- Historic Sites
Tracking Your Family Through Time And Technology
Genealogy is vastly different today from just a generation ago. Here’s what the changes mean to you.
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
This new generation of family historians not only was looking to join lineage societies or turn up dukes in their families but also wanted to memorialize impoverished immigrants who had come to the United States at the beginning of the century and were now starting to die. All genealogists share a universal regret: that they didn’t talk with some relative when they had the chance. They wish they had asked Grandma about her grandparents, about where she was born and her family’s life. Instead she took that knowledge with her when she died.
An interesting thing often happens to us as we approach middle age. We begin to feel the fragility of life, and it makes us want to find and hold on to some knowledge of past generations. This happened to thousands of people in the years after World War II, and they had new tools to make the quest a bit easier.
There are now tens of thousands of genealogy Web sites. The volume of on-line resources grows daily.
Membership in the National Genealogical Society (NGS) grew from 600 in 1953 to more than 4,000 by 1978. At the same time, the restless 1960s and early 1970s was a period of unrest that in its own way increased many people’s need to feel a bond with their past, to find a sense of purpose and of family. During this era Alex Haley made perhaps the single biggest contribution to the popularity of genealogy when his transatlantic search for his own family led first to his famous book Roots , a bestseller in 1976, and then to the immensely popular miniseries based on it. Genealogy would never be the same. The oft-cited inaccuracies and fabrications in Haley’s work do not diminish the feelings that it inspired in tens of thousands of Americans.
Looking back, I can see a convergence of big forces at this point forever changing genealogy—and with it, my own life. But none of us knew it while it was happening. By the early 1980s baby boomers were sensing their own mortality. The immigrant generation was gone. Alex Haley had inspired us. Most important of all, the personal computer was becoming commonplace. Genealogists quickly embraced this amazing tool for how it could help us organize our research and spend our time more effectively. But no one could have predicted its full impact over the next two decades.
During the 1980s shareware developers began turning out genealogy software, most of it database programs designed to help people track the individuals, names, dates, and places they had previously recorded by hand on paper. By the early 1990s a few commercial software companies had begun to market such programs. Family Tree Maker, Reunion, The Master Genealogist, Ancestral Quest, Ultimate Family Tree, and Generations are among the most popular ones today.
The Family History Department of the LDS Church, pioneers in the field of genealogical record gathering and microfilming, also pioneered the use of computers in the field, and thousands of LDS Family History Centers around the world now offer searchable computerized indexes on CD-ROM. The church created one of the first and most widely recognized genealogy database programs, Personal Ancestral File; it also developed the GEDCOM standard ( Ge nealogical D ata Com munication), officially released in 1987, which made it easy for newly reunited cousins to share their research data regardless of whether or not they used the same software program. As the personal computer took the drudgery out of record keeping, many people who had long wanted to become involved in genealogy found themselves jumping in.
My own research began in 1980 with a high school assignment that had me creating a chart on poster board and depicting my ancestry. I received an A for my efforts and discovered I had been bitten by the bug. Many people refer to it as an addiction, a sickness, or a passion, depending on where they are in their research. For me it has been all of the above.
During college I bought a genealogy book for beginners and began to learn what methods to use. I visited the library and started filling out family group sheets, but when I saw what a daunting task that would become, I set aside my research in favor of focusing on my college courses. This didn’t mean that the ancestors had quit calling to me; they were just biding their time. Our departed can be very patient while they wait for us to find them.
After college I picked up my binders and again began organizing data. My father purchased a software genealogy program for me to use on his new computer. That summer, just before a family wedding in California, I entered hundreds of names and printed out reams of paper reports, and I put them in colored folders along with copies of old family photos. I still remember the thrill I felt sharing these folders with my cousins on that trip. You can get a great sense of accomplishment seeing your work on your family in type, even if your research is still in its infancy.