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Debunking the Myth of Instant Gratification

By Steve Paul Johnson
February 16, 2001

It seems I keep reading more and more articles and tutorials warning about the use of online information. The term "instant gratification" is being used to associate the Internet with bad genealogical practice. Whenever genealogists explain that information should never be taken for granted, they seem to always cite online information as a prime example. While its correct that genealogists must assess the validity of their research, I can't help but shake my head at the bad rap the Internet is getting.

Just what kind of message are we delivering to a beginning genealogist? It seems to me the message is saying that online information is best avoided altogether. It's good to encourage beginners to validate their research, but the notion that disaster walks hand-in-hand with the Internet is being driven into their minds.

I happen to be an owner of a genealogy website, and I have been a computer hobbyist for over 20 years. I take offense when people use the Internet as the poster-child for bad genealogical practice. Genealogy would not be enjoying the popularity it now has if not for the Internet.

The real issue is that a genealogist must assess the validity of information he or she obtains, whether online, from print, or from word of mouth. A transcription is a transcription regardless of the medium by which it is conveyed.

The amount of genealogical material in print still exceeds that appearing online. Why then do we not stress this issue with printed information? Why should a GEDCOM be more problematic than a descendancy published by a genealogical society?

Online databases are indeed very convenient. But is "instant gratification" something that can only be achieved through a database? Can not someone lookup their ancestor on a Soundex card, and get a transcription of information found on the census sheet? Can not someone open up a book of tombstone inscriptions, lookup their uncle, and get his date of death? Are these not also forms of "instant gratification"?

Online databases don't turn us into bad genealogists. Bad genealogical practice is a product of inexperience and lack of discipline. Is there inaccurate information on the Internet? Of course there is. But not any more so than in print. As I said before, there is still more information found in print. A genealogist is more likely to get fouled up offline than online.

It's without a doubt that the Internet has changed the way people approach genealogy. Long time genealogists have prided themselves over the techniques they have developed. But with the Internet, people have developed new methods. But are these methods bad?

Well, half of genealogy is validating your research. The methods we employ define what kind of genealogist we are. The end result is to arrive at the truth, and if we find the truth, the end will justify the means. If you feel comfortable that you have found the truth, beyond any reasonable doubt, then your methods are just fine. Therein lies the art of genealogy. Appreciation of a shrewd genealogist means that we both understand and enjoy the methods he or she employs. If genealogy were a science, there would be no appreciation, because there would only be one method.

Associating the Internet with bad genealogical practice is detrimental to the advancement of genealogy. We should all be encouraged to embrace the Internet. I hope to see future articles and tutorials place emphasis on validating research period, regardless of the medium used. We need to encourage beginners to express their own methods for approaching research.

We need to constantly devise new solutions and new ideas to attract more people into genealogy. The Internet is an example of such a solution and idea. It was because of the Internet that genealogy found new popularity. Let's promote it, and continue moving forward!

- Steve Paul Johnson

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