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February 24, 2011

What Did We Do Before the Internet?

One of my friends posted a one line status update today on Facebook. It was a rhetorical question "What did we do before the Internet!" but it got me thinking. What DID we do before the Internet and Social Media?

I don't know about you, but I wrote lots and lots of letters. Snail mail letters. I wrote personal letters to family and friends - page after page of news of what was happening in my life and asking about theirs. I wrote letters responding to queries in genealogical magazines. And then I waited eagerly for the replies. Hearing the mailman drop letters through my front door mail slot was my bright spot of each day during the week. If I saw the return address of a friend or relative, or even better a large manilla envelope from a name I didn't recognize I would refrain from tearing the envelopes open. Instead it became a daily ritual - make a cup of tea then sit down on the couch and slowly open each letter (prolonging the anticipation much like I do at Christmas when opening presents). I'd spend an hour sometimes reading and re-reading what I'd received.

Part of me misses those days! Now I correspond via email - and my emails are usually succint, to the point and don't give too much personal information just in case I hit the wrong email return address! There's pros to email correspondence. It's fast. And it's efficient - no wasted words, no "Dear so and so" just gttting to the point.

In 1993 I joined a BBS system. I dialed long-distance to Toronto to connect to their BBS (I can't recall the name) to read messages from other genealogists. It was thrilling! Using DOS I could post messages either on the message board or privately to other users. It took a minimum of 2 days for those messages to be posted and replies made. But it was expensive.

After a few months I discovered there was a local BBS that could link up with many other BBS systems all over N. America. I was quick to join. It seems very archaic now but I had to drive out to a nearby town  and see the Administrator to find out how to link in to his system. Once I joined in, I had free dialup as it was a local number. But now I had to wait 4 days minimum for messages and private mail to go out and replies come back.

That early BBS system was another highlight of my daily routine. I was hooked! I can't recall specifics but I know I managed to log into Compu-Serve and join message rooms. I think I remember using FidoNet. It was all great fun and seemed very very high-tech. Then a friend I'd "met" in a Compu-Serve room twisted my arm to try out this new thing called Windows. He claimed I'd never go back to DOS again.

And that really was my first time on the Internet. I think it was 1994 but can't remember for sure. Websites were battleship grey with black text. There were mostly libraries and archives websites, Rootsweb didn't exist, wasn't around and none of the big sites we are used to were in existence.  I think Mosaic was the browser I used.

I remember I signed up for Internet connection in  the fall. I didn't think too much of it the first few weeks. I got lost trying to find things. I ended up in places like a library in Norway when trying to look for genealogy rooms (sites). I decided to give it 3 months and if things didn't improve I was cancelling my service. It took a few months but I finally kind of got the hang of it. I could find some genealogy sites and check them out. But there wasn't much there!

It was costing me a fortune as my internet connection was through Toronto (long distance). But then a local entrepeneur set up a service called Bconnex. I was the first person in town to join. 

in late 1995, a friend convinced me to start my own website.  Olive Tree Genealogy was born. It didn't have a domain name of its own. It was just a tilde site off my bconnex connection and had only  a tiny bit of storage. In February 1996 I joined the fledgling servers, being one of their first sites.

What else did we do before the Internet? We played games - cards, Scrabble, Monopoly... I still play Scrabble but I play it online through Facebook. I don't play in real time - my brother takes his turn, my sister takes her, and I take mine. Sometimes it takes an entire day before we have all taken our turns. There is little interaction, occasionally one of us will post brief message.

What else did we do before the Internet? If we went out to a restaurant we talked. We laughed, we socialized. Now we take peeks at Facebook and Twitter on our iPhones or Blackberries.

What else? We used to go to stores and shop. We interacted with sales clerks, and sometimes with other customers. We touched and tried the items we were considering buying. Now we can go online and with a few clicks our shopping is done. Often our purchases arrive the next day.

Those of us doing genealogy research went far afield - to local museums, archives and libraries. We  slogged through microfilm, reel after reel, screen after screen. Nothing was indexed and finding an ancestor in a census record meant looking at one page after the next, reading every name until that magic moment when an ancestor's name jumped off the page at us. It was a lot of fun, especially if you had a friend or spouse with you. Now we go to a website, use the search engine to type in an ancestor's name and bingo - with any luck, there he or she is. Yes, it's fast and it's efficient, but is it as much fun?

Don't get me wrong. I love the internet! I love technology. I love the speed of genealogy research online. I love connecting with family and friends on social media sites like Facebook. But there are things I miss about pre-internet.

I miss the sound of the mailman dropping that long-anticipated mail through my front door slot.

I miss long newsy letters from long-distance friends and family.

Most of all I miss the feeling of accomplishment and excitement after slogging through endless reels of microfilm  and finding an ancestor.

I have a few wishes and hopes concerning the new world we are in:

My hope is that no genealogist thinks all research can be done online!

My hope is that we all put our phones away for that hour or two over dinner.

My hope is that we make time for simple pleasures that take place with one on one interactions in the real world. 

But no, I wouldn't want to give up the Internet or my iPhone, Ipad, MacBookAir, Jambox and other delights! But I will make time in my life for more simple, non-technological pleasures too.


Kim Neider said...

I've been doing my family's genealogy since 1972, Back then there was a lot of driving involved, lots of footwork, many visits to the library and lots of letter writing.. Amazingly I got more info then, than I have using the internet, these past few years.

txlynnage said...

You just described my pre internet life! I too miss those days!

The Grandmother Here said...

There are wonderful things about both times. If we try hard we can enjoy both the speed of online searching and communicating, and also the joy of talking face to face without electronic interruptions.

Barbara Poole said...

Such a nice post. I remember your early website, and often look back on the mid-90s because there was new technical stuff that was exciting. I miss that time, and the hours in a library. FB, Twitter and other things, although lots of fun, get in the way of doing research, and I waste so much more time. I think I will have my Fridays spent on gene. clutter clean-up, blog thinking and reading, no internet until after 6. Then WDYTYA at 8. I feel I need to slow down, my head is always spinning!

Sassette said...

I, too, miss the pre-internet days, and try very hard to make certain to have some of those things in my life on a daily basis. I rarely shop online, I send out cards to family members for occasions and play games at family get togethers. BUT Since I don't drive, the internet has been a major great help to me in my genealogical research. My hubs will take me places (when he is available), but I sure wouldn't know half of what I know now if it weren't for the net.

Becky Higgins said...

Great post. I've thought about the same things and miss some of the "old" days, too. However, like you, I do love my techy trickets:)

Julie D. said...

I love the internet, but I do miss the old days too. I am also afraid that new genealogists think they can find everything online and don't do actual research. For me nothing beats finding the original records. It is such a high to find that wonderful proof...but it is sure easier now than ever to locate it.

Joan Miller (Luxegen) said...

Great post! I recognize that rhetorical comment :)

JenS said...

I sometimes wonder what my two small children, who will know no life pre-internet, will be saying in thirty or forty years. What will life and technology look like then? For them, these are the 'good old days!'

Geni Grant said...

We at Geni feel strongly that the internet has given all of us genealogists the opportunity to collaborate together.

A wonderful post. I don't even remember what life was like without the Internet.