Tuesday, April 26, 2016
The Way Things Were
"Long, long ago and in a really distant galaxy..."
So began Dr. Brian Leverich's abbreviated history of how Rootsweb came to be—that 1998 explanation of the pioneering genealogy website that evolved from a world of listservs and file archives and antiquated protocols. If you have never read this significant snapshot of online genealogy's history, get yourself informed. It's well worth the brief moment's read.
I don't know what the connectivity quotient was for the genealogy community, pre-dawn of the computer age. I suppose it is possible that, whilst crawling around on library floors in vain attempts to read illegible call numbers on inconveniently-placed genealogical reference books, there might have been some camaraderie between researchers, but in the age of shushing librarians, I doubt it. It was only after people realized that the utility of computers reached so far beyond the vision of the computer geeks of that decade that the common, everyday genealogy aficionado jumped on board to expand research horizons.
But we did so much more than that, in that pioneering decade in genealogy: we discovered we could talk with each other about our current research projects. We could share our findings. We could haggle with conviction over enigmatic records—or commiserate over the outright missing ones!—with people whom we had never met, face to face.
We had a community—a virtual community—that sprang up around our ability to access each other online. Granted, it was clunky, inelegant and sometimes cumbersome to manipulate, but we found ways to discover, meet and talk with fellow researchers seeking our very own family lines, or checking out the context of local history of the places where our forebears once lived.
The conversations that took place in these email havens, lists and, later, online forums, stretched far beyond the one hundred forty character limit of Twitter, yet couldn't even include visuals—and often concluded with promises of follow-up via the now-disdained "snail mail."
And a funny thing happened in that world during the pre-dawn of Ancestry: we became hard and fast friends with people whom we had never laid eyes on. Ever.
Just last night, since I had been thinking of it ever since deciding to revisit an antiquated project on my fossilized to-do list, I booted up my dinosaur computer—you know, the wood-burning one—and pulled up my history of emails with specific researchers. The virtual memory lane that one task escorted me down was a long one, stretching back to conversations in emails exchanged well over twelve years ago. And that's just the archives captured on that computer. There was yet another computer with as long a legacy going before that one.
Besides the emails, there were mailing lists and message boards. Long before I even knew what I was into, I had found ways to sign up for "lists" from the University of Virginia and the University of Pennsylvania. Someone at each place with just enough computer savvy to do so had set up lists for genealogy fans. It seemed the idea spread like wildfire: if someone could build the mechanism, people would find a way to get to it. There just seems to be something inherent in genealogy that made us want to share our notes, pick each other's brains, and be generous with our resources. What an esprit de corps.
Once groups had figured out ways to format message boards, that decidedly became the place to be to let all this natural proclivity flourish.
Ironic that, as computer capabilities expanded and resources became more sophisticated, the advent of such supercharged researching resources as Ancestry.com—and even free sites like FamilySearch.org—seemed to peak at just the moment when the social aspect of genealogy seemed to decline. It was as if the tools of modern genealogical research, aided and abetted by the organization and efficiency of such companies, reverted genealogy into a solitary pursuit once again.
I hardly engage in those extended email volleys with fellow researchers, concerning a specific family line or historic county, as I had in times past. The extensive analyses that once took place, either one-on-one or in small group communications—the stuff I have archived in my email files from years ago—can hardly compare to the sometimes bland, one-off exchanges that only occasionally waft my way, now. It's been a real education, just unfolding those old messages and reviewing their content. It sets me to pondering just what happened to change the course of collective research progress in a realm that, for a golden moment, seemed the epitome of a promising collaborative future for genealogy.