This article first appeared in the November/December 1998 issue of Heritage Quest Magazine
Predicting the future is easy. Take a look at the past and extrapolate it into the future with the comment "more of the same". I will be the first to admit that the reception on my crystal ball isn't any clearer than anyone else's. However, I am willing to take a risk at predicting what to expect from Internet genealogy over the next few years.
If I'm wrong, I'll be in good company. Jules Verne's recently rediscovered 1863 novel Paris in the Twentieth Century foresaw giant ledger books requiring clerks on ladders to record the large amount of business transactions generated in the 20th Century. Fortunately for we genealogists (who also need to record large amounts of information), that early master of speculative fiction was wrong about the giant ledger books - computers (and the Internet) came along instead. Here are my predictions of what I believe the future will hold for Internet genealogists. I only hope that my great grandchildren will find this article amusing in about 100 years time!
All Internet activities fall into one of these three categories. We publish our own family histories as web pages. We interact with fellow enthusiasts through mailing lists, newsgroups, and chat sessions. We transact business with suppliers of genealogical information, products, and services over the Internet. This article will use this three part definition of Internet activities to prognosticate the future of Internet genealogy.
It has never been easier to publish one's genealogical research on the Internet than it is today. Publishing is a one directional activity - we "push" out static information at web page visitors who read the provided information. Software tools for general web publishing abound and web publishing is being taught in classrooms around the world. Most major genealogy software programs will produce family history information in a pre-configured HTML format. Some genealogy software vendors will even host their users' web pages produced from their software. These developments lead to the my first and quite obvious prediction:
Putting your genealogy research results on the Internet will continue to become simpler and easier.
Software to generate web pages will become easier to use. From point-and-click simplicity to highly granular flexibility, web publishing tools will both simplify and become more versatile. This general development will spill over into the realm of genealogy web publishing as genealogy software vendors continue to tap into the demand for web publishing components in their softwares.
The increased ease of publishing genealogy information on the Internet leads to my next prediction.
The resulting formats of web publishing will continue to improve.
The recent past has been a period of experimentation with transforming GEDCOM files into HTML-formatted web pages. This experimentation has typically been dominated by the gifted hobbyist rather than by professional software developers. As major software vendors continue to compete for genealogy software market share, their staffs of professional programmers, information designers and graphic designers will take up the design problem of utilizing HTML to most effectively display genealogical information.
Rather than mimicking our existing formats for displaying our genealogy on paper, the capabilities of how the web can display information will be utilized to show the results of our research in the best possible way. Graphics, text, audio, and video will be combined to give the visitor to our web pages the most informative experience possible with the greatest ease of navigating to the information of interest to them.
While the ease of web publishing and the form of web publishing will improve in the future, these advances won't change the differential reliability of the information provided through web publishing.
The veracity of the information published on the Internet will continue to be variable but Internet genealogists will recognize and deal effectively with this variability.
Just like any other media, the genealogical information shared on the Internet will only be as good as the research which backs it up. In the future, we will continue to find published information which is based on hearsay and poor research methods entirely lacking in any source citations.
The relative newness of the Internet as an information medium has caused the question of the reliability of Internet-based genealogical information to be a common lament among pundits. As the Internet becomes more widely entrenched in our everyday lives, this issue will fade to the background and become a standard part of the careful genealogist's inherent skepticism regarding unsourced information. The reliability of the information presented on the Internet won't change, but Internet genealogists will approach using such information with the same source requirements which we now expect of printed or microformed materials. Just as today we laugh at the more improbable pedigrees found in Burke's Peerage, the genealogist of the future will know to accept unsourced pedigrees from the Internet with several grains of salt.
More genealogically relevant information will be published on the Internet by public institutions.
Libraries, archives, and other public institutions will increase the amount of genealogical useful information which they publish on the Internet. This will be a slow and fitful process stretching for a long time into the future. So don't expect the National Archives to digitize and make publicly available on the Internet all previous U.S. censuses any time soon. There will, however, be pockets of progress by different institutions which will result in a patchwork of records from various localities becoming available on the Internet in the future.
There are already some good examples of this trend. The University of South Florida at Tampa has placed online the Hillsboro County, Florida marriage records for the years 1878 to 1884. Not only is there a complete index for this period (http://www.lib.usf.edu/spccoll/guide/m/ml/guide.html), but images of the marriage certificates themselves are scanned and viewable on the Internet. Another great example is The Register of Wills and Clerk of the Orphans' Court for Berks County, Pennsylvania making available on the Internet extensive indexes of records held there. Estate Records, Birth, Marriage, and Death Indexes for various time periods are searchable (http://www.berksregofwills.com).
While not as full of eye-appeal as web publishing, the interactive tools which genealogists use are the real workhorses of Internet genealogy. Electronic mail, mailing lists, newsgroups, and chat rooms have created a remarkable online community of genealogy enthusiasts. We're increasingly learning from one another, searching for our cousins, and participating in collaborative efforts using the Internet's various two-way communications methods. In August of 1998, RootsWeb alone delivered over 103 MILLION pieces of e-mail in just one month. What other genealogical communications tool is measured in millions? Clearly, "more of the same" is in store for our future.
More of our cousins will get "wired" into the Internet.
This prediction is another easy one. Internet usage will continue to spread rapidly among the population of PC owners world-wide as Personal Computer operating systems strive to blur the line between where the PC ends and the Internet begins. Besides the standard connection from PC to Internet, more and cheaper non-PC Internet-access devices will also spread the reach of the Internet to more people around the globe. Perhaps it is too outrageous to suggest that the industry prediction that soon your toaster will have a TCP/IP stack in it (meaning it will be Internet-capable) may prove true. However, more individuals in the technology-advanced countries will use the Internet in the future.
What this means to Internet genealogists is that there will be many more of us on the Internet who have a "casual" interest in family history. Your cousin Elroy in Poughkepsie will find you and want to know about the family. Hopefully, Elroy will also have information to share with you. It also means that of the tens of thousands of those with a "casual" interest, there will be many who get hooked and take up the hobby with some seriousness. They'll join their local genealogical society and visit their local library or Family History Center to do research. Thus the numbers of us actively involved in genealogical research will also increase due to the stimulation of interest provided by the Internet.
Interacting with institutions will become easier and a more common part of Internet genealogy.
Demand for services usually drives the supply of services when it comes to public or quasi-public institutions such as libraries and archives - those sacred haunts of the genealogist. The supply catching up with demand usually occurs at near-glacial speed due to libraries, archives, etc. not being at the top of our governments' list of things to spend our public monies on. This being the case, institutions which hold information or services of value to genealogists will continue their slow march toward providing interactive services over the Internet.
Libraries & archives will come to recognize the Internet as a primary method of serving their traditional customers. Nearly every library and archive in the world today is connected to the Internet and have at least one e-mail address for contacting the institution. Many already have specific e-mail addresses for genealogy and local history sections of their institutions. There are already some good examples on the Internet of public repositories which have made two way communications between the institution and genealogists particularly easy:
Traditional genealogical societies will conduct more organized interaction on the Internet.
Most genealogical societies have already put up a web site about themselves to "publish" their existence and promote their benefits of membership. Some traditional societies have also begun to host their own genealogy mailing lists for interaction between their Internet-connected members and others interested in their particular area of research. Examples include:
Genealogy interest groups and associations focusing on the technology of computers or the Internet will decline in prevalence as computers and the Internet increasingly assume their role as standard tools of the genealogist.
As an outcome of more of us getting on the Internet, the use of computers and the Internet for genealogy will no longer seem odd, unusual, or mysterious. As computer literacy becomes a standard part of the next generation of genealogists' life-experiences, the need for Computer Interest Groups (CIGs) within genealogical societies, genealogical societies based exclusively on Internet participation, or associations interested in the use of technology in genealogical research will be regulated to the margins of the genealogical community. There will always be a place for the computer "nerd" among genealogists, but as the tools and the skills to use the tools proliferate, the concept CIGs for genealogy will seem as quaint in the future as the idea of "Microfilm Interest Groups" would seem to us today.
More collaborative efforts will emerge as a result of Internet-connected genealogists sharing their work towards common goals.
The co-ordinated efforts of genealogists on the Internet are still only in their infancy. Examples such as USGenWeb (http://www.usgenweb.org) and GENUKI (http://www.genuki.org.uk) show what is possible to accomplish with only loosely organized groups of like-minded enthusiasts. We can expect many more such collaborative efforts in the future - both from traditional genealogical societies and from informal networks of volunteers.
In addition to more collaborative efforts, the future will bring fewer "turf wars" between groups over who provides information on what locality or research interest. We will, as a community, come to realize that the Internet is a big place with plenty of room for anyone or any group who wishes to provision genealogical information. In our own research, we rarely settle for a single source or method when multiple ones are available to us. Likewise, more than one web site for genealogical information on a specific locality or ethnic groups will be seen as a blessing rather than a curse. The organizations who fight between themselves over the "right" to provision genealogical information will soon run out of energy for fighting (or their more pugnacious volunteers will get bored and leave) and will then get on with the business of genealogy.
Genealogical commerce is where the great boom of Internet genealogy will occur. As genealogists, we are all used to trading money for information or services by snail mail or in person. We do this whenever we order death records, commission a professional researcher, or even buy a genealogy book. This standard practice in how we conduct our researchers is already migrating onto the Internet. In the future, it will become a major factor in Internet genealogy.
Civil registration authorities, archives, and the major genealogy libraries will enter the Internet genealogy marketplace with pay-for-use services.
This area of pay-for-use services on the Internet is a natural extension for budget-strapped repositories looking for alternative sources of revenue. As the Internet is ideally suited for the delivery of information which the repositories have and which we genealogists want, it is only a matter of time before buying genealogical information from major repositories over the Internet becomes commonplace. Ordering birth certificates, accessing online indexes, commissioning lookups in non-Internet resources, and other services will all come to be a traditional part what genealogists buy over the Internet.
There is already an amazing glimpse of this future trend available on the Internet today. The General Register Office for Scotland has made available on the Internet the indexes to millions of individuals from parish records, civil registration, and censuses as a pay-for-use service at their Scots ORIGINS web site (http://www.origins.net). Armed only with a credit card, an Internet genealogist can search the indexes for records dating back to the 1500s and covering the entire country of Scotland. This early example of pay-for-use Internet services will not be lost on other repositories around the globe.
Traditional genealogy societies will increase the number of their goods and services available for purchase over the Internet.
Genealogy societies already sell things of great value to genealogy researchers. They are often the source of published works on area-specific records such as cemeteries, local censuses, and historic atlases. Sometimes societies also offer research services based on local records or genealogy classes on various topics to both members and non-members for a fee. Invariably, genealogy societies provide benefits to their dues-paying members which include a genealogy periodical. In the future, a greater number of traditional genealogy societies will take advantage of the Internet to accept payments for these and other services which they provide.
This movement will be a slow evolution over time, particularly as the public's comfort level with Internet payments increases. A few national societies are providing these services now. The Society of Genealogists (UK) provides an online bookstore (http://www.sog.org.uk/acatalog/welcome.html) for purchasing genealogy books on UK research. The National (USA) Genealogy Society not only provides an online bookstore (http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/bookstore/body_frame.html) but also provides a facility for paying for membership over the Internet (http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/member/body_frame.html). More local societies will follow suit in this trend in the future. For now, only a pioneering few local societies such as the Nottinghamshire (England) Family History Society (http://www.netcomuk.co.uk/~jeffop/index.html) provide book purchases and membership payments over the Internet. More societies will tap into the payment facilities of the Internet for book sales, membership fees, and other services as time progresses.
Major genealogy companies will continue to develop and sell Internet-provided products and services.
The companies which already sell their wares in the genealogy marketplace - the book publishers, software companies, and others - will increase their use of the Internet as a sales method and delivery service over time. There are already examples of this trend in subscription access services to various online databases and libraries. Genealogy companies will increasingly "bundle" Internet-based genealogical services together with the products that they sell to us. Buy genealogy software and get some hours of professional research services delivered over the Internet. Buy a magazine subscription and gain access to an online database available only to subscribers. Buy a genealogy book and become eligible to be a participant on the book's associated Internet mailing list. These Internet-based features will be seen as an additional way for the consumer to benefit from the product. Sold separately, they become an additional source of revenue for their providers.
Return to Genealogy & Technology Articles by Mark Howells
Return to Mark & Cyndi's Family Tree