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 über-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!