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.
© Copyright 2011 – 2023 by Jacqi Stevens at 2:46:00 AM
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So interesting that you would write about this today because I was thinking about this just yesterday. When I received the boxes of my Grandma's research some years back, among her research were letters from people she had written. It was apparent that some she had written for some time, but the letters read very much like the emails I had exchanged with those I worked with over time---some chit chat, some sharing of their lives and then deep discussion about the problem at hand. I wondered how she had found these individuals as they were not close relatives and most lived some distance away. Grandma did not travel and she lived in a small rural farming community.ReplyDelete
I miss the days of the lists and boards because as you mentioned, relationships were forged during that time and really as they began to fizzle with the onslaught of online records, nothing really stepped in to take their place. While I know some people fail to see the need for the lists, boards etc., I received many priceless things during that time that could not be found in online collections, such as copies of family bibles, letters and other priceless treasures kept in family collections. Now I just sound like an old person reminising about the "good ole days."
Michelle, it's interesting that you mention that same effect, but in the body of letters written by, and to, your grandmother. That seems to pre-date the time period I'm observing.Delete
I am wondering whether your grandmother may have met these people through local genealogical journals, which used to provide the opportunity for researchers to place "queries" in their publications, much like a person might place a "wanted" ad in a newspaper--only focused specifically on a family line, surname or other research question. It would be interesting to find out just how she connected.
I agree with you about missing those relationships developed during forum discussions over a specific research project. I can't imagine those exchanges were so protracted just because people talked more, back then!
And you're right: those exchanges came with priceless discoveries and serendipitous connections. I'm not sure what brought about the shift, but I certainly hope that, in pointing out the change, it may help nudge people back to that more exchange-oriented level of communication and sharing.
Oh yes, Grandma's letters definitely pre-date that period. I simply mentioned them because genealogist have long found a way to share and connect, even when it wasn't easy to do so.Delete
Been a while. Saw your post this morning and I agree with every word. As someone who loves genealogy, I am so glad there are many sites to research for those who have gone before me. Thank you for sharing todays post! You always know so much and I have to thank you for what you do. Have a great day!
Betty!!! What a wonderful surprise to see you here! Thanks so much for stopping by!Delete
I remember the message boards, it was a great place to reach out and ask a question about a relative. Now we just ask Google:)ReplyDelete
Yes it was, Far Side. And there still are some forums still available. But most often, the answers come in short sentences, and that's it. Nothing that evolves into a decade-long friendship or develops into a group research project. Was it Google that turned us into researchers who just want to plug in a question and out spits a one-sentence answer?Delete
Message boards (like chat rooms) offer(ed) a dynamic give and take - Google doesn't offer any "human" interaction.ReplyDelete
Well, not unless you consider Google Plus or any of the old Google Groups. At least there, you could find some give and take. I think a lot of it has to do with the ability to assemble a "critical mass" of people with the same interests--plus a propensity to talk about it. That's where the give and take comes in!Delete