I thought long and hard about which topic to tackle with this, my first blog. It’s not so much an issue of first impressions and wanting to make this one count, as I think it’s a safe bet that this first blog will find its readership only among those who have known me long and well. But this first blog is setting me on a path, and I want to make it a path worth my following.
So what is so important about the FamilySearch website’s Family Tree that out of all the topics I could choose, this one so quickly floated to the top and stayed there? It has to do with why family history (and I prefer that term to genealogy) is so near and dear to my heart.
Family history—the history of family. By extension, the history of community. Ultimately, the history of society and civilization. The history of human interaction, of distribution of opportunity, of collaboration and conflict. Until very, very recently, historians restricted themselves to the study of famous men and outstanding acts of vice or valor or creativity. Why? Well, the data management was just a lot easier. Think about it—how much data must one collect to understand the life of one man? Multiply that by a thousand, ten-thousand, a million…. Family history has simply been beyond the practical capabilities of historians. How can you amass, assemble, and analyze the quantity of data necessary to lay clear the patterns of interaction that shaped an entire community of individuals? Where do you store all that information while you’re collecting it? How do you make it available to the number of research historians necessary to tackle a project like understanding family history at a global scale?
This project will need some organization really big, simply to have the space to store a vast amount of detailed information, about every individual that ever left his or her name in a record, manuscript, or oral history.
Collecting and organizing this database is going to take a long, long time. We need an organization that we can count on lasting not five or ten or fifty years, but centuries.
It needs to be an open database that allows an unlimited number of researchers to contribute data and to access that data for analysis. Given the scope of this project, the number of researchers involved will need to number in the thousands. Remember, we’re not just talking about collecting vital statistics, but the raw details of everyday life that historians will need in order to understand every facet of a community’s life. Think of all those manuscript collections that languish yet unindexed and undigitized: letters, journals, newspapers, business ledgers, agency reports…
Let’s not talk about cost—but I’ll simply say that I am grateful that someone has undertaken this venture without asking me to pay for it. (OK, indexing aside.)
Yes, I’m talking about the FamilySearch.org website’s Family Tree.
I know, I know! I do know it’s full of garbage. It is the New Jersey landfill of databases. You can’t go three generations in any direction without finding enough nonsense to fill a volume of Lewis Carroll poetry.
But hold on a moment. You’re all family historians, so let me take you back to a scene from our nation’s early history:
William and Sarah Pilgrim have just topped the crest of the last hill. At the ridge line, William spreads his arms wide. “Sarah, dear, this is where we’ll make our home.”
Where would we be now if Sarah had taken one look and answered “For heaven’s sake, Bill! You’ll never get a crop on this—it’s all trees!”