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Genealogy and the Internet: a new alliance

By Rebecca Consentino Hains
Rebecca Consentino Hains is my daughter. She has a master's degree in Communications from Boston University. She has taught at Emmanuel College and Emerson College in Boston. Presently, she is attending an out-of-state university for her PhD.

"I started with genealogy when I was 10," he says, his eyes sparkling. "My mother wanted to keep me out of trouble, and she thought a good way to do that was to have me learn about her family."

At 82, genealogy is Frank Binette’s passion, but he no longer works from his mom’s kitchen table. Instead, on Wednesdays, a friend picks him up at his Laconia retirement community. They travel nearly an hour to the American Canadian Genealogical Society (ACGS) in Manchester, N.H., where he uses his wealth of experience to help and advise people. "I'm blind now," he says, "so I answer questions for others."

Pauly Labbe, the assistant library director of the ACGS, speaks of the respect people have for Binette. "When people have questions, I often say, 'Let's ask Frank.'"

Genealogy is Binette’s passion, and he enjoys discussing it. He talks about the histories, the lineages, and the tools that genealogists have. And one of their newest tools is the Internet. Its accessibility has revitalized the genealogy research process, bringing both genealogy and the Internet to new groups of people. Binette can't use the Internet because of his failing eyesight. But he can clearly see the Internet's role in genealogy research, particularly since so many people come to him with information they received online.

What the Internet has going for it, Binette says, is its role in increasing people's interest in doing their genealogy. "Without the Internet, they might not have done it at all," he says. Labbe has noticed a slight change in ACGS’s approximately 2,800 active members, one-third of whom make regular visits to the library. "I'm finding that new memberships and visits are up because of the Internet," she says. "Fewer people my age are visiting, but we see many middle-aged people. We didn't have that tool when I was middle-aged, but you can't get me off it now."

Now that she knows her way around the Net, Labbe soothes the technophobia of many library visitors. "There are wonderful people who come in here and they're afraid of computers," she says with a smile. "But you set them down, get them comfortable. Then you find that week after week, they’re sitting at the computer, just gazing."

With Social Security indexes, family tree finders, Acadian web sites, and the library's online catalog available, Labbe says that people with little or no computer background have positive experiences at ACGS. As a result, many have decided to purchase their own computers. "People learn the Internet here and take it into their personal lives," she says. "It's easier to research online than in books – you just punch things in."

Moreover, the Internet can speed up what has traditionally been a lifelong process, allowing people to locate more ancestors in less time. Yvon Cyr is webmaster of the Acadian Home Page and listowner of the Acadian-Cajun mailing lists. He says that the Internet has totally changed the process of researching his own genealogy. "I accomplished more in the last couple of years than I could have in 10 years, due to the Internet. And I'm very serious when I say that."

"There are so many great resources on the Internet, and the speed with which you can access information is, of course, awesome," says Cyr. "The other wonderful thing is that genealogists, in general, are very willing to share their information. This is so much faster with the Internet, compared to searching libraries et al."

Reports of people using the Internet because of its genealogy resources are common, and Cyr has noticed this trend. "[Older genealogists] hear so much about the resources on the Internet that they eventually break down, buy a computer, and get rolling," he says.

This may lead to other uses of computer technology. Bud Dorr, 60, travels from Maine to visit ACGS, and he uses the Internet to conduct genealogy research and make connections. "I have noticed that these older genealogists have a lot more than just genealogy on their personal web pages," says Dorr. "My aunt, who is 81, has just bought a laptop and is striving to learn how to use it. She wishes to use it for e-mail and to write letters and other informative tidbits such as shopping lists."

Others use the Internet for non-genealogy activities, as well. "I started on the Internet because my daughter forced me into it," Labbe says. "It's a connection with the rest of the world. You can revisit countries you've travelled to and explore new places. You make new connections."

Moreover, Labbe says that the development of friendships through genealogy is important to people who are alone, and the Internet helps them to create and maintain connections. "Collaboration is important," she says.

Labbe points to a group of three silver-haired men seated around a computer, laughing and chatting. "They have a camaraderie," she says. "They come here and work online together."

And collaboration is important from other perspectives, as well. L. Tyler Hains, 25, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer science graduate shares that for his coursework, he was required to build a database-backed genealogy Web site, and has noted the importance of sharing information across space. "The genealogy site that I'm building is focused around making a collaborative repository of genealogical information," he says. "This way, people from all over the Web can contribute their knowledge and information directly to the site without having to go through third parties."

Not quite utopia

But despite its many benefits, the Internet poses great challenges to the field of genealogy research. Binette is quick to point out the most common problem: credibility. "I tell you what I find," he says. "They come here and they've been on the Internet, and they bring me their charts or lines. But they're all wrong. Many on the Internet give out information that hasn't got a source. That's what I think is the weakness of it."

Dorr also sees online genealogy as a mixed bag. "The main benefit is easy access to pieces of genealogical information," he says. "The disadvantage is the easy access to that same information. The Internet has opened up what I call the field of 'pop' genealogy, which is a family history done solely on line with no original research."

According to Dorr, one such example is the Web site set up by the LDS (Mormon) Family History Center. "It has by far the largest genealogical data base available on the Internet," he says. "It is not an exaggeration to state that one can fill out his ancestry off that site alone. However, there is a ton of bad information on that site. Not one primary source is referenced… In some cases, the same person has different birth or marriage dates listed."

Genealogist Bud Paquin, 67, has had similar experiences with the Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) Web site. Although he says it can be useful, it had incorrect records on his direct line. "I know it's wrong because I've got the original records on my family." Still, he says, "Some people do believe what's online is accurate."

Robert A. Decoteau agrees. Decoteau, 52, lives in Manchester, and he was first introduced to genealogy when he was 16. "It's been my love for 34 years," he says. "The fun is in the chase. It's researching and finding solutions to genealogy problems that exist."

However, Decoteau chooses not to use the Internet for genealogy. "A lot of the information presented there is from secondary sources," he says. "That's someone's interpretation of an original document. I'm not saying that it's all inaccurate. I'm just saying that you have to be careful. I'm very suspicious if the information is not sourced. There needs to be more sourcing on the Internet."

As Binette can attest, not all researchers understand this. He considers all the people who have brought him information straight off the Internet, and he shakes his head. "You've got to be very careful," he says. "You've got to have a source to prove it. It's better to leave it blank than to make a mistake. What's the point?"

Paquin tells a cautionary tale. "I've got a cousin who's got a homepage in Albuquerque," Paquin says. "I send her info and another fellow sends her info, but she took his word as fact – even though the parents are wrong. So now she put it online and others might see that, and it will be wrong."

Still, the benefits of Internet research may outweigh the disadvantages. "The biggest influence by far is that the Internet has given people access to information they never could have dreamed about before," says Dorr. "For people in relatively isolated locations or with limited incomes, access is only a mouse click away."

Reliable sourcing is the key

Genealogists say that despite these problems, researchers need only know a few things to use the Internet to their advantage. "Inexperience is a factor," says Decoteau. "I prefer to use primary source documentation. From a historical and chronological perspective, that's the closest I can get to the individual."

"My strongest advice would be to use sites that are heavily sourced," Decoteau says. "But sites that are sourced are probably in the minority."

Others suggest comparing information from multiple sources and using online information as a starting point rather than a final answer.

One forum for those seeking information from many sources is the Acadian-Cajun mailing lists, which enjoy more than 650 active subscribers. As listmaster, Cyr says that most of his subscribers share information without reservation. "Subscribers can ask any genealogy-related questions and usually get numerous answers from different persons," he says, "thus greatly improving the quality of the information received. [The Internet] is providing us world-access to information in so much less time... E-mail correspondence is awesome."

Hains agrees. He is a member of the LDS Church, which manages what is perhaps the world's largest genealogy Web site. "The goal of the LDS Web site to get large amounts of information out there," Hains says. "Then, other people can put it together. They try to give people a starting place."

He says that people should be wary of taking online genealogy at face value. "It depends on where you find the information," he says. "If it's from a reliable source, you can feel fairly confident about using it. Otherwise, you may want to research a little bit more. But either way, it'll give you somewhere to start."

Labbe agrees that the Internet makes a good starting point. "It helps you figure out where to look for your ancestors," she says, "and instead of you slowing down, you keep going – and you're in touch with the world."

Decoteau hopes that in the future, more primary source documents will be archived in digital form. "Family Tree Maker is starting to digitize census records and put them on CD," he says. "More and more institutes, like colleges, archives, and libraries, will put more and more primary sources online."

From a database perspective, Hains agrees. "It may be a matter of getting enough people to suggest that they should put sources on there."

Cyr says that the main benefits of researching genealogy online are twofold: One, the speed at which researchers can source their information, and two, the ability to confirm data by using numerous sources available on the Net. "The technical limitations of some users is about the only disadvantage I can think of," says Cyr.

© Lucie LeBlanc Consentino
Acadian & French Canadian Ancestral Home
1999 - Present

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