Published September 11, 2017

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This is the 1,000th weekly “Roots & Branches” column.

If you do the math, you’ll figure out that this also means the column is entering its 20th year of publication in various newspapers.

That 20-year mark brought to mind a 2013 article from the online magazine The Verge that was evocatively titled “Who am I? Data and DNA answer one of life’s big questions” and included lines such as “We’re approaching a future where the mysteries of our ancestral past will simply no longer exist” and “Realistically, the pursuit of family history as it exists now probably won’t be around in 20 years: most of the mysteries are disappearing, and fast.”

Well, not so “fast,” in my opinion.

I don’t quarrel with the assertion that genealogy in the future will be radically different – it’s the “mysteries will simply no longer exist” part that I find to be typical Internet clickbait hyperbole.

That genealogy has changed at an accelerating pace in the 20 years of this column is undeniable. The collision between searchable online digitized documents and genealogically useful DNA testing has been profound in the last two decades.

But to say that most of the mysteries are disappearing (or will disappear) puts a wan smile on my face – the smile of someone who’s heard simplistic answers to complex questions too many times.

Let’s just work our way through a few of the mysteries that won’t disappear:

  • There will always be cases of one page in a document left off a microfilm, which in turn usually results in that page going undigitized.
  • Many records have gaps – either because no records were kept or they have been lost to history.
  • Off-the-wall records and private documents such as Fraktur baptismal certificates often will remain undigitized.
  • The expertise of local historians, much of which stays in their heads or unpublished manuscripts, will continue to need to be tapped.
  • In a lot of cases, pedigree analysis – how records fit together, when to believe records, how to effectively search when spelling variants of names are involved – is going to still be required … it’s difficult to automate the expertise of determining what’s logical and reasonable.

Finally, the category of “Every action having an equal and opposite reaction” comes to mind.

In some cases, “DNA testing giveth and DNA taketh away” when it upsets presumed paternity (and maternity, too, in the case of unacknowledged adoptions) – creating situations in which the paper documentation is family history and is at odds with bloodline genealogy … creating the likelihood of retracing steps and working on new trees.

As with all of the situations mentioned above, this mystery won’t disappear easily, quickly or (sometimes) at all.

Long live genealogy and family history together!

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