Exploring the Obsolete: The Need for Adaptation in Genealogy

To be a young and savvy genealogist means to embrace change. These are the stories that motivate and excite us in our own histories: the exact moments when new paths begin, when the ships set sail, when boots touch down on soil for the first time. Because we try to become catalysts for our own possibilities in our personal and professional lives, these are the stories we most want to discover in our families.

Adaptation—fearlessness in the face of change—is inseparable to who we are as the rising generation of family historians, researchers, and archivists. It’s the commodity our generation has to offer in abundance, an asset that is frequently underutilized and unappreciated. And at no point is that more apparent than when something in the genealogical community goes obsolete.

So in order to help all of us in our journey to discovery, I want to talk about what it means for something to be obsolete, and how we can recognize and embrace these changes when they come.

What makes something in genealogy obsolete?
As I’ve reflected on my own experiences in adaptation, these are some examples that come to mind as a working definition:

  • When the number of users of a product, project, or service has demonstrably been in decline for a prolonged period of time. Especially true when the majority of its users no longer use the service.
  • The product, project, or service in question has been replaced by one of equal or superior functionality, or one that is free or reduces costs to the user.
  • The product, project, or service is no longer financially sustainable without significant reduction or expansion to its implementation.
  • The technology on which the product, project, or service depends is obsolete. Especially true when more effort must be exerted in adapting the old systems to new technology than would be exerted in replacing it.
  • The needs of new/current users are not being met by the current design of a product, project, or service.

Obsolescence: The Death of PAF
When I first began getting serious about genealogy early in my teenage years, I used Personal Ancestral File, or PAF. At the time, I didn’t understand the importance of citing sources or collaboration with other researchers. I wasn’t trying to wrestle with DNA related questions, or categorize a large collection of photos or original documents. For me, research was using as many free resources as possible—no matter how poor or questionably accurate they may have been. For my lack of experience, I didn’t know any better. For my needs at the time, PAF was ideal because it was free and easy to use.

If you’ve never heard of PAF or seen it in action, that’s because it’s obsolete now. All support for it was discontinued several years ago, for many of the reasons listed above. PAF software has been replaced—twice—in favor of websites superior in functionality. With the significant advances in technology and digitization, the needs of users had expanded to such a degree that PAF could no longer keep up. As computer operating systems continued to progress beyond Windows XP, the program could only be run in compatibility mode by those who insisted upon using it. With the introduction of Windows 8, compatibility mode for many programs disappeared. The problem was compounded further with Windows 8.1, and the technology on which PAF was based was gone.

How do we cope with the obsolete?
Why was PAF’s disappearance not the end of my world? Because I had long since outgrown the software. I moved on to RootsMagic Essentials 4 and 5, and embraced all of the features they had to offer. Many of the features they provided, including one of the earliest alliances with FamilySearch, made their software invaluable to me.

As I learned what it meant to do quality research with source citations, and became increasingly transient as a college student, my needs changed again. For someone like me who has lived in five states and gone through six computers (and at least as many phones) in the past ten years, anything less than seamless cross-platform synchronization does not meet my needs. As a result, I’ve since done away with desktop genealogy software altogether, in favor of the website/app combination provided by Ancestry.

Reaching a place where obsolete technologies no longer affect me has been an exercise of continual experimentation. Rather than being dragged into a new experience, I am willing try most of the tools available on the market. I develop a keen sense of what I require, and use anything and everything to accomplish the task. When something no longer functions according to my needs, I dump it without hesitation or sentimentality. I live under the assumption that there is always something better coming, or may already exist, that will ultimately make what I do easier and more enjoyable.

The Best is Yet to Come

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that some of the best work that has ever happened in the genealogical community is happening right now. Digitization and greater records access demand to make better researchers of us all. DNA analysis presents us with unprecedented answers to burning questions—not to mention more honest connections with family members than we’ve ever had before, at a time when those connections are more important than ever.

But we cannot fully take advantage of these opportunities without adapting to changing online presences, redefinitions of organizational goals, an increased need and reliance on volunteerism, and the disposal of obsolete technologies.

To refuse to adapt, to give up on outgrowing our current approaches, is to sacrifice our own potential for the sake of comfort. And what we stand to lose, now and going forward, is of too great a value to pass up.


Heather Collins scribbled her first pedigree chart in the back of her journal at fourteen. Her research has since taken her deep into the American South, Canada, and the Caribbean. She blogs at Of Trees & Ink, and is a founder/contributor at Young & Savvy Genealogists. A native of Maryland, she now lives in Idaho with her husband and very spoiled cat.