Similar to land plat books, she had on her computer a program that would locate land based on township and section number. Think "Google Earth + Land Plat Maps," and you are right there with me. I decided that I needed one of those programs at home, but something told me I couldn't afford it. Fortunately, I was familiar enough with the ancestral area (without having the township or section number) that I could visually locate the section of land on her computer. The next step, of course, was going to the books.
As I entered the record room, I was surprised to see a long line of young, vibrant faces holding books that spanned their torsos from shoulder to waist, waiting to exchange their tomes for another. Their presence was accompanied by friendly and casual chatter over the records as they identified sections of land that would benefit their oil company employers.
Directly behind them on a shelf, I noticed the Grantor/Grantee Deed Index books, but was guided instead to the township and section books by my experienced helper. Here I will confess: I have never started with the township/section books. I have always started with the deed index books to first identify the individual ancestor in order to identify the township and section. My advantage this day was knowing precisely where the land was located prior to my search, having lived on a portion of the land as a child.
What this allowed me to do early in my search was to view all neighboring transactions for the specific land section in a handful of pages rather than jumping around through deed books to determine each transaction that the individual ancestor participated in. The obvious disadvantage to starting with the township books was that I might skip over other sections owned by that same ancestor.
Jumping into the shoes of these master petroleum geologists was very insightful for me. On one hand, I considered the experience of these individuals, and thought about how much more valuable the genealogical industry is when we tap into others' occupational expertise. On the other hand, I realized how confusing and overwhelming this process might have been for a newbie researcher who had no prior knowledge of the township and section number, nor of deed index books. Had someone called this office to request a copy of ancestral land records, it might have resulted in zero results if the caller didn't first know the township and section number.
While I am an enormous advocate for onsite research where possible, this was a perfect scenario to help me reaffirm the value of digitization coupled with the need for expert mentors. By providing assisted remote access to the records, the newbie could get help to locate the necessary records minus the confusion and frustration.
Digitization efforts call for a new kind of professional researcher: an online consultant who is able to use technology with agility to assist researchers of various (and lesser) skill levels in accessing, navigating, assessing, and analyzing online record collections. These professional researchers must be more than great researchers, they must be great instructors and consultants. They must be great technologists to help their clients remotely as if they were sitting beside them on their computer. They must be great networkers, so that when they lack the knowledge to assist with a difficult problem, they can conference in a colleague to help. They must not be stingy with their knowledge, and must recognize that by sharing their knowledge, they are raising the bar of expertise across the genealogical industry.
From my experience, we already have many of these individuals in the industry. The digital record age does not replace or remove the need for onsite research with online research. What it does is increase the need for professional consultants who are willing to redefine themselves to keep new researchers moving in the right direction.