Reading other people’s material often inspires me. It doesn’t matter what the subject—if it includes a statement that sparks an idea, no matter how esoteric the topic, my mind is off, speeding from the nexus of author’s point and my discovery, to develop a new thought. That is my way of holding “conversations” with the authors I read.
This week, I’ve been reading a collection of articles edited by Kenneth Partridge, assembled under the 2010 title of Social Networking. I know: nothing to do with genealogy. It was the nexus of these thoughts and mine that provided the link to genealogy.
The article in Partridge’s collection that caught my attention was, “The Life and Death of Online Communities.” Of course, author Phoebe Connelly probably didn’t have genealogy forums in mind when she researched that article for The American Prospect. But the warning should be taken to heart in our online communities, also.
Beginning with a historical tour of the rise and fall of GeoCities (remember that?), Phoebe Connelly paints a picture of websites such as GeoCities and the more recent MySpace as “digital commons.” Yet those virtual gathering places, unlike their analog predecessors of centuries past, are not public places, per se, but digitally-crafted areas offered for community use via the auspices of corporations and other official entities. Connelly asks, “Given that we are stuck with much of our digital commons existing on corporate-controlled sites, what then happens when the corporation decides to close its doors?”
That is what got me remembering Bill Navey yesterday. From his prodigious output in family research, it seems Bill must have spent a major proportion of his later years pursuing his genealogical brick walls. He made it a point to share what he found, using the online resources of the time. His discoveries are salted away in member-contributor websites much like GeoCities. And with one flip of a switch, all that research—along with the multitude of other members’ sites—can vanish into the ether.
On a brighter note, at least in GeoCities’ case, there are teams working to archive the material from the now-defunct entity. While some might shrug off the closure of such digital catch-alls as no great loss, archivists working to preserve the site’s contents have come across “meticulously detailed outlines of Roma history,” for instance. Obviously, someone cared enough to post these materials online so others could see and use them.
Thinking about the demise of GeoCities—no matter how garish the contents may have seemed to you—puts one in mind of all the genealogical research that has been posted in many of these same free spaces. What is to become of all that research, now hosted by sure-bet entities from commercially-driven Genealogy.com to the benefactor of nonprofit Rootsweb, when the well runs dry for their operations? Who will preserve those records then?
The mantra of the computer age has always been to have a back-up. What happens when the entire computer world needs a backup? We’ve had illumination on parchment. We’ve had pen and paper. We’ve had printing presses. We’ve had magnetic tape. We’ve had CDs. Connect the dots: there will be new media in our future that will sweep out the old—and along with them, all the valuable knowledge that was carefully stored within.
As Connelly observed, “it’s a stark reminder that just because something is published on the Internet doesn’t mean it will last forever.”
Where will your genealogy records be, then?