In the old days, when you went to a library or repository to do research, you might have to lug a whole briefcase full of information. In the electronic age, that has mostly changed. Although it is still a good idea to have a pencil and a pad of paper, the up-to-date researcher will more likely carry a camera, a digital audio recorder, a laptop computer and perhaps a scanner. What happens if you find yourself with some extra time near a research location and don’t have all of your equipment with you? Today’s smartphone just might save the research opportunity.
The average smartphone is really a sophisticated computer. Most smartphones (and most cell phones for that matter) also have audio recording capabilities and a camera. Some even have high definition video recording capabilities. There are apps for smart phones that let you take all of your genealogical data with you so you can conveniently check your existing file to find out if there is something that can be found in a particular library. Some smartphones have become so powerful, they are taking the place of a laptop for some applications.
Let’s go on a hypothetical research trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. You didn’t plan on having any time in Salt Lake, but a snowstorm has cancelled your flight and you have a couple of extra hours to spend. You quickly go to the Family History Library, but realize that you have none of your normal research equipment or notes. What can you do? If you have used your smartphone for genealogy in the past, you just might find that you have all the equipment you need to make your unplanned visit a success. First, you search the Family History Library Catalog for information about your ancestors in New York. You find a book in the Library that looks interesting and go and pull it from the shelf and start reading. Here is a whole page of information about your ancestor’s family. In the old days, you would grab your pencil and start taking notes. With your smartphone you simply pull out your camera and take a picture of the page. Then I suggest that you also take a picture of the book’s title page showing the publication information. Now you can either copy those pictures to your computer when you get home, our you can load the pictures directly into a program such as DropBox, and the photos are already on your computer at home. But what about microfilm? You spend some time searching church records in New York and find some interesting information on the microfilm. To record the information, you pull out your smartphone and take a picture of the projected microfilm image.
How about another example. You are on a trip out of state and realize that your trip will take you right by a town where your ancestors lived. You realize you have left all of your research equipment at home. But you also realize that you have your entire genealogy file with all of the references and sources right on your smartphone. You know there is supposed to be a cemetery in this town, and in fact, you had recorded the coordinates for the location of the cemetery in your genealogy notes. You read through your notes and fine the coordinates for the cemetery. Aha!, you say. I can use my smartphone’s GPS function to find the cemetery. You use a GPS app to enter in the coordinates on your smartphone and in a few seconds the program has drawn you a map to the cemetery location. You drive to the cemetery and then use the smartphones camera, this time to take pictures of the grave markers. You realize that you can upload the burial information directly from your smartphone to an online cemetery database. You can also share the photo with friends and relatives on a number of social networking sites. All of this can be accomplished right from your smartphone.
On your way out of town, you see a familiar surname on a mailbox. On a whim, you stop to ask if they are related. You find a long lost cousin. You use your smartphone to record the contact information and even record a short interview with your cousin about your great-grandfather. It is beginning to sound like the smartphone is the Swiss army knife of the genealogical research world.
All of this spontaneous use of the smartphone is not really that spontaneous after all. To take advantage of the features of your smartphone, you have to spend some time in advance of these serendipitous opportunities to learn how to use the different functions of your smartphone. It doesn’t do a lot of good to have a GPS function in your smartphone if you don’t know how to use it. There are literally dozens upon dozens of different models of smartphones out there in the market and the models are constantly changing and being upgraded. When cell phones first got cameras, the cameras were very poor quality and mostly only for snapshots. The newer smartphones come with high-quality, high-megapixel cameras that will work more than adequately for taking photos instead of writing down notes. Of course, you must be careful not to violate any of the rules of the particular repository you are visiting. I have used a camera in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, many times. It is a tremendous time saver. Not all repositories and libraries have the same policies, and you may not be able to indiscriminately use your camera for taking notes.
If you don’t know how to use your camera or your smartphone’s GPS function, you may lose the research opportunity. Every time you get a new phone you will likely have to start all over again learning how to use it. The time and the effort are worth it if you can take advantage of otherwise lost research opportunities. It also follows that if you want to use your smartphone for referring to your genealogical files, you have to have an app to synchronize your genealogical program to your smartphone app. There are several major genealogical programs that also have smartphone apps. You might want to check this out well in advance of your next trip.