Why You Can’t Do All Your Research Online

11 Feb 2014

I’m slowly getting back into the swing of things after ten days in Salt Lake City. The RootsTech Conference was a terrific gathering of genealogists and techies discussing the present and future of the field. It was a great opportunity for learning, as well as meeting with new and old friends.

One of the major reasons I went to Salt Lake City the week before the conference was, of course, to take advantage of the research opportunities in the Family History Library (FHL). I was astounded at how slow the library was when I was there. There were nowhere near the number of patrons I have seen in the past.

Over the last decade, the Internet has blossomed with resources for genealogists. Websites such as Mocavo are indispensible for finding all of the information you need to research your family. None of us would want to go back to the pre-Internet days of research now that so many resources are available to us on the other side of a computer monitor, mouse, and keyboard. But the internet is not the all-in-one research tool that many think it is.

In one of the sessions, a speaker stated: “I’m relying on the internet to reveal all the secrets of my family tree to me. Now why do I rely, and so many others, rely on Internet research? Well, first of all, like many of you, I work long hours, and can only research on nights and weekends, which is usually not when archives are open. Second of all, the time and costs to travel are hard, which means that actually going to the archive or former family location is actually the last resort, not the first option.”

As any experienced researcher will tell you, this is a path that will fill your research with unnecessary brick walls. The unfortunate truth is that not everything is available online. It takes onsite research in archives, libraries, and repositories to obtain as much information as possible about your family.




Many books have been published with compiled genealogies, extracted and abstracted records, and more. But many of these books will not be available online in your or my lifetime. Why? Copyright! Books are protected by copyright for long after the death of the author. And big corporations are only getting governments to extend that period, not abbreviate it. There are ways to access these materials, however. How? By going to your local public library (which almost always have some night and weekend hours) and asking for an inexpensive (and sometimes free) interlibrary loan. This allows your library to borrow materials from other repositories for you.

Digitizing records is time consuming and expensive. Governments are putting modern records online quickly because they are already in electronic form. But older, historical materials are slower to come online.

Even with the vast resources of FamilySearch, digitizing is taking awhile. Last year, they estimated that it would take more than 300 years to digitize the items in their collection. Since that time, they have partnered with other organizations to help speed the process up, but it will still take more than 30 years before everything is available. Do you want to wait that long to access records that might break down your brick wall?

This is why I was at the FHL researching in person. By Tuesday I was joined by hundreds of other researchers, and by Friday evening the place was packed wall to wall with researchers cranking away to microfilm, scanning microfiche, reading books, and a few on computers. I came away with hundreds of images of original records that are not even available in extracted form online.

And while in-person visits to archives and repositories need not necessarily be the first stop, relegating them to the “last resort” pile will do nothing but ensure frustration for you. Research smartly, and use online resources and offline resources together to obtain as much information about your family as you can. Then you will have the most successful research experiences.