Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Paucity of Good Family History Tools

I'm an amateur genealogist. Some would call me a family historian. I can trace all of my ancestry back to the early 1800s, most lines into the 1700s, and some lines even back to the 1500s. Very little of this is the result of my original work -- I have just collected it. In this wonderful digital age, I'm delighted to be the beneficiary of lots of labor by those far more disciplined in the art of genealogy than me.

What I've found is that all the "easy" work is done. What I'm left with is mystery, ambiguity, and doubt. These are not fine companions for an engineer who likes to have all the answers and everything buttoned up nice and neat. So thus is my labor that will probably take the rest of my natural (and unnatural) life: the cataloging of all the research that has gone on before me, plus whatever else I personally can contribute.

I have been asking my parents questions about their past, scanning images of ancestors, collecting family histories, researching census records, and basically digitizing everything that comes my way. What I'm frustrated with now is my inability to organize and share it very well. I also have an enormous collection of family histories, letters, and other documents that are sitting in a box, that are begging for me to digitize them. It's daunting. My parents were very gracious to let me take all this material away, but they want it back -- soon.

I think what I'm going to end up doing is simply photographing every page. There's just no way I can get through these thousands of pages by transcribing it into the computer, and even using "Optical Character Recognition" (OCR) software won't save me any time. This will allow me to get the documents back to my parents, but it doesn't solve my problem of digitizing it so I can share it with others.

What I really want is an easy-to-use "wiki" (sort of like this blog) that will allow me and people I identify as "trustworthy" to collaborate, so that we may edit family histories, submit and annotate images, publish family histories, outline family trees, and completely index and associate every name to every picture and every bit of text. And I'd like to have a graphical user interface for viewing the family trees that allows three dimensional manipulation of the trees to facilitate not just going "up" the ancestral lines, but also coming "down" (this latter is especially needed for me since it seems evident any original research I do will be of this nature), so that I can see where the gaps are in the data. Then I'd like this database to allow rapid searches so that you can zoom around to find exactly what you're looking for. And I want it all online so the world (my family, especially) can see and contribute to it by submitting sources, transcribing photographed pages, cleaning up images, adding family trees and references, etc.

To my knowledge, nothing like this exists. There are poor cousins to these ideas, to be sure, but nothing of the simplicity, scale, and grandeur I envision. And none of the tools out there promise staying power in the midst of format and application wars, let alone the uncertainties of the online market. I've got a thorough idea on what it should do, but lack the programming and database management expertise to make it work. It's truly an information management nightmare, and the tools of today just don't cut it. I'm frustrated.

Does anybody know a good programmer, a webslinger, and a database engineer who would work this project with me for free? If we did it right, we could make a killing off it.

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