Another Look At the Future of Genealogy

The Future Revisited By Jeffrey A. BockmanOriginally published in Everton's Genealogical Helper November/December 2006, page 55.While attending the 1998 FGS Conference in Cincinnati, Leland asked me to write an article about my view on the future of genealogy. The article titled "The List" was published in the November/December 1998 issue, #78, of Heritage Quest Magazine. That article was the only science fiction ever published in the magazine. It was sort of like the Wizard of OZ in that it took a variety of the familiar products and services along with the current trends and extended them in a story to the point that genealogy no longer existed. In doing so it took a look at the satisfaction gained from the various aspects of family history research such as gathering family information, finding source documents, finding and identifying photographs, recording family stories, and preserving it all for future generations. The full text of the "The List" is available at The List.

While visiting with Leland at the 2006 NGS Conference in Chicago we decided that it was time to take a look back and review the prior predications, and see what is in store for the future.

To put things in a little perspective, way back in 1997 my lectures about the Internet started with a diagram and discussion of a home computer using a dial-up telephone connection to an Internet Service Provider connected to the World Wide Web along with a variety of other computers. At that time the GenWeb Project, society posted vital record indexes, telephone directories, library catalogs, travel information, and current maps were some of the main items on the web of interest to genealogists, many of whom did not own a computer and only a few that did were connected to the internet.

At the 1998 FGS banquet, Mary L. Bowman gave a hilarious talk about how life was simpler before genealogy, but not as much fun. My look at the future also showed that life after genealogy would be much simpler, but not as much fun. The pleasure from genealogical research comes from learning about sources, finding and then putting all of the pieces of evidence together to prove a relationship, locating a person, or verifying a fact. In genealogy, as with life, getting to the end is not the goal. All of the fun is in the journey.

I will take a brief look at the various predictions and provide comments about the current status:


As a futuristic traveler I came upon a new communication device that provided access to a wide array of information. Naturally I tested out its genealogical capabilities.


A device with a Touch Screen and a telephone handset - Instructed to Touch a Field and Speak Clearly.

The line between telephones and computers is almost non-existent. Computers can make telephone calls over the Internet, cell phones have screens that can display information from the Internet. Touch screens have become commonplace at kiosks and ATMs. Voice commands are used with most telephone based customer service applications. Voice is also available for computer controls.

Computers can also speak using prerecorded sound bytes or generate a mechanical sounding but functional speaking voice.



Told to put thumb on the small panel below and look into the soft red light. After a second I heard "Welcome Jeffrey."

Finger print recognition is being employed for check and debit card verification at some grocery stores, and some employers are using it instead of timecards for signing in and out. Several laptop computers use fingerprints for logging on. Eye scans are used at some high security locations for access. The use of biometrics is growing. Two foreign banks are currently testing voice recognition and patterns for account security access.

Contact information

(Illustration - GooglePhoneListing)


Entered wife's maiden name - Up came a list of people with the same first and last names sorted by state, followed by a list of people with the same first and maiden name, sorted by their last names followed by state and their spouse's name. The user could locate their telephone, fax, pager, or voice mail numbers and their email address.

You can now enter a name, city, and state in Google or a variety of other online phone books like and it will bring up listings for the person(s) showing an address and telephone number. The listing won't bring up the person by maiden name, but it will bring up those people that still use their maiden name or have a hyphenated name.

(Illustration - Sample index search page from the Clark County, Nevada website)

Maiden names can be found in marriage indexes for a number of states. The availability depends greatly upon the jurisdiction. Illinois limits the posting of even an index of marriages to those before 1916 while Clark County Nevada displays current applications.

Married names can be found in fully searchable newspapers by locating a wedding announcement, the birth announcement if she had a child, or possibly the obituary for one of her parents.

Phone, Fax, and Voice mail are now often available from a single number.

There are some email directories, but locating a person's email address is not always linked to the other contact information, nor guaranteed. Searches of the web do not always provide current email information. Email forwarding services are available but they are not widely used by the average person that changes Internet service providers.



Touched locate phone and a map came up showing the home's location.

Most of the internet telephone directories have a link to a map for an address. Some also show a satellite image or a hybrid of the satellite image and a map. You can zoom in on the images to easily see homes or even larger tombstones in a cemetery.

Cell phones do not show up in the directories nor do they have a physical address associated with them. The technology is available to pinpoint the exact location of a cell phone if it is turned on, but the service is not publicly available.

Family Information


Showed wife's family group sheet including small pictures of everyone. There was a list showing her sister and brother and their pictures. Ancestors: A completed five-generation chart filled the screen. Touched a person's entry, then saw their five generation chart.

(Illustration: OneGreatFamily)

While there is no centralized repository for people and families, there are numerous sites where people have submitted their family information for display on the web. Many sites suppress information on living people, but not all of them. OneGreatFamily is the only site that attempts to merge multiple submissions of the same person into a single entry. There was only one Charlemagne, but in the WorldFamilyTree he has hundreds of entries with nine different first names, mostly titles since a first name is required.

Documentation and sources


Touched marriage date and saw a copy of the marriage certificate. I touched birth date and then saw the birth certificate. A "Parent Type" drop-down list included: Biological, Adoptive, Clone, Donor, Surrogate, Step, and Unknown, as well as DNA Compatibility percentage and the blood type.

(Illustration - DNAhelix)

Scanners and digital cameras can easy create images of original documents that can be stored as the source in PC based family tree programs. West Virginia, and Missouri have begun to display digital copies of vital record registers and even copies of individual death certificates online.

Many "non-traditional" parent types can be handled in family tree programs. Some of the biological ones that are becoming more commonplace will present difficulty in documenting and will almost certainly be a roadblock to future research.

DNA testing has become a commodity with numerous laboratories providing test kits and posting the results along with the person's claimed ancestry. The two commonly available tests are the "Y-Chromosome" that links a son to his father and the "Mitochondrial" that links daughters to their mother.

  • 2009: The comment posted, pointed out correctly that mt-DNA is passed from a mother to all of her children. I was referring to making connections going up the mother's mother's line.

DNA projects might help to eventually answer questions that genealogical research has not conclusively answered. This can only happen if the posted ancestry is of the highest quality and does not include any questionable claims. Two questions that are of interest to me: Was Frances West of Duxbury, Massachusetts a descendent of or related to the West/DeLaWarre family of Virginia? Was Richard Warren of the Mayflower related to the Earls of Surrey Warenne family?


Genealogy should be much more than just collecting new people and finding event dates and places. Finding out what the people were doing and why they were doing it gives you a much better feel for the person. The futuristic terminal offered some tools to learn about their activities.


Clicked on Migration for a person and up came a map of the eastern US with a red dot in Pennsylvania. At the bottom it showed the year and had VCR type buttons for Play, Pause, Back, and Fast Forward. After pressing the Play button, the year started to increase and other solid red dots began appearing and moving westward leaving a dashed line trail. Some dots turned black, presumably indicating that they had died. At the bottom were counts for living descendants and spouses. The state and county boundaries also changed with the time.

While the predicted animation is not available, many of the necessary components are. The number of online historic maps has grown tremendously. There are online maps for state and county boundary changes, civil war maps with river crossing points and friendly landowners, township landowner plat maps, and even Sandborn Fire Insurance maps that display individual buildings with construction and occupancy information for several time periods for various cities. With adding geocodes to their records, which currently includes the Social Security Death Index records and others, the data to drive the animation is becoming available and it could eventually be possible.

(Illustration: Geocoded data from


Events: I was presented with a Basic Chronological List of key events including the familiar birth, marriage, children's births, census, death, and burial. It also included "Moved To and the address" and "Lived at the address." I touched the 1850 "Lived at" entry and it displayed the census image with the name highlighted. I touched "birth" and a family Bible page image appeared with a note showing that it had been transcribed and verified. I touched "Include" and it brought up a screen with check boxes for Automotive, Church, Court, Credit, Education, Employment, Land, Medical, Press, Taxes, Transportation, Utilities, and Voting. Land brought up a topographical map with the property outlined on one side and the dates and names of prior owners on the other. I clicked on the "first owner" and saw the land patent.

Timelines or a chronological list of events are a very handy tool and are now available in most family tree programs. Unfortunately, all of the entries have to be done manually.

Census records are available online at Ancestry and Heritage Quest Online. There are also a number of other sites that have images, indexes, or transcriptions of many census records. What is missing is anything that links the entry to an exact individual or family. One still needs to add a "lived at" entry for each individual of a family in their family tree program and create links to downloaded images.

There are web sites where people can post images of family Bible pages or typed transcripts. Some bible transcripts have been published in a variety of publications, some of which can be found on the web. Copies of privately held family Bible pages can be easily shared through the use of queries, digital cameras or scanners, and email.

Military records were not mentioned but some are now available. WWI draft records are available on Ancestry while the WWII Army enlistment information is available at

There are a wide variety of records about people available on the internet as well as in corporate and government databases. Linking to them can only be achieved when there is unique ID. A person's Social Security number was often used as an ID for many of these systems. Many of these records are not available due to privacy issues and laws. The original land patents are available at the Bureau of Land management website. Some landowner plat maps, many taken from the late 1800 county atlases, are available. Topographical and other maps are also available. These can help to easily locate property in the "Rectangular Survey System" states.

Metes-Bounds state provide a greater challenge however tools like Deedmapper can help to construct a variety of neighboring properties until some specific landmarks are identified. Future surveys using GPS could identify all of key points and make mapping each individual property easy. Few grantor-grantee indexes and historic land transfer records are available online. Many counties now have computerized indexes in their offices. Real Estate listings and recent sales history are available for many areas.

Personal Information


I touched "Credit" and was presented with a list that included the hotel charges and book purchases from earlier that day.

Online banking with almost up to date credit card and other account information is commonplace via ATMs, telephone, or via the Internet. Current charges appear as pending immediately and details are displayed the next day. Employee Benefits such as Medical coverage and managing and monitoring their Retirement, and Investment accounts are often online.


If the research and documentation activities were no longer necessary then I figured that I could still look for and document photographs. After all, photographs help to make all of the names and numbers come alive.


I said "Show me the photos." Up came a list of dates and captions on one side and a baby picture of my wife on the other. I touched an entry captioned "8th Grade." It showed her class photo with a circle around her picture. I touched the face of a classmate and a bubble caption appeared giving their name. Real estate listings and photos were available for the homes that we had purchased.

Commercial photographers covering weddings, school, and sporting events often post the proofs online. There are websites where people can create a photo album for their family, vacations, hobbies, or whatever and make it available to the world or a select group. Some cabin photos from my old YMCA summer camp have been posted. Current real estate listings are online but the historical entries vary greatly. Google and Yahoo have image search capabilities, but there is little user control over what will be returned. Documentation needs to include at least the names, the date, and the place.

Family and Personal Stories

The one part of a family's history that cannot be recreated are the family stories. If the stories are not recorded or passed on verbally, then the information is lost forever.


I asked for stories. Up came a short list that included articles from school papers, newspapers and organizational publications covering topics from school sports to genealogy. I asked for "Record Personal Memories" and up came a script of questions to answer. The unit then said, "To record verbal memories, please contact from a quieter location."

(Illustration: home page)

There are sites like where people can enter and store their stories. The Ellis Island website has recordings from a variety of immigrants telling their stories about their experience in coming to a new country. Wikipedia has biographies of famous people that can include family information with hyperlinks to ancestors. See their entry for Robert Louis Stevenson at

Another place to find information about people is on the increasing number of searchable historic newspapers sites. These allow finding all kinds of tidbits about people. Currently, searches are within a specific newspaper or in some cases within a geographic area. Date range can often be set to help limit the results, but it can still return everyone with the same name. The old newspaper articles often contain much greater detail than current papers, especially for disasters, accidents, or unusual human interest stories.



I touched "Subject Genealogy" - Up came a detailed description for Genealogy, talking about the study of genes, gene splicing, clones, creation of altered life forms, followed by Obsolete: Genealogy: A widely popular study of Family History or Finding One's Roots. The Government determined that so much time and so many resources were being spent that it would be more cost effective to tie the various database systems together and create "The List."

This functionality is also within Wikipedia. Try a search for "genealogy." Search engines and other sites allow finding information on just about any subject. The results at some sites are greatly influenced by paid advertising. limits the search results to genealogy related websites. It also has built-in location logic to know that certain cities are in a county and that the county is located within a certain state.

1998 Ideas To Get More Information Online

Following are my 1998 ideas to help get more information online and make it available to a wider audience.


The first priority should be in digitizing and then preserving of old and fragile records. This would protect them from being handled and the electronic format would be more widely accessible. The electronic images could immediately be made available to the public via the Internet, where they could be indexed, transcribed and verified. The images and text would be immediately available to researchers rather than waiting years for a project to be completed and published.

(Illustration - Family Bible record for the Library of Virginia Website)

Archives and Libraries have been doing this for years. The Library of Virginia put their bible record collection online. This is exactly what the LDS' ScanStone project is currently doing. They are digitizing their microfilm collection and then having volunteers index the key fields for direct access. Some of the records can be used with waypoints until the indexing is completed. Waypoints are intermediate access points to help narrow down the results. Probate, Grantor, and Grantee Indexes would be great candidates for using waypoints since the old courthouse books are already arranged with specific pages for AA-AC, etc.


Standardization of data storage is a major obstacle to sharing and retrieving data. Each system and person stores information in a format that is convenient for them. GEDCOM only helps to move data from one system or format to another. People should be able to enter comments and link to conflicting or supporting information.

There has been no real effort to create a standardized genealogical database format and encourage its' use. Collaboration and post-it type software is currently available and it could be used to annotate records without changing the original.


A major coordinated effort is needed to help standardize access to both original records, official indexes, and to make images or transcriptions of the data available to the public. Access to portions of Federal records could possibly be allowed electronically without disclosing confidential information depending upon the requester's relationship to the persons in the data.

Record access varies greatly by state and even by county within a state. Laws originally designed to protect the physical records and indexes are now preventing access to scanned images or even compiled indexes of the information. A poorly worded Illinois law enacted in 1991 to provide a 75-year privacy window still limits access to the records created before 1916.

There was recently a decision that tax preparation companies could sell some of the client information that they had obtained ( If they realized that the data from the family group sheet on the front of every 1040 tax form, complete with social security numbers to identify specific individuals and to link generations might be worth more than their tax service, maybe their tax services would be provided for free.

The Future?

Ten years ago the thought of having every census image available online, let alone at least twice, was unimaginable. Now the thought of having all of the LDS films scanned and then even having a small portion available with indexes or waypoints within the next ten years has people asking "What's taking them so long?"

The amount of data that will be available will go from unimaginable to unmanageable. It will be overwhelming unless we can create some rhyme and reason to access it and turn it into useable information.

One of the key issues will be preventing both the legal and genealogical misuse of the data. One of the best ways to manage the data is to eventually connect to the correct person and event.

The Family Tree

There needs to be an independent centralized "family tree" repository. If the Kennel Club can do it for dogs, then why can't there be an "official" site for people. The US government has much of the information necessary to populate a large portion of the American modern data, but they most likely will not. Getting other countries to participate is also probably unrealistic. The only way it will happen is through the cooperation of everyone with a vested interest in the data used by the genealogical community.

There are many online "family tree" services that are trying to do this, all with various degrees of success and usability. They have great sounding names like WorldFamilyTree, OneGreatFamily, and OneWorldTree. Unfortunately, having numerous sites to check, including some with access charges, creates more work for researchers rather than simplifying the process.

While I still believe that some information needs to be "given away" (Why Should A Genealogy Society Give Records Away? FGS FORUM, Winter 1997, page 25 - available at this site), I recognize that there needs to be a viable business model behind a project of this size. Researchers and libraries have proven that they are willing to pay for good services. There are many opportunities to have people and organizations outside of the genealogical community that would pay for access to portions of the information.

The publicly available Basic System needs to function like a standard family tree program. Individual information needs to include the basics like name, birth, marriage, and death dates and places along with a unique ID. It should have a family view to see the spouse or spouses and their children. It should also have at least a 4-generation pedigree view. The Events page for each individual would have links to the various details. The pages for living people could have contact information and links to web pages.

Where the public system meets the private system is when looking at sources and events.

There should be basic details about a source. If the image is on a subscription or pay-per-view, site access will be denied unless the users login or pay. Some jurisdictions might follow West Virginia's lead, in that they display the register or unofficial copy of the record and then allow the purchase of a certified copy.


could eventually include any publicly available record created by or about a person in their life if there was an ID linked them. There could also be a "other possible events" that included people with the same name in the same area and the same time period. Researchers could help to link records to the correct person. Researchers could also enter and upload information. There would need to be different colors used to denote the different types of links: official, proposed, verified, and disputed. This activity could keep researchers happily occupied for years or a lifetime.

With all of the indexing work that needs to be done for the ScanStone Project, wouldn't it be nice if the records could be linked directly to a specific individual. The same is true of all of the census records. All of the various Location and Surname boards would be able to link questions to a unique individual and then everyone with a vested interest could work to resolve any disputes.

The linking of data to the correct individual is of the utmost importance. Our industry has a history of some excellent well-documented research along with let's just say some "questionable connections." A centralized system would allow everyone to see the actual record, and the conclusions, as well as allow comments or disagreements.

Land records, along with grantor and grantee indexes are one type of record that has a great potential for customers outside of the genealogical community. Title insurance firms and lawyers would be able to work from their office rather than having to visit courthouses. Law offices could also use access to probate and court case indexes along with the information in the files.

Funeral homes, cemeteries, newspapers, and the jurisdiction could provide the death and burial information along with links to their records or load them directly into the system. Online obituaries could even include a link to the exact individual. Posting the information would eliminate the need for many of the businesses to handle inquiry calls and unprofitable requests to send copies of records. It could act as advertising and possibly provide income from a small profit from selling certified copies of records.

Industries that could benefit from having links to specific living individuals are email and telephone directories. How easy would it be for alumni associations or class reunion committees to find people by doing a search in the events by school and year? It could help to make sure that credit reports are for the correct individual. Online purchases or checking into a motel could be sped up by just providing an ID number and a credit card. The person's name and address could automatically appear. Real Estate and multiple listing services could provide current photos and information on the "old family home."

Key Issues

Identity Theft & Record Access needs to be resolved before much of this could happen.

In my original article the government replaced the need for doing genealogical research by making all of the information available linked by individual IDs. Many jurisdictions posted or allowed the posting of selected vital record information. After 9/11/2001, many states began going in the opposite direction in a misguided attempt to protect privacy and prevent identity theft while others, including the Federal Government, continue to post information, even some about living people.

In order to be able to positively link a particular person to an event, there needs to be a unique ID for each individual. To function effectively, that ID number and some basic information needs to be publicly available.

A person's social security number was never private and can never be made private. It was printed on pay stubs and tax forms. It was often used as a student ID or for an insurance customer ID. Indiana used it for driver's license numbers in the 1970s. It was often required to cash checks and many people had their SS number printed on their checks to speed up the process. Social security numbers were added to birth certificates in Illinois to be able to determine exactly who the parents of a child were.

Knowing a person's SS number SHOULD be no different than knowing their license plate, VISA, or bank account number. The knowledge should not give anyone any rights. What needs security is access to the truly private information. Hiding a person's SS # will not prevent identity theft.

Preventing access to public or formerly public records will not help either. That will only prevent other people from being able to verify information. Why prevent access to birth, marriage, and death records when much of the same information was printed in newspapers?

The problem with identity theft is that companies create new accounts or extend credit based upon minimal public information. They should be held accountable for their losses and also reimburse innocent victims for their inconvenience. The Business and Legal communities need to work together to come up with a solution to identify and solve the real problem of identity theft and not just keep taking steps that appear to be doing something about the problem.

There is no secure computer or banking system developed that had just a single key. It has both an ID and a password. Social security numbers could be used as a key to access information, but only after everyone has been given and then changed a PIN or password. By the way, don't ever use your mother's real maiden name for security on a bank account.

Unique ID

It is unlikely that governments will come up with a unique ID for every individual. Some countries have them, some have IDs for most, while some don't have anything. The genealogical community might have to develop a system of unique IDs that can be cross-referenced to other keys like a Social Security number.

As more and more records are becoming digitized, they should be linked to the specific individual(s) involved. Multiple records for the same event should all be linked to the same individual. The system at OneGreatFamily consolidates multiple occurrences of the same people while allowing conflicts to be shown and resolved. This would eventually prevent numerous people from using the same document to support different results.

A single family tree repository (physical or virtual) along with a unique ID for each person would allow all records to be cross-referenced to the correct individual. This would be no different than people adding source information to their personal family tree program or files. Online newspapers could provide a link to the exact John Doe mentioned in the story rather than having people wonder if the person mentioned in the story is the John Doe that they know. It might be seen as if the person's privacy is being compromised, but not as much as the hundreds or thousands of other people in the country with the same name.

Computers can help to identify duplicate people and match events with an individual. There could be a "Possibly the same as" field that could list the IDs of other people with the same or similar information. There should also be a surety field, like those used in The MasterGenealogist for the individual. They could be sure of the person's name, the date, the place, but not totally sure that it is this exact individual. There probably have been cases of people with the same name being born on the same date in the same town, hopefully to different parents.


Functionality-wise, I still like most of the features that I predicted back in 1998. Many of them are available in a variety of standalone programs, but they don't operate seamlessly. Data shouldn't have to be re-entered or transferred between applications to make it work. Especially since new items are always being found and added.

Whether done online or on a PC and uploaded or downloaded later, creating individuals, citing sources, and listing events needs to be easier. One example would be with census records. Say a person in your file is found to be a child listed in the 1880 census. Wouldn't it be nice if you could just link them and the program would automatically add the parents and other children along with an about birth year and place? Then create "Lived at" entries for all of the individuals, and cite the census record as the source for the birth and lived at events. It should then create a link to the online or downloaded image.

If each line of a census record was linked to a specific individual, then it would be possible to bring up all census records for a specific person rather than everyone with the same name. Currently selection by year of birth is not accurate since the person's age was asked and the enumeration dates varied. The database should store and allow searches by birth date range.

Information overload is a real problem with many of the services. Even when a date range and place are entered it does not appear to correctly limit the results. A query for someone born in 1606 should not return 1930 census records. Searches should also be possible for multiple names on the same page or ideally even a household to find a John and Susan Doe.


    • Could this be done? Yes.

    • Should it be done? Yes.

    • We made it past 1984, Y2K, and 2001, so why are we still worried about the Big Brother aspects of it? Hiding information is rarely a good method when trying to solve a problem. Theft, of all forms, occur everyday, so we need to deal with solving the real problem. Once everyone got rid of their automobiles, they would no longer have to worry about car theft, but that is not the best solution.

    • Can a single company or entity do it? No.

    • Individually we have all dealt with relatives, jurisdictions, churches, cemeteries, funeral homes, libraries and museums, genealogical and historical societies, newspapers, genealogy publishers and companies, and others to obtain the information needed for our own research.

    • Can we now get them all to cooperate and use their collective resources to create a system that will ensure the highest quality of information available online and be easy for everyone to use? The system should require proper research techniques or at least encourage them and highlight any questionable ones.

    • It will be interesting to see where things stand in 2014, eight years from now.

Links to all websites mentioned in this article are available at Jeff's Genealogy Links then choose a topic.

  • In 2006, Leland Meitzler became the editor of the Everton's Genealogical Helper and the first article that I wrote for them was "The Future Revisited" that appeared in the November/December 2006 issue. It looked back at the 1998 predictions made in "The List" and then looked to the future again.

    • Rather than trying to update the predictions in "The Future Revisited" after only two years I felt that it might be better to allow the readers to add their observations and comments at Leland's GenealogyBlog.

    • After reading the articles just go to and let us know your views.

    • Record access and identity theft are still major issues that need to be addressed. See Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter posting of 3/13/09 and the comments at Open Access to Public Records: A Genealogical Perspective