A common theme across the many different genealogy mailing lists to which I subscribe is something along the lines of: “The [fill in record type] of [fill in county and state name] should be made available online.” Of course, it should also be fully indexed, cross-referenced, and oh yeah, free. It is this question (or statement) that caused me to ask myself how much of my own interest in genealogy is rooted in the process, and how much interest is in the actual results.
Say for example, a person was interested in learning about their family tree. They go to a website, type in a name, and *poof*, up comes a complete family tree all the way back until the paper trail ended. Obviously, to a certain extent, those sites already exist. Setting aside the questionable reliability of such sites, if that’s all there was to it, would people be interested? Let’s say (hypothetical warning) that with all the advances in indexing and image access – not only do you get a lengthy pedigree chart, but also the accompanying proof documents. Would you be interested then?
Count me out. I do happen to know that a couple of my lines appear in pedigree sites going back to 1200, or some such silly year. Other than clicking link after link to see how far back it actually went – beyond the county in Ohio they ended up, I have never once worked on that line in 10+ years of doing this. Fortunately, given my preference, most of my family tree has either not been researched at all or has been researched badly. In the aforementioned line, I’m pretty sure there is mistake in the mid-1800s. If the family tree is wrong in 1800′s Ohio, it doesn’t say much for my perception of its accuracy in 1200′s Europe. But for the sake of argument – even if it was dead accurate, I wouldn’t want it handed to me.
The next step in the progression would be this: what if you could go to a site or a search engine and type in a family name and get back a complete list of records with that particular name or variant. This is a COMPLETE list – not an Ancestry search, but say every available birth, death, marriage, probate, or land record? You can throw in military, naturalization, or another record if it changes the tipping point for you. At least in this scenario you would still need to do some research to differentiate between same-named people, father-son, etc. You would have to go to various sites, look up the records, evaluate them, and put them in order.
I’m still a “no.”
So where then do I draw the line as technology marches forward? It’s a hard question. I love digging through musty courthouse basements, lamenting the fact that the records aren’t stored properly. I love finding an index that references some book that no one knows which book it might be – and then finding that book.I love carefully turning the pages of an old church register – smelling the paper and admiring the penmanship (or cursing the penmanship, depending). Ya, I like scrolling through microfilm until my eyeballs are spinning at the same speed as the film carriage. I also like being able to do creative index searches on the web that would take forever to do in a 18×24 deed book. But those things are different in a very concrete way for me. Or perhaps the difference is that they are not concrete – rather they are almost purely an academic exercise.
The greatest thrill in my genealogical career thus far was after a long search, discovering the court case filed by 3rd great-grandmother in the illegitimate birth of my 2nd great grandfather. Reading the testimony from the dusty Common Pleas dockets, holding the actual copies of the doctor bills submitted in 1838…no way could any of that been duplicated on film or online. Looking at the papers and realizing that if not for a chance encounter one afternoon long ago, an amazing bit of history would never have happened – I would never have happened. Talk about being connected to the research! I could hear the exchanges between the parties, I could see the tension in the defense and the cool-headedness of the prosecution. I could sense the anger and the sadness in those books. It was a sensory experience the like of which can’t be duplicated by even the most advanced virtual technology.
Well, I suppose in my attempt to answer the question, I just created more questions. But isn’t that what genealogy is really about for most of us: the questions, not the answers?