An End to File Cabinet Genealogy

Following is another thought-provoking article by my friend, Tom Fiske. The subject is one that I’ve mulled over many times. You’ll find this interesting.

Thomas Fiske The last time I wrote in Leland’s marvelous Blog, I mentioned Fireside Genealogy and the inherent desire we have to collect information about our ancestors. I also made this statement, “We have run out of places to store that knowledge but that is another subject altogether.” Let’s look at that subject.

Take a step back for a moment to read a bit of lore that may not be exactly true but is generally true. It is about the Western world. (I have to be careful about my descriptions now because we are fortunate in my family to have a large contingent of Chinese folks, and some beautiful children who are a combination of the two groups.)

There was a time when the total amount of human knowledge doubled every thousand years. It was nearly all oral information, passed on from one person to another.

Scrolls and books were invented and then a printing press came along which allowed mankind to double its total supply of knowledge every hundred years. Libraries were built to store books, and an uneasy kind of balance was generated in which the numbers of libraries were about equal to the task of shelving all the books that were written.

Years later the computer came along. Research done on computers plus regular research doubled human knowledge every ten years. Computer output was stored in books, tapes and disks of various kinds.

Now the Internet has come along allowing people to put old data together in new ways and draw different conclusions. New data is constantly being generated with faster computers. More people than ever before are hard at work all over the planet during this “information age.” Human knowledge is doubling every year.

Let me give you a fanciful example: Let’s say that a doctor in Moscow learns that he can freeze a brain tumor and reduce it to mush without much surgery. Patients who receive this therapy heal within three weeks. He reports his findings on the Internet and within five hours, the Internet has carried this welcome information all over the planet. It and variants of it are stored on all kinds of computers. Journals in many languages are soon printed with this new therapy.

We are running out of places to put the new information. We could not build libraries fast enough and would not want to do so to store it. One of the important questions of the modern age is, “Where can we store all this blasted information?” We have to keep the old information handy for many reasons. So we are reducing it from large heavy books to CDs and DVDs and bytes on computer disks; all the while the flood of information inundates us.

Now for a more personal note: Genealogy attracts more and more people. They collect hundreds of copies of papers every year and add books to their own collections. CDs and DVDs accompany the books.

Then, when no one is watching, a large number of genealogists get old. You know — past thirty-five years or more. They look at their collections of papers, books and other artifacts of their avocation and say to themselves, “How can I safeguard all these things and all the work that I have done for years?” They ask their children if they will take care of their precious papers and, of course, the kids say they will, but the older researcher knows the hearts of his or her children and knows that deep down inside them resides a dumpster. No matter what the next generation promises, all those valuable papers will wind up in the dumpster so that oil can be poured over them and they can be fed into a furnace somewhere. The best the researcher can hope is that the papers will be recycled for some other use.

Wealthy researchers can spread hundred dollar bills among the pages. That way the kids will take a small amount to time to thumb through the books and indexes to collect the money before they call in the dumpster squad.

What do you do with genealogical records that you have spent years collecting? Institutions generally don’t want them unless accompanied by hundred dollar bills. So you do what’s next. You arrange to give your better bound-books to a library. Then you scan single papers and precious photos into your computer and put them into digital format. Next, you install the scanned materials into collections and put them onto DVDs. Finally, you prepare an index, so that a person can see and find what you have so carefully saved over the years. Now, maybe you have something a library will take from you and put on its shelves.

Until its shelves run over, the libraries will likely hold one to your hard work. But then the unthinkable happens: a new method of storing information is designed. All those DVDs, if they have survived a few years on a library shelf, are now useless because no one uses DVD players anymore. You might as well have saved your wonderful data on eight-track tapes.

You see, the problem has not been solved. Even though your data is useful, you were a good archivist, and an honest recorder of facts, doom can await all your efforts.

It is the same basic problem. In every field of endeavor we are generating more information than we can store. Maybe medical information has first priority and food technology second priority. What priority do you think your genealogy will have?

I shudder to think about mine.

3 thoughts on “An End to File Cabinet Genealogy”

  1. I hate to admit it but I must agree with Mr. Fiske. I have a cousin who has told his wife that when he passes on I am to receive all of his research material, contained in numerous large plastic tubs. And when its my time, I’ve asked my nieces and nephews who wants to take up my work. One said they would, but I’m not sure he’ll actually carry on. I may wind up donating everything to a local genealogical society library, but how much could/would they retain?

    If all the work my cousin and I have done is thrown away, over 60 years of combined work will be lost to future generations. I can only hope that someone will pick up the torch.

  2. This is scary, but true. In my case I really desire to take over the records and research of my great aunt, who is in assisted living, but her son wants nothing to do with my family and I can’t find out where she is or what her condition is (is she even alive?) to pursue visiting with her and offering to take over her research. I had visited her years ago, and we spent some time going over what she had. She gave me copies of her stuff thus far, but also had many old, precious family photos (I photographed them with my own camera, but would prefer to take the originals and digitize them. Sad that most people head in the direction of “dumping” treasure, while others like me WANT to “carry on” and are being prevented from doing so.

  3. Dear Dawn in NJ,

    I wish there was some magic I could apply to your situation, but there is none. Bob, who also left a comment, suspects there is a dumpster in the future of his 60 years of work, and you may fear that your cousins will do the same to that work of your great aunt. To tell you the truth, I am not sure what my grandchildren will do to my records, so that is why I figured out a systematic method of handling it for them.

    Right now I am working on another article–it is about a guy who is writing a book and asked me for help on part of my family. I was afraid not to hand it over to him because, unless I finish scanning papers into my computer, what I gave him could be all that survives (except for my books).

    It’s a sad world when we can’t leave this world happy, knowing that grateful people are on hand to wave goodbye with one hand while they reach for your files with the other.


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