Genealogy in the Future
by Steve Paul Johnson
April 8, 2004
As I poured over microfilms of census forms, land records, death
indexes, and other records, trying to find information on my wife's
elusive great-great-grandfather, I wondered if a future relative
would also consider me an "elusive ancestor".
It seems that concerns over privacy are greater today than ever
before, what with the increased popularity of the Internet, identity
theft, and the barrage of salespeople calling us and sending us
junkmail. Consider also that, each of us is being asked to provide
more information, as governments and companies seek to learn more
about our habits. This has caused us to become more reluctant in
There is also a big difference between today's society and the
society our ancestors' lived in one hundred to two hundred years
ago. These days, the average American family moves into a new home
every five years or less. Americans search for jobs not just within
their town, but across the entire nation. Our ancestors tended to
stay put in the same county their whole lives.
It's easy to believe that future genealogists will have a more
difficult time learning about us.
Back in the "old days", when a couple married, they often
remained married to each other their whole lives, even if they didn't
get along well. Today in the United States, 50% of all marriages
end in divorce. In fact, its common for Americans to have been married
three or more times.
Out-of-wedlock births seem to reach all-time highs year-after-year.
It's common for a mother to have multiple children, each from different
fathers, and not have been married to either one of them. Economics
has placed an urgency on these mothers to give up their children
to adoption, and thus the number of foster home children is on the
rise. Increasing drug abuse has increased the number of drug-addicted
babies, which often are placed into foster homes.
The secularization of the world seems to unravel the bonds of the
family unit. In past decades, religion played an important role
in uniting the family, and establishing "family values".
Even though people may still see themselves as religious, families
seem to worship religion less as a family, and more individually.
In my next-door neighbor's house, the husband is not religious,
his wife converted to Judaism, and their kids are Christians, but
each kid attends a different church.
Genealogists often use tombstone inscriptions to gather information
about their ancestors. But the use of cemeteries are becoming more
scarce, as their number of available plots diminish, and land values
increase. Some of our ancestor's burial grounds are getting plowed
under to make room for development. The popularity of cremation
suggests that cemeteries and tombstones will become obsolete. According
to the Cremation Association of North America, Japan has one of
the highest cremation rates, at 97%. Great Britain is at 70%, while
Scandinavia is at 65%. The United States is expected to reach 40%
Today's "paperless society" also threatens to make genealogy
research more difficult. I'm sure many of us have discovered a one-hundred
year old document, containing valuable genealogical information,
that was stashed away in grandma's attic. Computer data, such as
a GEDCOM, doesn't lend itself very easily to being stored away in
someone's attic for that long. While digital cameras might allow
us to take more pictures, most digital photos don't get printed
to paper. When a hard drive crashes, or a CD-ROM degrades, those
photos are lost forever.
On the other hand, digital information does have its advantages.
As long as there is a person to manage and maintain the information,
it could last longer than paper itself, so long as the information
is constantly converted to the latest standards. In this way, websites
could last forever.
In fact, there are other ways that genealogy research might be
easier and faster in the future.
As it stands now, entering someone's name into a search engine,
such as Google, can bring up lots of interesting information, provided
of course that person has a rather unique name. While search engines
also deliver a lot of irrelevant results, they're getting better
all the time.
The fact that genealogy has become big business in the United States
and among other countries, will actually improve the state of genealogy
research. Many people might disagree, or not approve of the idea,
but nothing stimulates the advancement of the arts and sciences
better than capitalism and free enterprise.
Organizations are collecting more information on us than ever before.
Each decade, the U.S. Census Bureau seems to request more information
about us. Increasing licensing and registration requirements are
creating more records on each of us. Our forefathers didn't have
to obtain a license to hunt game, and they didn't have to obtain
a driver's license either, since they didn't have cars. Future genealogists
will have many more outlets for our personal information.
We're also being tracked and identified more than ever. Our social
security numbers are being used as a defacto "personal identification
number" used by so many organizations, including credit bureaus
and insurance companies. As it stands today, the use of an SSN for
genealogy research only helps with recent ancestors. But perhaps
another one hundred years from now, it could connect together hundreds
of pieces of information from several organizations. Our driver's
license number is often used in this way.
In 1996, President Clinton signed into a law that requires the
creation of a "Unique
Health Identifier for Individuals", which is an identification
number that will track our health history from birth to death. The
terrorist acts of September 11, 2001 caused some people to call
for a similar kind of personal identification number that would
help officials identify potential terrorists. While the U.S. government
would certainly place security measures to prevent public access
to records, it is possible the government could allow public access
to records greater than 72 years, similar to its policy with census
Advances in DNA studies can now help genealogists find other people
with similar ancestry. The Sorenson
Molecular Genealogy Foundation has published a database on its
website that allows anyone to type in their "genetic marker
profile" and learn more about their origins. It's conceivable
that this technology could allow future genealogists to find everyone
else on the planet related to them.
So while genealogy research might become more difficult than ever,
it may actually become more easier than ever. But if you could travel
back in time to one hundred years ago, you might find the state
of genealogy research to be much different than it is today. It's
like that old saying, "the only thing that remains constant
- Steve Paul Johnson