Over the past two decades, the internet has touched every aspect of our lives, changing how we shop, learn — even how we date. And while it represents technological progress and the promise of future innovation, it has also proven to be an invaluable resource for those interested in the past. Where genealogical researchers once had to spend untold hours poring over dusty family albums and disorganized archives, they now have seemingly limitless resources available with just the click of a computer mouse.
Sites like Ancestry.com have done much to popularize genealogy, but family researchers can also find a trove of information on their own through online census and court records and social networks that make it easy for even novice investigators to locate, organize and share their family links. Person A and Person B might have never met or even be aware of any connection to each other, but through independent research might discover a common relative.
Such happenstance was rare in the pre-digital days when someone eager to learn more about their heritage might have spent months or years researching a family history that stopped cold within a few generations because they couldn’t access archives and records in another state or country.
Today’s genealogy enthusiast, whether they are looking for information about their own family or that of a historical figure, is no longer bound by the limitations of archive hours and access restrictions, or the logistical inconvenience (or impossibility) of traveling to another region on a blind hunt for records that might not even exist.
Another benefit of changing genealogical research is that digitizing records aids preservation and storage efforts. Although nothing can replace holding a centuries-old family Bible or touching the ship record upon which an emigrating ancestor wrote their name, online documentation allows these priceless relics to be moved into safe, controlled storage and ensures that both they and their digital representations will be available for future generations’ study as well.
As heirlooms are handled over and over again, especially paper-based examples, they undergo more rapid deterioration than they otherwise would. Writing can become faded and illegible. Crucial details can be lost. Worst of all, irreplaceable family records can be misplaced or destroyed, creating gaps in the historical record that might never be filled.
Scans and photographs, meanwhile, can be copied repeatedly (though with a certain amount of pixel degradation, of course) and stored in multiple locations at once so that the record is never permanently lost. Researchers aren’t required to handle fragile documents multiple times or keep physical copies for themselves. Archivists and those tasked with preserving the piece are saved the worry of frequent and damaging contact, and researchers can easily organize digital records and take them wherever their tablet, laptop or other devices can travel.
Purists argue that online collections take the fun out of genealogical research, and to a certain extent, that’s true. No historian would ever argue that scrolling through a website database is as satisfying as flipping through the pages of a family album that’s been passed down for generations. Conversely, putting together an accurate, detailed family history is quicker and easier than ever, proving that new technology can help us engage with the past while simultaneously embracing the future.