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  • Genealogical Computing and its Influence Upon the Science of Genealogy

    William Bradford Towne, Sr.

    Published Date : June 1984
    The Age of Computerization is upon us! (As we do not need to be told, do we?) Computers every day are affecting just about everything we come into contact with in our daily lives from every hamburger you purchase from the "Where's the beef?" people to county tax lists and birth records. Our society is now at the point where it just could not exist without the aid of computers. The science of genealogy is not excepted as you will soon find out.

    Not only are we deeply involved in the "computer age" now, but our futures will involve us with computers more than ever before. The day will come when libraries, such as the NEHGS Library, will have to become computerized. Stored in this library is a massive amount of data, enough to stagger the imagination of anyone. The NEHGS Library is now approaching some 500,000 volumes of books plus unpublished data such as manuscripts and people's personal ancestral files. Will the time come when you can ask for information on Silas Sticklebaum, for example, and a computer operator can mash a few keyboard buttons and come up with every bit of data on that person, extracted from this enormous library?

    As you read this column, realize that it is being prepared using an IBM-PC, as are all of the articles published in NEXUS composed on a computer. You are involved in this way, also.


    Not only is it possible to do word processing on a computer, but the management of data using what are called "data base management" programs is where the real "gold" is. These programs apply to genealogical libraries, public libraries and any place where data needs to be handled and used.

    A good example of the use of data-base-management programs is in the indexing of genealogical ancestor (pedigree) charts, done by the Computer-Genealogy Associates (44 Haywood Street, Asheville, NC 28801). Those of us who have done extensive family research are not strangers to the dilemma of finding an ancestor in the thousands of charts we often find we have. In my own case I have well over 2,000 ancestor charts. If I want to find on which chart is Pepin-le-Bref, an ancestor of mine who lived in the eighth century, AD (he was the father of Charlemagne) I could be turning pages for an hour or two just trying to locate him. I have used my computer, however, and I have indexed every chart, which I have put in the front of ancestor chart loose leaf notebooks so that I can find any ancestor at any time without doing through an extensive search page by page.

    Not only are data-base-management programs good for indexing ancestor charts, but they provide a systematized means of keeping up with membership lists, such as done by NEHGS with its nearly 8,000 members, and data on the members. Corporations do the same thing with their customer lists as do the banks with VISA and Master Card accounts. DBMPs also print out labels for mailing purposes.

    Modems for Genealogical Research

    A significant development has been the use of modems. These hook in to telephone lines so that a computer in Boston, for example, can "communicate" with a computer in New Orleans, and data can be electronically transferred between the two terminals using telephone lines. Modems will make it possible in the future for data stored in the NEHGS Library to be sent to a member in New Orleans who would have requested it. Likewise, a member in Boston of Oriental descent, for example, could have a modem used with a computer to obtain genealogical information from a library in San Francisco which also has a modem and computer with data available.

    Such a capability as described in the above paragraph is available now. The only hang-up is getting all the data "inputed" into a computer system and stored on disks, tapes, etc., so that the computer can "access" the data needed. This requires people power (formerly manpower) to do that job. The day will come when it will all be computerized and every genealogical library, such as the one at NEHGS, will be able to provide its members with an even greater genealogical research capability because, not only will it have available its own holdings, but will have access to the holdings of all the other major societies and libraries at its fingertips.

    Programs Especially for Genealogy

    There are now available a number of programs written especially for genealogy. One of the most recent is the $35 program put out by the LDS Church in Salt Lake City called the Personal Ancestral File. At this time it is available only for the IBM-PC, but programs for other manufacturer's machines are being developed. All of a person's genealogical research can now be put into this program, and whenever one wants an ancestor chart or a family group sheet the computer can print one right away. It will also index each person in your ancestry and will show relationships of one ancestor to another. Computers will revolutionize the genealogical field once the data can be assembled and stored. When people who heretofore had to wade through the blackberry bushes growing over old cemetery stones to gather data, come to the availability of computerized genealogical data, it will make the old way as out-dated as having to crank an automobile to start it. However, there are many of us who still get a real kick out of getting scratched by the blackberry bushes, don't we?

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