Big changes have come to — all content is now read-only, and member subscriptions and the Shop have been discontinued.
Learn more
New? Start Here
Genealogy How-To
 Getting Started
 Getting Organized
 Developing Your Research Skills
 Sharing Your Family's Story
 Reference Guide
 Biography Assistant
Free Genealogy Classes
 Beginning Genealogy
 Internet Genealogy
 Tracing Immigrant Origins

Family Finder
First Name:

Genealogy in the New Times
by Gary B. Hoffman

Genealogy research and publishing is changing rapidly. That you are reading this article proves you are a part of these changes because this article is being published online by a Web site which is doing its part to change the nature of how we "do genealogy." I believe the pace of change will only accelerate in the next few years and I have some suggestions for the movers and shakers in the industry to improve the state of the genealogy art.

In former times, i.e. before the Internet, ancestral research was conducted by people searching printed documents and interviewing relatives in order to assemble a pedigree chart or even a book, called a genealogy. Technology helped accelerate pace of this research. First, microfilming projects brought far-flung records together for easy access. Then computers compiled and coordinated the results of the research in large and small database programs. Today, the Internet is making communication among relatives and researchers instantaneous and is providing a platform to store both facsimiles of source materials and the results of research.

Yet, even with these technological advances, we still depict our ancestral heritage in either book form or a pedigree chart. Even the online ancestral databases use the familiar pedigree tree to show relationships. As we transition to a new calendral epoch, I issue a call to think about genealogy in new ways that help family history be more relevant and more interesting to more people. I believe we need better ways to represent the people in our family tree, our relationships to them and their relationships to each other.

December 15, 1999

Helpful Products
Family Tree Maker
Family Origins

More Articles
GEDCOM: The Next Generation
A Century of Genealogy

Helpful Web Sites

When we look at the fundamentals of family history, we are concerned with people and their relationships. Most of us recognize that life is complex, yet we use simplified ways of representing our ancestors and their relationships, such as a list of names, dates, and places. However, a person is not just his birth date, marriage date, and death date. People — even ancestors! — are real individuals who take up space over time. I believe every person deserves to be better described than by these basic tokens.

New Ways of Approaching Family History

So I propose that we put together a new method of recording more than just the basic birth, death, and marriage data. Let's record the answers to questions like these: What was their body size and shape? How did they travel and why? Where did they live throughout their lives? How did they view the world, both the physical world as well as spiritual matters? What were their thoughts as revealed in writings or speech? And many more such questions.

Hardly any genealogies I have read concern themselves with such details of a person's life. And the genealogy databases we have built do not generally have the ability to store these types of information. But it is out of these details that a story emerges, making our ancestors real to us. Without these and many other details, they are no more than a name with a few associated dates.


My first challenge is for the genealogy and technology community to design a better way of representing people by giving us details that help us get to know them.

So my first challenge is for the genealogy and technology community to design a better way of representing people by giving us details that help us get to know them. This is what I had in mind when I discovered the Mosaic program and published the GenWeb Proposal in 1994. I envisioned a Web page of details for each individual in history, written in HTML, linked to pages representing the people important in their lives. The recent emergence of the XML now gives us the tools to organize the data for each person according to agreed standards. GedML, an XML Data Type Definition, gives us one set of such standards and is a good beginning. GEDCOM, used for nearly two decades to transfer data among genealogy programs, still has potential to hold all the data I think we need, but may not be flexible enough for the Internet age.

Genealogy Systems for Complex Family Relationships

My second challenge is to recognize that there are more relationships in life than Mother-Father-Spouse-Child. Why? Because, as mentioned, life is complex and families have always been complex. The "nuclear family" concept is merely a simplified ideal that does not exist in real life. Yet, we have designed genealogy systems around the notion that the most important relationships are these four. As a result, it is very hard to represent step-relationship, intergenerational relationships, and even non-familial relationships. Sometimes, in family history, these relationships are more important to the people involved than the spousal or parental link.

Of course, you might argue, "I'm only interested in the blood line." Sure, that's interesting, if you can verify it. But don't forget that history is about people and bloodlines are only the beginnings of people. After our birth, the other relationships in life influence us more and more.

For example, I am compiling a genealogy of some families who were thick in Kentucky in the 19th century. Over and over, I'm finding the death of a wife which leaves the husband with orphaned children. Then the husband remarries a widow with children and this couple raises both families together and even has children of their own. (In fact, I even grew up in such a family.) Our traditional pedigree chart and family group record do not show the complexity of such a family arrangement and therefore do not give a true picture of the relationships among the family members.

In another example, I found an ancestor who took care of many local orphans during her lifetime and even founded a school for orphans. In the 1880 census, two of her teen-aged granddaughters were recorded as living in her household. There is a story there of many relationships that is not possible to tell using our standard forms.


I found an ancestor who took care of many local orphans...there is a story there of many relationships that is not possible to tell using our standard forms.

Finally, I am weary of the very format of simple genealogy forms and I issue a call for genealogists and technologists to "think outside the box" or, in this case, outside the two-dimensional form. We need better ways of representing and visualizing people and relationships, perhaps in three dimensions or even more. Using virtual reality tools, I'd love to enter a computer space like Star Trek's holodeck and converse with my great-grandfather with his family members arrayed around him.

I saw some promise in this direction in so-called ProjectX that come from Apple Computer's Advanced Technology Group in 1995. Apple even developed a plug-in for Web browsers called HotSauce that helped represent data in three dimensions. It was considered useful for indexing hard drives and even Internet content. I used the technology to generate a demonstration of three-dimensional blobs representing my ancestors that I could fly through using my mouse to steer me. Alas, Apple later divested itself of the technology and it has has been swallowed up by the search engines of the Internet. A few hard-core converts still hang on to the project.

But that was just a starting point. Combine three-dimensional images with a timeline and you have an ancestral flow chart. Using colors and shapes for coding, we can impress information onto our charts ala Edward Tufte, the data visualization guru of Yale. In short, let's make our genealogy charts interesting to look at and visually rich with information. If you are not a developer of genealogy software, but rather a user, send this article to your favorite developer. Let them know if you agree with these ideas. Of course, if you don't agree, you can keep the traditional pedigree charts and descendant lists going for another year, decade, century, or millennium.

References to Advanced Visualization Techniques

About the Author

Gary Hoffman has been involved in genealogy research for over 30 years. He is former president of the Computer Genealogy Society of San Diego and is CGSSD's Webmaster. Currently a computer manager at the University of California's San Diego campus, he recently received a law degree and passed the California bar exam. His articles on technical and legal issues relating to genealogy have appeared in several online publications and newsletters and he is a regular speaker at national genealogy conferences.


Copyright 1999 by Gary B. Hoffman. All Rights Reserved. Any republication of this article requires the express consent of the author.

Back to Top of Article

Home | Help | About Us | Terms of Service | PRIVACY
© 2011