The image to the left is by TimOve, used under Creative Commons License.
Pretty controversial and ambitious title, huh? We all know -- especially those of us raised in the digital age -- that the internet is the harbinger of global inter-connection and the golden age of information. You don't need to go to a library anymore; just Google it. Most of us are also familiar with the downsides of this hyper-connection and information overload, but we don't reflect on how it affects our genealogy.
Is the internet good for family history? Absolutely. There is a ton of potential beginning to be realized as the medium matures. But, on the flip side, e-vangelists say that every new wave of technology will cause radical paradigm shifts. This just aint so. This article will discuss common beliefs these e-vangelists hold, and give some ideas to get you thinking about how to truly improve the web.
The internet lets you learn about distant repositories, records, search indexes, etc.
Well of course it does. Assuming those records are digitized and indexed, the organizations have websites, and the contact info on them is up to date. Of course if the records are digitized and indexed, there will likely be a fee to access them. (How criminal, I know...In the age of BitTorrent, why can't I just swipe Ancestry's whole database? Information wants to be free!) And please don't get me started on the usability, privacy controls, or search algorithms that subscription and genealogy social-networking sites use. That's a rant for another time.
But plenty of repositories aren't really online. Sure they have a token website, but most don't even respond to their email. (They really don't. I've tried emailing more than one large repository, and it's painfully obvious they have no customer management system set up at all.) So really, most websites end up being a glorified white pages listing. This is still good and useful, but far from the informational utopia we are being told exists.
How You Can Help
- Find your local genealogy society or repository and offer to digitize records or create indexes.
- If your talents lie in CSS and web design, offer to create or restructure their website into something that does not cause viewers' eyes to bleed.
- Even just offering to man the email address and respond to or forward enquiries promptly can do a lot for an organization. (Make sure they advertise next to their email that all messages will be answered within X business days, so that people know you do actually check it!)
The internet lets you find cousins all over the world.
Oh, it absolutely does. Even if you are the type who sets aside the dubious connection most of these "cousins" have to you, you will find many distant relatives online. And many of them are among the nicest, most decent, honest people you will ever meet. But our shared blood doesn't mean we can throw away all our online privacy and protection knowledge -- in fact it's all the more reason to be wary, as con artists know the quickest way to get past your guard is to find (or fabricate) a similarity or connection to build rapport with you. I know we want to believe and often feel that we are building real relationships online, but we absolutely must keep regular internet safety rules in mind.
There will always be fraudsters, so be way. One of the most hair-raising moments of my genealogy adventures occurred when a lady gave me her portion of our family tree, complete with full names, birth dates and places of all the underage children in her branch. She did this knowing only my (self-disclosed) first and last name, e-mail address, and my assertion that we were descended from the same set of great-great grandparents. I did not specify how I descended, nor did I provide any of my database or information first. If I were these children's parents, I would be VERY upset.
How You Can Help
- Be wary about giving out your personal information online, as always.
- If you post your tree online or do database swaps, do up a separate, public version of your database that does not include people after the most-recent deceased generation. (I.e., my husband's father is still alive. My public database doesn't include any information on generations newer than my husband's great-grandfather.) You should leave this gap because although records pertaining to, say, my husband's grandfather, are restricted, he is still in public obituaries, other news stories, and websites. Those in turn give information about the living generation, which we want to protect as much as possible.
Family history blogs and websites let us connect with others researching our family.
They absolutely do...if anyone else is, in fact, researching the family and is also aware that they can use Google to find these sorts of sites, and if you further have a not terribly common surname. Now, assuming all those criteria are met and you do find the website of a fellow researcher, what are you likely to find? Something that's poorly designed, a bear to navigate, infrequently updated, unsourced, and badly written. Most family history websites just add to the digital flotsam that clogs up bandwidth.
How You Can Help
If you want to put up a website about your family history, here are some tips:
- Learn about web design and coding. Use a pleasant but contrasting colour scheme, avoid flash objects and moving graphics or sound, look for straightforward contact pages and navigation schemes, and avoid posting "walls of text" -- break it up with relevant photos and pictures where possible.
- Learn about search engine optimization. You want people to be able to find your site by typing in "[surname] genealogy". This means choosing your URLs, page titles, and headers accordingly.
- Browse the web for other family history pages and make notes on what you like and what you can't stand.
- Test your website on at least two or three (preferably more) differnet computers with different monitor sizes, resolutions, browsers, and operating systems to ensure your site displays properly, or at least readably, on all major configurations.
- Only upload your public database and ensure that you: a) are okay with it being duplicated around the web without your consent or any acknowledgment that you created it, and b) have sourced everything.
Any information I want, I can find with Google.
I wish. If you're looking for major records, you can probably find the repository via Google, although you still have to click through to the website to search their index. Anyone researching a specialized type of record, a more obscure ethnicity, a specific piece of local historical information, or more advanced genealogy techniques has dealt with this. You will try twenty different search terms and still get the same, irrelevant results. And we're already getting the skeezy kind of infomercial pitch pages for badly designed information products, too.
How You Can Help
If you have knowledge of a particular area or subject, give back to the community: write up a quick webpage or a blog post providing some helpful information:
- Even just a rough outline of how to proceed with the topic, or a list of good reference works and where you can get them (or their summaries, if the books are impossible to acquire) helps immensely.
- Think about the search terms people are likely to use when trying to find your information. Include these keywords in your page titles, headings, and text of the page so it is easy to find.
- Register your page for indexing and archiving at the following sites: Cyndi's List, Google, and The Internet Archive Wayback Machine.
The internet is here to stay. As the tech enthusiasts predict, it will change our lives in ways we can't yet imagine. I hope the above discussion has spurred you to think more critically about their claims, and what you can do to help improve the state of genealogy online. Please feel free to link to your projects in the comments below, or explore further pros and cons of online genealogy.
About the Author: Katrina McQuarrie is a Gen Y genealogist who believes in making family history more accessible to non-nerds and young people. She runs a genealogy blog of her own called Kick-Ass Genealogy.