The recent subject on GeneaBloggers’ Open Thread Thursday - “Collaborative Genealogy” - as well as Kerry Scott’s post “What Happens When Cousins Won’t Share” at Clue Wagon, James Tanner’s post “Who reads all these genealogy Blogs anyway?” at Genealogy’s Star, and the presentations given at the recent Fairfax Genealogical Society Spring Conference by Warren Bittner and Leslie Albrecht Huber (“What I Learned Wednesday: 30 March 2011”) have got me to thinking further about a subject that has fascinated me since almost the very beginning of my journey in genealogy: How family historians and genealogists do their research and share their research, and what parallels and contrasts exist between their research methods and modes of sharing and those of the academic community.
It is true that there is no sharp line between genealogy/family history/local history (G/FH/LH) and the traditional form and subjects of research of the established academic community. However, while acknowledging the broad zone of overlap, we also have to recognize that G/FH/LH is still woefully underrepresented in the halls of academe.
Yet I have come to regard the G/FH/LH community as an “Alternate-Universe Academia,” and it is a world that I prefer by far to live in compared to the traditional academic one.
I had a chance to live in the traditional World of the Ivory Tower. My subjects of study were Slavic Studies and Linguistics. If you want to make a living off of degrees in those subjects, your main and possibly only alternative is that Ivory Tower. Yet I ended up putting the knowledge I gained to practical use; I am a translator in real life. (If you don’t think that profession requires or does justice to those degrees, I have a nice little lecture that I would be prepared to deliver.)
There were many reasons I ultimately opted for the “ABD” instead of PhD, including financial ones, but at the top of the list was the realization that I did not really want to earn my living in that academic world.
Yet, much later in life, I found in the genealogy community, in particular among the genealogy blogging community and my “research cousins,” the elements that were missing in academia. And I don’t think I’m alone. It may be that many of the people who are considering second careers in genealogy see the attractive options of a stimulating and enjoyable, if not terribly lucrative, profession.
What does the G/FH/LH world offer that is in short supply in academia? I don’t want to be too harsh in my criticisms of the academic world - after all, it has been many years since it was my home - but first and foremost among the attractions of my “new home” is the free and generous exchange of information. I’m not saying all is perfect here; plagiarism on one end and “jealous hoarding” of information on the other exist in both worlds. But generosity in this area seems to be far more prevalent in G/FH/LH. And this may be due to the presence of a far larger proportion of dedicated amateurs compared to professionals. After all, a professional in both worlds has to build a reputation through original research, which means that sharing tends to occur mostly through publication of completed research.
Of course, plagiarism in one form or another is rife in both communities and inhibits sharing in both communities. Amateur participation can have a negative effect, most often in the form of proliferation of bad information (which has its own parallel in shoddy scholarship in the academic community).
Professionals in G/FH/LH - at least the ones I’ve had experience with - associate more freely with amateurs and appear to extend a greater degree of professional respect to them. There is a bit more of the “democracy” I referred to in “Toward a Genealogical Democracy.” And there is no denying that a tremendous contribution to the common fund of knowledge has been made by engaged amateurs.
Part of the attraction for me is also the real sense of community I get in G/FH/LH. The enthusiasm for our subject and the charge we get out of sharing it with others really infuses so much of our community interaction. This is an element I can definitely say I found lacking in academia. I realize that counterexamples to the democratic and community aspects are not rare among genealogists and that pretense, snobbery, and credentialism are not unknown in our community, but I do not believe that they define it.
The “sharing” element of G/FH/LH figures prominently in the high level of volunteer efforts. Look at Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, Findagrave, GenWeb, and indexing volunteers, just for starters. And another kind of volunteer efforts - those made by many of our bloggers in posting information and hosting events that bring the genealogy community together - enable close connections to genealogical societies and institutions and bind the genealogy blogging community together in a way that I have never really seen in the academic world. Learning is equated with fun in shared events such as “Saturday Night Genealogy Fun” and the free-for-all chat of GeneaBloggers Blog Talk Radio.
There is just a different feeling here and sharing - in spite of plagiarism and in spite of Name Collectors - is a big part of it. The joy of collaboration is what I enjoy the most: the thrill of being hot on the trail together with others who share your passion: pooling information, skills, and resources to get to the truth and make our research as effective as possible. And this - something I believe is closer to the academic ideal of learning for learning’s sake, learning for the joy of it - is the quality that I believe the academic community really needs to relearn from the Genealogy/Family History/Local History community.