware - we humans who misuse technology. Let's place the blame correctly and work to resolve the problems which are only highlighted by technology. We do this by educating researchers in the same timeless research methods we have always applied. Technology is not some untamed beast to be anthropomorphized into a "thing" with a mind of its own. Technology is a tool wielded by humans. How it is used is up to us humans. Keeping technology in the correct perspective will help us all harmonize on our genealogy song.

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Quit Blaming Technology
Created & maintained by Mark Howells.
For information about this article, please send email to markhow@oz.net
Updated October 9, 2002

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