Is It Time to Let Go of the Internet in Genealogy?

I began exploring genealogy at the end of the B.I. era — Before Internet. I had a computer, but its horsepower was roughly equal to a pocket calculator. As for doing anything “online” — there were a handful of usegroups and CompuServe forums where genealogists would talk shop, but that was about it.

To do any major research, you had to either go somewhere like a library, archive, or courthouse. Or — brace yourself — write a letter. On paper. In an envelope. With a stamp.

Databases? We didn’t have no stinkin’ databases. If we wanted to search the census, we had to do it on microfilm, which we wound by hand…. both ways.

If you’ve been doing genealogy since B.I., you have a certain appreciation for how hard it used to be. We are truly amazed at how much is available right at our fingertips any time of day.

The Internet is everywhere and I carry it with me in my purse.

Kids and Genealogists Today

A few years ago, my daughter was fascinated — and confused — by an old rotary phone at her grandparents’ house. (“How do you punch in the phone number?”) Print encyclopedias are an alien concept to teenagers. (Don’t believe me? Watch them react to a set of the World Book Encyclopedia.) We can’t blame them for their reaction — they’ve never had to use a rotary phone or a set of encyclopedias.

It’s the same with genealogy. People who came into this pursuit after the advent of the Internet are accustomed to it. They’re used to being able to look up things in their bunny slippers at 3am. Having to use microfilm to look up the census? That is so 1990s. (Consider this for a moment: 1990 was 25 years ago.)

The Color TV

25 inch color television
Newark (Ohio) Advocate, 21 December 1973. Clipping available on

The first televisions were black and white. As technology changed and television could be broadcast in color (and TVs could display it), televisions started to be segmented between “TVs” and “color TVs.” Television shows would even announce at the beginning “Broadcast in color!”

As color TVs took over the market, they eventually just became “TVs.” There was no need to differentiate between color and black & white because they were all color. Ads today tout the quality of the color, the resolution, and the brightness of the color — but not the fact that it is color. It is assumed.

As for the TV shows, other than a vintage rerun, when was the last time you saw a show start with the announcement that it was being broadcast “in color”?

Genealogy “on the Internet”

Call me crazy, but I don’t think the Internet is a passing fad. Nor it is “cutting edge” technology. It isn’t even new.

So why are so many organizations — societies, libraries, archives — offering programs like “Genealogy on the Internet”? Considering the pervasiveness of the Internet and the length of time it’s been around, doesn’t that sound a bit dated? Doesn’t that sound a bit like the old TV shows being “in color”? (I’m having a hard time imagining “Up next: Game of Thrones — in color!!”)

A Change of Semantics

I could be wrong, but I feel fairly confident that when microfilm came into being, people didn’t say they were doing “microfilm genealogy.”

In today’s world where societies, libraries, and archives are trying to reach more people and get them in the door (physically or virtually), could using the title “How to Do Genealogy on the Internet” be off-putting to newer genealogists? Are they saying to themselves, “Duh. How else would you do genealogy?” Could it be better to instead use titles like “How to Do Genealogy”?

That doesn’t mean that we can’t have classes about the Internet and the great resources it offers. But why can’t we put the emphasis on what the person will discover, rather than the format?

For example, I have a presentation about researching Civil War ancestors. (Actually, I have a few.) I include websites and databases, but those aren’t segregated into “Now we’ll talk about the online sources.” The focus is on what they want to find and then highlighting the resource — online and/or offline — that will help them find it.

It also doesn’t mean that we can’t give Web-specific education. Every website has its ins-and-outs and its insider tricks. That education needs to be available. In those cases, it would be quite appropriate to title it along the lines of “Using <x>.com for your Genealogy” or “How to Search Better.”

It Isn’t All Online, But That’s Not the Point

I’ve spent a good part of my career working with various organizations and their online presence. In grad school, I concentrated on digital preservation and curation. I probably spend way too much time in front of a computer.

But for as much as I love the Internet and what it offers, I am the first to state that it isn’t all online.

However, that’s beside the point. Considering how much is online, how many people use the Internet, and how easy it is to access online data, why do we treat “online” genealogy as something different than just “genealogy”? We have to evaluate the source regardless of where we found it — online or offline.

Is It Time to Let Go of the Internet?

What I would like the community to consider is how we look to newcomers when we offer general “Genealogy on the Internet” classes or “Online Genealogy” tracks at our conferences. In an effort to look like we’re “with it” when it comes to technology, are we actually making ourselves look like a 1973 color tv? Can we just teach people about genealogy, regardless of where the resources reside?


Posted: August 7, 2015.

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  • Absolutely spot on! I so often hear our presenters and members talking about the net almost in ecstatic terms as if all one needs to do is….click. The mindset today is that Internet is the epicenter of life and seems to be consulted in all things.

    Having also come from winding microfilm days and digging in Court Houses and writing letters, I do use the net. But then the old ways, talkin and learning from librarians and archivists, self genealogical study, etc. gave me the knowledge of how to search, as well as where.

  • Excellent points! I am a part of a newly formed genealogy society, and I will be sure to bring this information to the table as we plan for 2016. Thank you for sharing!

  • I’m c & p’ing this from my reply on Facebook.

    I think because we are so deeply into genealogy we assume people are familiar with things we use. People have indeed heard of the internet but a lot of them just aren’t comfortable using it. When Borders installed the in store computer stations for customers to look up and order books I still had to either look things up or place orders for them because some people were just unable to figure them out. So Genealogy on the Internet would appeal to such people, and for those who want to see what it’s like before they start spending time and money on it.

    And I was the ebook reader salesperson. There were some people who had so much trouble grasping how to download ebooks I would need a few minutes in the back room to vent after dealing with them. I had one woman that would come in three times a week to have me download romance novels because she couldn’t do it herself.

    • That’s why I’m not saying that we should abandon Internet training or classes on how to use specific websites. What I’m talking about is the mindset that genealogy on the Internet is different that “normal” or “regular” (or even “real”) genealogy. It’s all genealogy. Sure, the Internet has its own set of challenges, but what resource doesn’t?

      I don’t think that specifically advertising something as “Genealogy on the Internet” is inherently appealing to people. In fact, I would counter that people who are not comfortable doing things online would be turned off by it, as they would presume that they would need to first have skills that they don’t have.

  • Maybe we should start conducting courses in “Genealogy NOT on the Internet”! 🙂

    That sort of title would at least provide a hint that there perhaps, maybe, just are resources available other than what is available on the web???

    I don’t know how strong the attendances would be though…. 🙁

  • I’m a newbie to genealogy at 57. I would love to know the in & out of old school genealogy. I’d love to visit courthouses, archives, etc but so intimidating & scary & i worked as a ref clerk at a public library 26 yrs! Only used microfilm once & found exactly what I needed, thank goodness because the info wasn’t online! My family line isn’t anywhere online unless I put it there so my ancestors are waiting for me to dig old school. Good article!

  • What I would like the community to consider is how we look to newcomers when we offer general “Genealogy on the Internet” classes or “Online Genealogy” tracks at our conferences.

    Very astute. It seems to me that anyone who has done any appreciable amount of genealogical research within the last…five(? Ten? Fifteen?) could not possibly be unaware of how increasingly indispensable the internet has become to the field—even if we’re only talking about the availability of digitized records online.

    That said, I actually take comfort in the knowledge that, as you say, “it isn’t all online.” If it actually were all online, that would mean that those records which I can’t find actually don’t exist. Either that, or I’m not the ninja-level googler I’ve claimed to be.

    • “If it actually were all online, that would mean that those records which I can’t find actually don’t exist.” Excellent point!

  • You’ve written about another topic that is spot on, Amy!
    It’s all genealogy, the only thing that changes is where to find the records you want and how to find them at/on that location.
    Thank you for a wonderful job!