Building a Genealogical House: The Internet and Genealogy

A hammer is one of mankind’s simplest tools. Anyone can use it. There’s not a lot of training necessary to pick it up and take a swing. What you can make with it is really amazing when you think about it. On the most basic level, all you need to frame your house is a hammer, some lumber, and a good supply of nails, right? If you take any one of those three things out of the equation, though, your house cannot be built.  Even if you just substitute cheaper materials – used lumber, poor grade or the wrong kind of nails – the stability of your house is in jeopardy.  And if you are careless with the use of your hammer, you are eventually going to have to pay someone to fix something you broke with an errant swing.

I often get accused of nay-saying “internet genealogy.”  Here’s my response: The internet is the hammer. It is a primarily a tool. The documents we collect and cite are the building material for our house, and the nails are the reasoning we use to tie all of our material together.  I will allow, that with the growing availability of record images available online, the internet is creating an overlap between tool and material.  Despite the increasing amount of material available online, I would assert that while you might be able to collect enough to build a room or two, you’re limited to a pretty small genealogical house if all the material you use comes exclusively from the internet.  Even worse, not all the material you collect from the internet is of high-quality – often it’s either used lumber (information from someone else’s family tree), or you end up framing your house out of that same press-board stuff your cheapo TV stand is made of (some third-generation transcription of an already-inaccurate county history).

All that said, the internet is a far more useful tool than a hammer. What hammer can tell you where to find the best building materials? The internet can do that. What hammer can provide a few pieces of actual high-quality lumber? The internet can do that. What hammer can handle the project management aspects of building your house? The internet can do that. If you’re not sure about how to join two things properly together – you guessed it, the internet can do that, too. Let me give you an example from a recent client project that illustrates how I feel the internet is best used in genealogy.

A client wanted to find a marriage and/or divorce record for a person she thought would have filed in Cuyahoga County. I got on the …yes, internet…and began my search in three online places: Historic Cuyahoga County Marriage License site, the Cuyahoga County Recorder’s site, and Ancestry.com.  No marriage license came up for any variation of the surname searched. The second search, the county recorder’s site, showed a deed listing them as husband and wife, so at least I knew they were married and were in Cleveland in the appropriate time period.

The third search on Ancestry came up with a burial of the spouse in a Jewish cemetery in Ontario.  Something in my brain clicked and I remembered that the Western Reserve Historical Society had indexed death and marriage notices appearing in several local Jewish newspapers. I plugged in the name, and BAM, I found an index listing for not only the subject’s first marriage, but also her second marriage.  At this point, I actually had to leave my computer chair. I headed out, looked up the articles on microfilm at the WRHS, and in fifteen minutes had learned that one of the weddings occurred in New York City, the other in Los Angeles.

Yes, the internet was a huge help – a wonderful tool. Without it, I don’t know that I would even have been able to determine where and when the subject was twice-married on opposite coasts and in unexpected places– much less would I have been able to do so in the span of two hours. In this case the internet was a really, really powerful tool, more like a Binford 5000 power nail gun than a hammer. But had I not bothered to get out and get a copy of the articles and check a few other sources not searchable by internet, I would have lacked the materials necessary to build a solid “house” for the client.

So please, please use the internet. But remember as you do that what you are using is first and foremost a tool, not an already assembled, prefab home. You still need some other stuff to build your house so that it will stand the test of time.  If you can’t get out to a particular facility, or don’t have time to travel there, you still need to contact them to get the good-quality material to build your house.  And be careful with those nails. No matter how many boards you’ve tried to put together, no matter how experienced a genealogical carpenter you might be — you never know when you are gonna get jabbed with one of those things.

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One Response to Building a Genealogical House: The Internet and Genealogy

  1. I love the analogy. The Internet is indeed a wonderful tool… increasingly more and more difficult to do anything without it! Especially genealogy/family history research.