Sunday, February 20, 2011

Toward a Genealogical Democracy

This post is not going to start with an attention-grabbing first sentence. And it is going to be too long. There are just too many thoughts swirling around in my head right now, inspired by reading about the RootsTech conference, listening to Blog Talk Radio, reading blogs, and all the while continuing with my own research and its challenges.

From reading the blogs (and yes, I’m aware that they are not the entire genealogy community), there would appear to be a near consensus on the future of genealogy; the changing of the guard from “old” to “new” appears to be taking place. It is not so much a revolution as a shift in emphases and thinking. Many have written about what it is they are glad to get rid of with the “old,” and it is not so much to eliminate a particular approach, but to make it part of a larger picture and its practitioners less autocrats than elder statesmen.

In short, we’re going to have a democracy in genealogy. I’m all for it. But, of course, I suppose I have a few nagging reservations and cautions to express in the aftermath/coming down from the high of the “RootsTech Revolution” (or Rock Concert, nay, the Woodstock of Genealogy!). I know that there is no need to caution against banishing source citations to an undeserved oblivion, because no one is asking for that. However, democracy is a funny thing, and once you let that ole pendulum start swinging, it has a way of going farther than you expected.

I have not encountered many proponents of the “old” thinking, but then I’m pretty much of a “noob” to genealogy, having started only five and half years ago, and my very positive experiences with the genealogy community, and especially the genealogy blogging community, may not be typical.

The division that people apparently want to make more fluid and less absolute appears to run along two different fault lines that only occasionally coincide: “professionals versus amateurs” and “traditionalists versus techies.” (“Techies” is not a totally satisfactory description here - it includes the entire group of people who do not think that the Internet is ruining genealogy and who see the potential of social networking for genealogy.)

The following bloggers have written about these distinctions and and some have eloquently described the “new” approach, so I will quote their words:

Randy Seaver at Genea-Musings: “Three (or more!) Genealogy Worlds?”

Randy divides genealogists/family researchers into members of three worlds: the “traditional genealogy world,” the “online genealogy world,” and the “technology genealogy world.” See his post for the full definitions; based on these definitions, most professionals would fall into the third category. My “traditionalist” category does not correspond to his “traditional” category, but is closer to Debbie Parker Wayne’s (Deb’s Delvings in Genealogy) “traditional, but experienced” category - “researchers [who] haven't embraced technology and advancements in research methodology, but they spend much more time on genealogical research than ‘traditional’ researchers and many of them hold positions of authority in the genealogical community.”

Moreover, there is no open warfare, but rather an occasional hostility or contempt that pops up in places like mailing lists for professionals and aspiring professionals. And the main casualties seem to be genealogy societies - a number of bloggers have mentioned not joining them, quitting them, and having some unpleasant or unsatisfactory experiences with them. According to a comment posted by Kerry Scott (Clue Wagon) on Randy’s article, “Societies are missing most of the population of genealogists. They're catering to a minority, and that's going to have to change.” (Not the case in my local genealogy society, but it could very well be the exception to the rule.) According to some, much of the fault for this can be laid at the feet of the Citation Police and their ilk.

Kerry made some pointed observations on this subject in the series of articles she wrote right after RootsTech: “Warning: Contents May Have Shifted During Flight,” “What Was Different About Roots Tech,” and “Source Citations in Genealogy: Church or Cult?” (another eloquent post on this subject was written by Amy at Amy’s Genealogy, etc. Blog: “I Don’t Care Where You Put the Comma”).

In the first article, Kerry mentions some aspects of genealogy that reminds her of her “old life in HR (and not in a good way)”: “There’s the idea that anyone who doesn’t put the semicolon in the right spot on their citation is probably an idiot. There’s the idea that it’s important to impress people inside your profession, and maybe less important to impress the people who actually hire you.”

Yeah, this reminded me of my old life in academia. People Trying to Impress Other People Just Like Them. (And you really do need to check out all of the comments on her articles - particularly the one by ESM in which she has a priceless quote from “a recent college graduate in history” - you just can’t make stuff like this up!). But what was really important in Kerry’s articles were her perceptive responses to positive changes that are taking place.

One area where I am not in total agreement is on the NGS and FGS conferences. I enjoyed FGS in Knoxville last year and am looking forward to NGS in Charleston. They could definitely adopt some of the new ways of doing things seen at RootsTech, but - in a genealogical democracy - there is still room for presentations with a scholarly focus. Yes, they will probably continue to have smaller attendance than RootsTech, but academic-geek will always have a smaller audience than technogeek, and not every event needs to be a rock concert.

In “The Week My Outlook on Genealogy Changed: RootsTech 2011” at Pollyblog, Polly Fitzgerald Kimmitt voices “the counterintuitive realization that technology will bring us closer” together, but emphasizes that “It’s not about the gadgets.” She and many of the others reporting on the conference expressed the desire to be able to work more closely with their colleagues in spite of being separated by distance. They want to share their enthusiasm, excitement, and joy in doing genealogy with others, including newbies, whom they don’t want to scare off/put off by immediately throwing a gob of ├╝ber-scholarly jargon at them (“I won’t talk about ESM until the third date.”). This describes to a considerable extent what I think of when I think of a genealogical democracy: people of all levels of expertise and involvement sharing what they have and what they know.

Finally, at The TechnoGenealogist, Anne Roach had a number of interesting observations in her post “Programmers and Genealogists: Just How Different Are We?” My favorite was “Expecting everyone who wants to do genealogy to become a professional genealogist is equivalent to expecting everyone who wants to use a computer program to learn how to program - as in code (real code, by the way; not html, folks).”

So true! And this gets to the point that I would like to make about genealogical democracy: How to give people of all of the categories a place at the table. Amateurs do and will have a real role in genealogy, not just as onlookers, but as people who can make significant contributions: to knowledge, to methods and technology, and to other areas touched by genealogy, such as preservation efforts and the saving of our endangered repositories. This is where that gentle and welcoming approach to newbies comes in. Eventually and tactfully, we need to let them know that there is a certain learning curve, but that it is not one that is too steep to climb and can even be fun (in a roller coaster kind of way, of course).

And it’s not just the participation of people like me in genealogy/family research that I want to see acknowledged. I would like to see acknowledgment of the contributions of the type made by many of my relatives: even those who are not into GEDCOMs, proofs, and citations can still contribute as the keepers and sharers of memories, photos, and heirlooms. I have quite a number of first and second cousins who share these things with me, and do so with a generosity that humbles me. In return, they read my family stories and give me feedback - in the early days, it was my breathless e-mails, and now it is the reports and stories in my blog. Some days I feel like Scheherazade.

In this “democratic community” the scholars and professionals will still be our exemplars, and people such as Elizabeth Shown Mills would be the ideal: the ultimate unpretentious professional and scholar.

Of course, there are some caveats. But this post is already too long - those are fodder for another post!


  1. Bravo.

    Long post or not, I think you captured what a fair number of people are thinking about, and did it very well.

    Very thought provoking post. Thank you.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, especially the final paragraphs that acknowledged the contributions of non-genealogists. My family members have contributed priceless artifacts, pictures and stories. Without them, my resources would be very limited.

  3. I just posted a piece that makes some of the same points, but far less articulately. Genealogists come to genealogy from many different angles and with many different needs, but there is room in the tent for everyone.


  4. Greta, thank you for this excellent comprehensive summary of your take on "The Shift" -- the best I've seen. I'm reading all the posts you recommend.
    - Brenda

  5. Thank you, Greta, for this well-thought-out summary of shifting perceptions of what constitutes acceptable genealogy research and who's following which paths. I am not a professional genealogist, nor aspire to be. I am the keeper of a treasure trove of family history: letters, diaries, notes, documents, photos, scrapbooks, etc. about which I write in what I hope is a compelling manner that resonates with others who are not in my family (which is super tiny anyway). I would like to learn more about how to document what I have in an efficient, consistent manner, but don't wish to have to become a professional to participate in this vibrant family history/genealogy community. There is snobbery in every field--from orchid lovers to bird-watchers. But when people who are interested in a field are marginalized simply because they aren't working to the standards of the committed professional, a loss to the community as a whole occurs. Often those who start out casually eventually become committed -- and I hope my stories and the stories other family history buffs write about their families--would inspire others to do the same. I just read (again) "Family" by Ian Frazier. It's an inspiration. He uses family history to write about historical events and to ponder life and the nature of being. He's no professional genealogist, but his work strikes an emotional chord that all those perfectly-created genealogical records could never achieve. In fact, I may just post about it in the near future.

  6. Even if it was long, an absolute great post! You really captured how I feel sometimes. Genealgoy is becoming a mixed bag. On one hand you have those holding on to tradition and look down on those of us who embrase technology, but on the other hand I have experiance wonderful people who hold on to tradition and truely realize their role in helping those of us "Techies" to do genealogy and still juggle family, work and life. We are lacking on time as primarily we are the younger generation, and truly we could not accomplish all that we do with out the generous contributions from the traditional genealogist. Only together as a team can we all accomplish the daunting task of putting together our family history.

    It's not about looking like a schoolar. I really liked the part "who cares where the comma goes." Quit frankly those that I help don't. They just want you to help them put together their family history, so they can share it with those they love and treasure it. The main key that we must all remember is not how you source so much as that you always source your information so that it can be found again by others.

    Thanks for a great post. I really enjoyed it!

  7. Wow. GREAT post. Lots to think about...and I definitely think there's room for everyone. It's up to all of us to make sure of that.

    (Thank you for the mention, too!)

  8. Thank you Greta for taking the time to write this. I often wonder where I fall in the genealogy world. Know how to do research, but little of the technology side, so I feel lost and don't even know what people are talking about. Never mind, not knowing Twitter.
    You wrote a wonderful piece, and I am most appreciative, because it has many good points and I don't feel so alone as an older genealogist.

  9. Love this "long post." Thanks for capturing a wealth of info in one post. Thanks for broadcasting the range or researchers.

  10. I think the drawback to dividing people into different categories, is that it creates an us vs. them mentality. I've seen experienced genealogists who get thrown into the hobbyist category because they don't properly format their sources, or don't share them "on the first date."

  11. Excellent thoughts which have got my brain churning now.

    Having gone to visit The Land of No Internet & No TV right before Roots Tech started, I am working to get caught up on all that I missed (yeah I picked a bad week to be gone). This post had some great links to help me along that line.

    Here's hoping we all can work towards being more of an "ultimate unpretentious professional and scholar."

  12. dee - Thank you for your kind comments. More provocative posts have appeared and are still providing food for thought. We live in an interesting age.

  13. Kathy - I'm so glad you enjoyed the post and love to hear you write about the contributions of your family members. Genealogy has taught me that cousins rock!

  14. Judy - I don't agree with you - you used fewer words and said so much! (I actually referred a person with whom I am corresponding to your post, as she has seen some of the behavior against which you caution.)

  15. Brenda - Thank you! It is a topic which is still making waves and inspiring posts. I think this subject will be one of this year's "genea-phenomena"!

  16. Linda - My compliments to you - you have written a post-worthy piece as a comment, and I am honored! You could and possibly should post this on your blog - it is beautifully written - thank you for posting it here!

  17. Amy - You have expressed so well through your own experience what I was trying to say about "Techie" versus "Traditional" - a cooperative and complementary, rather than an adversarial relation. All the commenters here are making such perceptive observations and adding so much value to my rambling post!

  18. Kerry - Glad to do it; you framed these issues in a creative way that made it impossible not to start thinking seriously about them. People are going to be mulling over and responding to your posts for quite a while.

  19. Barbara - You have earned a worthy standing in the genealogy community many times over; I only wish I could have started many years earlier and accomplished what you have. And I think of you as a "civility exemplar," which we will always need. BTW, I don't tweet, either. It's all I can do to research and blog!

  20. Kathleen - Thank you - I belong to a genealogy society with many professionals and very talented amateurs, and the respect they show for one another and for all of the "noobs" like me has taught me that it is this attitude that enables them to be even better professionals and experts!

  21. Shasta - Exactly - I think many people want more "fluidity" and recognition that most people don't easily fit into a single category. I think we should look at the particular talent, expertise, and contribution of each person.

  22. Michelle - I know what you mean about a "bad week to be gone" - I'm going to be out a week next month and just know lots of exciting things are going to happen while I'm gone! Thanks for dropping by and for your comments - it's fascinating and enjoyable to see all of the different reactions to RootsTech, the citation issue, and the posts that I quoted.

  23. I am late to this post, but what a wonderful way to put it all together.
    I question why we have to put ourselves into categories, especially since I seem to cross all the spectrums fairly evenly. What is the famous song line, "Why can't we all just get along?"

  24. Kim - Exactly - it would be nice to see more cohesion as a community (though that already exists to a large extent among GeneaBloggers).

  25. The difference today is the speed and reach of genealogy. I'm all for democracy, but not all people are capable of good research. Yet, now anyone can publish the bad research to an audience of millions. See Randy Seaver's post of the ranting person about their cousin (I'm not the ranter). In a democracy if a bad law is made a court can overturn it or the next legislative body can change it. In genealogy once it's out there it lives forever. Every newbie must be warned.

    A little care with research and source citations would go a long way to preventing such things.

    By the way I fit in none of those three categories and all of those three categories.

  26. Greta, I'm a little late in commenting (catching up on my blog reading) but I just had to thank you - this was an excellent post that really summed up the current state well. I'm also grateful for all the links to the other postings that expand on the topic. Great job!!!