Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Genealogy offline: A question of access, investment, and wayfinding

It comes to me very often that the problem of genealogy is that the instructions are all together too prescriptive. If this, do this. If that, do that. 

One of the most common tropes that I see in blogs is that "it's not all online", and then proceeds to talk about records that exist as if they are the same for everyone in every state and every country.

I think the biggest thing I learned in 2015 is that there really aren't standard records available everywhere for everyone from every time period. Sounds easy, right? I mean, NY is not the same as IL or MI. But I think genealogy can fool you into thinking this is the case, because so much of our training is about making lists. 

For example:
-Found an ancestor who lived 1800-1890.
1.got the US censuses for 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880.
2. then research helpers suggest finding state censuses for the 5 year marks in between (1855, 1865, etc.). 
3. then they suggest looking for newspaper articles to fill in
4. then they suggest looking for vital records to fill in
5. then they suggest looking for land records to fill in
6. then they suggest looking for military records to fill in.
7. then you get into the land of offline records: schools, letters, books, etc. 

The problem with this prescriptive approach is that with the online records available, people are facing an onslaught of information all at once, and get paralyzed at a certain level. Many people stop somewhere in between steps 1-4 and never hit steps 5-7. If they do hit steps 5-7, they get flustered when they can't find what the list says they should be able to find.

The problem with offline records (and even blended offline/online where the database index is online and you have to order for offline delivery) is three parts:
1. Access - generally you have to have access to a physical address to get access to a particular record, or to search when the particular search you started with doesn't work for one reason or another (spelling-ARGH!).
2. Investment - you're going to spend more per record search, consultant hire,or copy fees in terms of dollars. In terms of time, its going to take a lot longer to search offline that it is with a fully indexed record on FamilySearch or Ancestry.
3. Wayfinding - you have to be able to find your way to the proper archive. Sometimes this is easy, if they have a website with clearly listed records that you can plan to find. Other times it takes a series of phone calls, emails, and visits to come to find out if your record is actually at that location OR has been taken elsewhere OR destroyed OR you're in completely the wrong spot entirely. 

Wayfinding is often the hardest part of the problem, because sometimes even the archivists don't know about record availability for a certain time period. I was recently at the NY State Archive, and came back home and found out that what they had told me was false information. Or when I was in Watertown, NY, the local librarian/genealogist/history buff told me information didn't exist any more - which was only partially true, part had been filmed eons ago by the LDS-FamilySearch folks. It wasn't because they didn't like me or didn't want to help me, it was just that they were specialists in their particular part of the archive and not other parts or other archives.

Generally speaking though, you have to know where to go, what you can spend, and how you can get to offline records, and then expect that there is massive variation in what is available. One county might have every state census back to the first immigrants. The one next door might only have a few decades worth. Having the flexibility in-brain to say that this variation is okay and being able to move onto the next part of the search (or hopping off the search path entirely) is a valuable skill that is only honed through practiced off-line research, so its no wonder that people are scared and wondering why they can't find something that they saw online for somewhere else. 

We have to stop prescribing to every genealogy problem a list of steps. We need to encourage people to cast a net, catch all the fish, sort the little fish from the big fish, sort the types of fish, and then figure out which ones to bring home for dinner, and then figure out where to cast the net again, to borrow a metaphor. The net can go many places - offline, online, to a consultant, to a volunteer - but it doesn't need to go in a certain order or the same places every time in order to catch some fish for dinner. 
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