Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Genealogical Dark Ages - Yeah, right.

I sense a meme...
Are all a response to an article which appeared in The Mormon Times by Michael deGroot called The coming genealogical dark ages.  He was reporting on comments made by Curt B. Witcher, manager of The Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Ind.  Witcher's comments were made at Brigham Young University's Conference on Family History and Genealogy.

What do I have to add to the conversation?

There are basically two parts to the article.

1) Disappearing vital records
"I believe we have a crisis in our midst," Witcher said. "We have left the care of our written records largely in the hands of disinterested strangers." He said these records include everything from birth records to tombstones — and more and more they are disappearing.
Libraries are limiting hours and public access to materials. Courthouses are engaging in "radical sampling," where they take a few samples of large collections of old records and destroy the rest. "This is going on now," Witcher said.
In my belief, libraries limiting hours and public access is a factor of the economy.  When the local governments have more money to spend, they will keep the libraries open longer.  The concept of 'radical sampling' I hadn't heard about, and it is disturbing if it is happening.  What I have heard about is courthouses digitizing all their records, and then destroying the originals.  Which may be OK, if the digital counterparts are all backed up, and re-backed up regularly, and are moved to new storage mediums as new storage mediums are invented.  Maintaining digital records takes less space, but is more work than maintaining paper records.

Digital records will be lost.  Most people have probably suffered hard drive crashes where we've lost important documents.  This will happen to some digital records preserved by the government.  Just as some paper documents have been lost to fire.  Every means of storing information has an achilles heal.  We, as a society, need to learn the weaknesses of these new storage systems, and what we need to do to avoid them.

Looking at,, and other genealogy websites, I can't look at the phrase "Genealogy Dark Ages" without laughing.  Some records will be lost.  But overall, the technology of computers and the internet is preserving records, and making them more accessible, not destroying them or making them less accessible.

2) The Decline of Letter Writing
Records are also disappearing on a personal level. "Who is writing letters anymore?" Witcher asked. "When was the last time you received a letter?"
But even if letters are a thing of the past, Witcher worries about e-mail. "Do you organize your e-mail well? All those Christmas greetings? All those family stories that have been exchanged through e-mail? How are you doing with that file management? It's a part of living history."
This isn't a new complaint.  I've written twice on this topic.

Decline of Letter Writing (Apr 29, 2008)
Decline of Letter Writing (Feb 27, 2009)
and now it's July 31, 2010

Let me sum up my major points in those two entries:

1) It is not email's fault.  People like to blame email for the decline of letter writing, but the things that I usually get in my email box from friends and family aren't the things I see in letters my ancestors and their kin sent.  Silly jokes, and are you interested in breakfast/lunch/dinner/happy hour?

About the only thing that gets sent via email that got sent via letter, is the enclosed photograph.  (And of course, the technology of the internet is making this easier, so more photographs are being sent -- and likely being preserved -- via email than via post office in the past.)

If laying blame is important, it is most likely the fault of the telephone and free long distance.  Why write a letter to the relative who lives a few states away, or further, when you can pick up the phone and talk to them directly?  

2) Instead of being the cause, email is the cure.  Those letters are now easier to send. As long as the emails are preserved, but that's the way things were with the letters too.  Many letters weren't saved.  Many emails are being deleted.  Those who care about preserving their family history need to learn not to delete those emails, how to print them to pdf documents (and/or print them to their printer),  how to make backup copies.  These are new storage techniques that must be learned, but it's not like it can't be done.

While I may not agree with the "dark age crisis" mentality, I do agree with the suggestions.
To counteract the trend, Witcher encouraged people to write. "Write as you never have written before." This writing can be about memories, describing a family photograph or center on themes such as a family's rituals.
After something is written, Witcher said to share it with others. Otherwise, he said "many of those precious pieces of living history go into landfills."
As I said above, it's always been this way.  If our family history wasn't written about, it got lost.  If it wasn't shared, it got lost.  This isn't a new trend.  What did Joe the Caveman think, feel?  We don't know.  It wasn't written down.  I have boxes of letters my maternal grandparents preserved.  Very few from or to my paternal grandparents.  I doubt they didn't receive the same amount of letters.  They just didn't preserve them as well.

What's new is it's actually now easier to write and share.  So, yes.  Let's do it.

Have you heard about my Amanuensis Monday project?  Combined with the popular "Sentimental Sunday" and "Memory Monday" memes, there is a lot of weekly preservation going on in the geneablogger community.


James Tanner said...

I heartily agree.

Moultrie Creek said...

Great article and I agree with all your points. Add to them the growing movements in electronic self-publishing and online repositories for sharing digital media, the prospects for making family histories and personal archives of letters, journals and photos accessible to all are improving. I see little doom and gloom except for those who won't embrace these new technologies.

Terri said...

Thanks for mentioning my article John! Did my music scare you?
Unfortunately through the years important documents have been lost through the generations, but to deliberately destroy them is sad. My brother and his wife volunteered for a year in Ohio to digitize probate records. The court had earmarked these records to go to the dump. Fortunately a woman who worked there saved them from destruction by taking them into her care (with the courts approval). Many of these records went back to the 1700's. "Genealogical Dark Ages" may be a little extreme - but it sure got our attention.

John said...

Terri --

I don't mind the music, but I know some people do, so I figured it was important to warn them.

Sometimes if you are listening to music while you are surfing the web, one audio plays over the other, which may not be harmonious. And some people forget how loud their sound is turned up until they come to a page where they weren't expecting music to play.