It’s the New Year and that means time for reflecting on the past and also time for setting our family history goals for the year ahead. The world seems to spin by faster each season, and while this may be frustrating at times, each year also brings some new and positive changes for genealogists.
It didn’t seem all that long ago that my own genealogy involved a great deal of letter writing in order to make connections with long lost cousins and fellow researchers. Weeks would pass by as we exchanged photos and family histories by snail-mail. It definitely wasn’t a very speedy process, but in many instances, it was all we had.
Long days were spent at libraries and archives, hunched over dusty old documents and sitting in dimly lit rooms, scanning reel after reel of sometimes out-of-focus microfilms, only to find after a day’s work that nothing pertained to our family research.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and now we have access to the World Wide Web and countless genealogical resources at our fingertips; including connecting with our fellow researchers at a distance through Facebook and email. What once took weeks, even months of letter writing, is now reduced to a few quick strokes on a keyboard. The next generation may look back on our era and the incredible advancements in our ability to communicate, and say that in the late 1990s we entered the ‘space age’ of genealogical research.
While online family history databases like http://www.ancestry.ca and familysearch.org are by no means perfect, they do offer us access to a tremendous number of records from all over the world. They provide us with the ability not only to view digitized images of documents like original census records, but to print them as well, or save them for future use.
Now, instead of sitting for hours documenting our research in pencil as we did in the past, we can use a mobile scanner app on our smart phones to instantly capture and store images from archives, libraries and field trips to cemeteries. Push a button to scan in seconds and produce high resolution images in full colour or black and white. Simple to use, and perfect for those trips to Archives Lanark!
Another research technique that has evolved is the essential task of preserving family stories. Interviewing older relatives used to be a bit awkward and involved either hastily scribbling notes or using a bulky cassette recorder. A new device like the Echo Smart Pen not only records our conversations but can provide instant playback and storage of up to 200 hours of audio. This is ideal for recording family stories or memories from people who may have been put off by the presence of a tape recorder. A mobile phone or tablet is also ideal for recording family stories.
Lugging around heavy notebooks and stacks of binders has also become a thing of the past. Tech companies have made data storage light and easy with tools like the Apple iPad, a perfect companion at the Archives, Libraries, or on field trips and conferences. These portable computers are lighter than a laptop and have increasingly large storage capacities, perfect for replacing all of those bulky binders.
Perhaps one of the most exciting new enhancements to genealogical research is the way science can now compare our DNA to thousands of other samples in the database to determine kinship. The Wall Street Journal says “DNA Testing, the hottest tool in genealogy, is helping more people open doors to their past.” DNA Test Kits may be obtained from Family Tree DNA or any of the many other DNA Testing companies which provide this service. Some will do a break-down so that you can actually find out the percentages of ethnicity that you have from each country. Others will even match you from a database and connect you with cousins around the world. Perhaps you’ll trace your roots back to an interesting historical figure, a Hollywood star, or even British royalty!
Yet another way that people are able to share their knowledge and experience with millions are through sites on the internet like http://www.youtube.com. While the younger folks tend to use this site to listen to the music of their favourite bands, genealogists can use the site to educate themselves and enhance their research skills. For example, as genealogists we often inherit the old family photos, but have no idea where they were taken or from which period in history they originate. There are some fantastic instructional videos available such as this one that walks us through some particulars on old photographs. “5 Types of Early 19th Century Photographs” – a YouTube Video http://www.olivetreegenealogy.blogspot.com/2011/11/5-types-of-early-19th-century.html
As time goes by, more and more genealogical roadblocks have been removed and some types of research that once seemed almost impossible are now within our grasp. For those of us who remember Alex Haley’s book ‘Roots’ which documented the search for Haley’s African ancestors, we learned that many records were either destroyed or non-existent. The Mormon Church has released a database of 72,000 bank accounts opened by former slaves, after the Civil War, and these records could potentially help millions of their descendants trace their families back to Africa. These particular sets of bank records are significant not just because they date back to 1865, but because of the scarcity of detailed records of black families that are available from that era. To begin your search of these records: http://www.familysearch.org or call the church at 1-800- 537-5971.
Of all the new research tools available to genealogists, I must admit that the one that I find the most exciting is a project called Ireland Reaching Out. It was founded in south-east Galway by tech entrepreneur Mike Feerick. The idea is that instead of waiting for people to trace their roots back to Ireland, local communities, largely through volunteer efforts, are trying to find descendants of those who emigrated. Ireland Reaching Out, also called Ireland XO has promised to help with genealogical research at no cost. Volunteer community teams, who are trained in local genealogy, are also prepared to meet with you and guide returning migrants to places of genealogical interest specific to their family. To contact Ireland Reaching Out with your queries: http://www.irelandxo.com
So, now that the New Year is upon us, perhaps we can kick our research up a notch and take it to the next level with some of the cutting edge tools available today. With all of the technology on hand, surely we can streamline some of our old fact-finding techniques and expedite our research a bit.
As for myself, I may not have tried all of the new gadgets yet, but I’d sure like to see if the Ireland XO project can help me with my research. I’ve been trying to locate my ancestor Tobias Stafford’s family in County Wexford for longer than I’d care to admit. Tobias travelled to Canada in 1816 and settled in Lanark County; but who did he leave behind in the old country?
Who knows, with the help of Ireland Reaching Out, and a few new high tech toys – maybe THIS will be the year that I make that connection!
Good luck with your family history research in 2017!