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Family History and Digital Preservation, part 1

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The popularity of genealogy websites and TV shows is rapidly growing, mainly because the Internet has made it so convenient to access family history information. Almost everything can be done through the computer now. Before the digital age, genealogical research was not only laborious and time consuming, it also resulted in boxes of documents: photos, charts, letters, copies of records and more. Online genealogy has replaced all that paper with digital files. But the trade-off for the ease of finding and gathering the stuff is the challenge of preserving it.

Cesky Sternberk Castle Family Tree
"Cesky Sternberk Castle CZ family tree" by takato marui on Wiki Commons

The current spike in genealogical activity is significant. David Rencher, chief genealogical officer of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, acknowledged the increase but said that the appeal of family history research itself is not new. Rencher said, “Genealogy represents the interconnectivity of human relationships. It also helps us understand the heritage we came from and that many of our ancestors went through similar trials and tribulations that we go through. It can add an element of meaning to our lives.”

Brian Lambkin, founding director of the Centre for Migration Studies at the Ulster-American Folk Park in Northern Ireland, interprets part of the modern genealogy phenomenon – from his professional standpoint – as a continuation of the Irish Diaspora. Lambkin, co-author of Migration in Irish History 1607-2007, said that emigration is part of a larger, ongoing family story. “There are branches of families that have become separated,” he said. “But now the people doing the family history are making connections, coming back to Ireland and knocking on doors, saying, ‘I’m possibly related to you. Do you mind if I come in and have a cup of tea?’ Relationships are being re-established.”

And “relationships” is the key word in digital genealogy because relational databases are its engines.

Genealogy database schema
Genealogy database schema by Ed Geis

Databases are programmed to find and display relations within a mass of data, which in digital genealogy, of course, means familial relations. Increasingly, census and registry information is loaded into databases and made available online where users can search birth and death records, marriage records, social security information and more in seconds, and follow branching information related to their initial search. And often they can download a genealogy database file — which may contain accumulated research that someone else has done — and add that information to their own personal database.

Any story about genealogy has to include the Mormons…the LDS Church. They have been gathering genealogical information since 1894, microfilming international family history records since 1938 and digitizing the microfilmed records since 1999. They estimate they have records for over 5 billion people, a lot of which is available online from their site.

In 1984, the LDS church developed the GEDCom (pronounced “jed-com”) specification as a means of exchanging genealogical data. Though different genealogy programs have their own databases, GEDCom is now the international standard format. David Rencher said, “That means I can download my file electronically, send it to you and it doesn’t matter what your program is. You can upload the file and add the data to the data in your file.”

This standardization enables some exciting possibilities for genealogical research, especially when different organizations collaborate and configure their databases to interact with other databases.

Part 2: Database collaborations, enhanced genealogical data and biography

Comments (4)

  1. How do I preserve paper-based genealogical data collected by my family? Are there any companies that specialize in archiving and preserving this type of data that also includes an oversized family Bible listing names, dates of births, marriages, and deaths?

  2. The staff in the Library of Congress Local History and Genealogy reading room can help with your questions. Visit their website at You can also call them at (202) 707-5537.

  3. Thank heaven for the Mormons’ hard work spanning over a century. I continuously reap the benefits of their labours when I find important documents, data, etc. that have been archived and digitized by them.

    Their work has made our world a much smaller place.


  4. You are absolutely wrong about GEDCOM. It’s intent was good but everyone implemented the standard differently leaving us with one programs GEDCOM being not completely readable by another program without loss of data. Should consider if GEDCOM X will provide a universal solution.

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