Genealogy & Local History in Buffalo, NY

How the Internet Will Hurt Future Researchers

By Cynthia Van Ness, © 1999

This idea just struck me, like the proverbial thunderbolt, and I decided to share it with the rest of you for comments and discussion. But first, a little about me. I'm a daily Net user and webmaster, with 4 websites to my credit thus far. Far from being a technophobe, I probably spend way too much time online.

However, I'm not susceptible to the messianic hype surrounding the brave new online world and I do my part to deflate some of the more exaggerated claims being made for the Net. (Like the assumption that "everything" is now online and that if you can just find the right website, out pops your family tree.) I also have a Master's degree in Library Science, which, for those of you who are not librarians, means that I am trained in principles and methods of information organization, storage, and retrieval, a science that has largely been developed and refined over the centuries that Western societies have enjoyed a print culture. These principles and methods are easily and appropriately transferable to the digital environment.

As a webmaster of a genealogical site (http://www.bfn.org/~roots) that predates the introduction of the WWW and graphical interfaces, in this young medium I almost qualify as one of cyberspace's senior citizens. So, from the vantage point of my virtual rocking chair in the old cyberfolk's home <grin>, I offer a deep concern about what kind of information environment we are bequeathing to future researchers, genealogical and historical.

For most of us, it is pleasant to anticipate a future in which lots and lots of things really are online, such as indexes to every US federal and state census, indexes to cemetery records, church records, passenger lists, and so on. Lots of people are working towards this very end, and I do not mean to discourage any of them. Of course, I hope that future researchers will be sophisticated enough to know the difference between an entry in a digital index and the real record to which it refers. Searchable digital images of original records may solve the whole problem. But that is not my concern today.

Now consider, if you will, some of the ordinary directories that genealogists rely on. I am referring, of course, to city directories and telephone directories, but there are many specialized directories or, if you will, databases of value to genealogists. The phenomenon that worries me applies to any kind of annually updated publication, what we in the library biz call "serials."

City and telephone directories, for example, are still being published in book form for US cities and towns large and small, but I have to wonder for how long. Economic pressures are such that it is becoming cheaper to issue a CD-ROM directory instead of a print version. In the library world, we are seeing more and more directories migrate to CD-ROM. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a problem for future genealogists, because, leaving aside the problem of format obsolescence for another time, presumably any archive or library can retain the 1999, 2000, 2001, etc. Jingleheimerville (fictional town) phone directory CD-ROMs--and requisite equipment & software--just as easily as they retain the annual print versions. Well, actually it isn't that easy, but, as I said, digital preservation is a topic for another time.

But consider the next step in the evolution of directories: internet subscriptions. Many publishers are now selling access, not a physical product. For a number of our databases, we librarians no longer buy CD-ROMs with all of their installation headaches, we buy something like a subscription to a database which is continually updated. (I'll return to this point momentarily.) We avoid the installation headaches, because we're essentially getting a "feed" from a remote database that someone else stores, maintains, and updates.

Let's consider what the ramifications of a continually updated database are. In the case of a periodical index, it is a fine thing, because the new magazine citations do not cancel out the old. Some databases simply grow larger. If the Polk Company, the major publisher of US city directories, abandons the print directories and moves to CD-ROM, we can still more or less archive them for future researchers.

However, if Polk succumbs to economic pressures and moves to a subscription database that is constantly updated, this being a marketing advantage, consider what this means. (For the record, I know nothing of the Polk Co.'s future plans and am just using them as an example. For all I know, they could be cognizant of the necessity for print directories and won't abandon this part of their market.)

Constant updates in a remotely accessed database means that there will one less important, public, physical artifact that places a particular person in a particular place at a particular time. For example, let's say I move out of Buffalo next year. What does Polk do to keep its database current? Delete me from the Buffalo database. Poof! Any record that I ever lived in Buffalo is gone for good. Likewise, the telephone directory. If I leave town and am no longer a customer, how long is the local phone company likely retain any digital record of me? What incentive is there for publishers to retain gigantic back-up tapes of outdated databases? How about the "Encyclopedia of Associations," published annually by Gale in book or CD-ROM form and found in almost every major library? What if Gale moves to subscription database, constantly updated, of course?

With no annual volumes to consult, our descendents may no longer be able to verify the nature and existence of the organizations we belonged to, and where the records might be. Computers are making it possible to develop and store larger and larger databases all the time, databases that are too large and too complex to print out ever again. (The US Social Security Death Index is a familiar example.) If this publishing "evolution" from dated artifact (book, CD-ROM, diskette, etc.) to access (digital subscription) affects more and more databases, we might actually be leaving be leaving fewer, not more traces of our lives for our descendents.

Originally posted to soc.genealogy.misc and soc.genealogy.computing on 2 February 1999 and reprinted with permission in several genealogical society newsletters. Converted to HTML on 6 June 2001.

Updated 18 March 2010