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Interview: Dick Eastman on geneaology

By Contributor, 01 Sep 2008
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Dick Eastman ( is one of the world’s leading authorities on genealogy and will be visiting New Zealand early next year. He shares his thoughts on family research.

What got you started on genealogy? I unexpectedly inherited a family Bible. It was published in 1828 and the first entries of births, marriages, and deaths appeared to have been made prior to 1832. That got me started on one branch of my family tree and  then began to wonder, “Could I find any information on the other branches?” It was a downhill run from there.

Tell us something about the work you do. I have been writing about genealogy, technology, and the marriage of the two for more than 20 years. The only “work” involved is putting the words onto paper or onto a  computer screen. The rest of it is fun. So what does it take to become a genealogist? Anyone can become a genealogist in a matter of minutes. Becoming a good genealogist requires years of experience! You can find numerous free, “how to get started in genealogy” guides online. I’d suggest reading several of them. However, nothing compares to diving in and doing it yourself. I only suggest that you take extensive notes and especially record the source of every snippet of information that you find. You’ll be thankful years later that you did so.

What have computers and the Internet done for genealogy? I believe computers, and especially the Internet, have revolutionised family tree research. It is now affordable and often can be done at a time that is convenient for the genealogist. Genealogy used to be practical for senior citizens who had the financial resources to travel to the various libraries and archives. Now we have discovered that many people in their 50s, 40s, 30s and even younger also enjoy being able to research their ancestry. To be sure, we haven’t computerised everything yet; some records remain available only in distant locations. However, many of the more commonly-accessed records are already available online and millions more appear monthly.

What role will DNA play in researching our family history in the future? I suspect that DNA will become one of the standard tools of future genealogists. I believe we are getting close to the day when every genealogist starts with a cheek swab. A DNA test quickly verifies or refutes many claimed facts.

Can people now complete all their family history research online, or is there still a lot of ploughing through paper to do? We have not reached that point, other than perhaps in Iceland. In that small population, almost every person who ever lived there since the 13th century has been catalogued in an online database that is available to all  Icelandic citizens. That is the only such database that I know of. Most of us still use a combination of online and offline resources.

How important has the LDS Church been to genealogical research worldwide? The LDS Church provides valuable services all over the world, especially for those who do not live near the locations of their ancestors. The LDS Church operates several thousand local Family History Centers which serve as “catalog offices” for millions of rolls of microfilm. You can order a reel of microfilm for a modest rental fee and then return a few weeks later to view the microfilm(s) on the Center’s readers. This is a very convenient and cost-effective method of looking at images of original records from all over the world. The local Family History Centers are open to everyone. While there, you will never be given any information about the LDS religion, unless you ask for it.

Do genealogists ever strike problems getting access to BDM records? Yes. There are two problems:1. Original records perhaps were not recorded or perhaps have not been preserved (fire, flood, wars, insects,  or careless neglect). I am still looking for a birth record of my great-great grandfather. The local town clerk has all the birth records for later years, but not for those prior to the town’s founding in the 1820s. My assumption is that no one recorded births in those early years.2. Many countries have adopted “privacy” laws that restrict access to such records. In many countries, such records are kept locked up for 72 to perhaps 100 years. In some jurisdictions, all records are restricted.

Are there any “problem” countries for genealogical research? Yes, mostly countries that were not independent until recent years or were subjected to frequent warfare within their boundaries. Luckily, most European countries, North America, Australia, New Zealand and South  Africa have good records, often going back centuries. Chinese, Korean and some Japanese families have excellent family chronologies, listing only male ancestors for many centuries. Third World countries typically have fewer records available. One fairy tale that I hear often is that “all the records were destroyed in the war”  (or flood or fire or hurricane or some other disaster). However, I have never known that to be true.

New Zealand genealogists have had to lobby the government to ensure fair access to BDM records in the computer era. Is this a common problem? Sadly, this is a very common problem. Politicians and bureaucrats often want to find a “quick fix” for problems, whether those fixes are effective or not. There is no easy answer for this, other than talking to your politicians and bureaucrats. Unfortunately, the wheels turn slowly.

What sort of things are genealogists doing with multimedia? Genealogists are mostly experimenting to see what works well. Roots Television is an excellent example; it is a  great method of offering tutorials as well as “transporting” people to a distant location so that they may see for themselves. Looking into the future, I’d expect to see multimedia representations of the villages where our ancestors lived, representations of their lifestyles, and more.

You are lecturing at the 12th Australasian Congress on Genealogy & Heraldry in Auckland in January    2009. What can attendees expect to learn there? I hope to talk mostly about the use of technology to extend and simplify genealogy research. I may also have a  few “new toys” in my suitcase.

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