Advancing Your Genealogical Research Into The Digital Age

by James Tanner | Jul 17, 2009

Go to any genealogical library and you will see people hunched over piles of papers and books, writing in notebooks retrieved from huge wheeled briefcases. In the past you would have found me in the same category, lugging around a huge case full of photocopies and notes, as well as a pocketful of coins for copies. All that can be a thing of the past by taking advantage of a virtual revolution in the quality of the equipment for digitizing images and the greater availability of digital images on-line.

The Tools

The basic tools in this digital revolution are the memory stick or flash drive, the ubiquitous digital camera, a laptop computer, a flatbed scanner and a digital recorder.

Flash memory using a USB connector to a computer has completely changed the way we carry information from place to place. The low cost of these memory sticks has made them an indispensable tool to any researcher.

Digital imaging systems were first introduced to provide on-board navigation information to astronauts. Since those early times the system of creating a digital image in a compact camera format has evolved to the point that digital cameras are commonly found in cell phones and many other devices. Because of the increase in the quality of the images and the reduced cost of digital storage cards, thousands of photos can be stored on one small card.

During this same time period computers have been miniaturized to the point where you can carry them in your pocket, but the practical need to type on a keyboard limits the size to a laptop.

The flatbed scanner is a descendent of the photocopy machines that began appearing in the late 1960s. Some of the same imaging technology used to transfer the image to paper is used to transfer the images to digital files.

Digital recorders have replaced the bulky reel-to-reel and cassette recorders with pocket-sized instruments that will record hundreds of hours of interviews and notes.

Planning for your Trip

Before you start to travel, all of the electronic devices in the world will not help you if you do not have well organized research goals. In advance of your research trip, you will want to organize a research To-Do List outlining specific research objectives organized by library or repository. Fortunately many of the popular genealogy database programs provide a way to list your tasks, and some programs will even sort your tasks by library or repository.

Many of the libraries and repositories have online catalogs so you can go prepared with call numbers and film numbers.

Especially if you are traveling to a distant location, before you show up at a library or repository ready to do research, you need to learn whether or not the facility you are visiting has any limitations on the use of digital recording devices. Some large centers, such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, not only allow digital devices for recording but encourage their use through strategic placement of internet connections and power strips. Other archives may severely limit their use. It is best to be informed before arriving at the door of the repository or library.

A Digital Research Trip

Using these tools effectively will fundamentally change the way you record and store information. Let's go through a typical "digital" research trip.

Arriving at the library with your equipment, you open your computer to your database program storing your information and go to your pre-prepared To-Do List. Because you have already searched the library catalog, you go to the shelves and find your first book. Rather than spend time writing extensive notes, or spend money photo-copying the pages, you open the book to the pages containing your target information and take digital photos of the pages. Be sure to include photos of the title page and any publication data. These photos can either be immediately downloaded to your computer or saved for downloading at a later time. Most digital cameras have the quality to make more than adequate images under these circumstances, but I have found that a 6 Megapixel camera is a minimum.

You find that the some of the records you need are on microfilm. The same digital camera can be used to take a photo of the microfilm image directly from the microfilm reader's projection of the image. Some libraries now offer digital microfilm readers, rather than pay for expensive and time consuming microfilm copies, you just insert your flash drive into an available USB port and download the images directly from the machine.

Some libraries have access to subscription databases only available for a fee to the public. If the library will allow you to do so, you can copy images from the online source directly to your flash drive.

Using your computer, you keep a running Research Log of all of the sources you search. When you find information, you immediately note the source information either directly into your genealogy program or to be added later. By keeping digital images of all of your source documents, you can easily refer to the documents later, if it turns out you have forgotten to include some vital information.

Later that day, you travel to a local cemetery site, where you use your digital camera to take a picture of each relative's grave marker. When you visit the cemetery office, you take pictures of the burial information, thereby avoiding the necessity to find a copy machine.

When you visit your relatives, you take your digital recorder and, having prepared before a series of questions, you are able to transfer your interview to your computer and share the interview with others by recording the sound files to a CD or DVD.

After You Finish Your Research Trip

When you return to your home, you immediately backup all of the information you have gathered to an external storage device, like a hard drive. You can then use the information and images you have gathered to add to your files. Gone are the days when you wish you could get just one more look at that page in the reference book or on the microfilm.


Sign up for a free trial account and begin tracing your family history today.

Start 7-Day Free Trial »