There is a stimulating and important conversation going on over at The Geneabrarian Reference Desk in “Eliminating the Hobby from Genealogy.” Not since a large number of posts appeared in the wake of RootsTech roughly a year ago and I wrote about my reaction to them in “Toward a Genealogical Democracy” have I been so compelled to “add my two cents.”
However, as I have tried to write down my take on this issue and the numerous associated issues it brings to mind, I see a chaotic whirl of thoughts that could turn into the monster post that became “Toward a Genealogical Democracy.”
So, instead, I propose to break this loaded and complex subject into two smaller posts: “Genealogy: A Trivial Pursuit?” dealing with the statement of the problem by Genebrarian; and “Genealogy: Vocation and Avocation,” dealing with issues raised by the commenters and possible ways professionals and dedicated amateurs can team up to overcome the problem.
In “Eliminating the Hobby from Genealogy,” Geneabrarian proposes the rebranding of genealogy from a “hobby” (something “nonessential, [...] an extra, a nice thing to have”) into a research method. I believe that Geneabrarian has correctly identified the potentially disastrous fallout from genealogy’s image as a “trivial pursuit”: “... lingering and catastrophic effects such as lower funding for local libraries and organizations that support genealogy collections, limited access to records on a all levels, and other fields looking down their nose at those "name collectors".”
There have been many issues igniting vigorous and heated discussion in the genea-blogosphere lately - the role of genealogical societies in the changing genealogy community, the importance of genealogy bloggers representing the field of genealogy in a worthy manner (and this one is directly related to the issue at hand), and the professional/amateur divide in genealogy, among others - but what concerns and alarms me more than anything is the continually eroding support for libraries and archives and the increase in misguided restrictions on access to records. It may irritate me that genealogical research does not get much respect, but the prospect of records being shut off from the public or even disappearing puts fear into my heart.
The ignorant stereotype of the genealogist/family researcher pops up in the printed media with a discouraging but predictable regularity. In the post “Book Review: The Genetic Strand” the Minnesota Family Historian gives a thumbs down to Edward Ball’s book, The Genetic Strand: Exploring A Family History Through DNA, and quotes the following passage from the book: “Genealogy, a search for family history, is practiced by millions of middle-aged and middle-class Americans, for whom it has traditionally been a way to snatch a bit of glory or a helping of fantasy from the past. It is, after all, the little activities, visiting libraries and surfing Web sites, that allow anyone to acquire "good genes." Most people who do family research are white, and most of them look for ancestors with the goal to unearth the whitest, most moneyed forebears they can. That is one definition of good genes.”
Of course, elsewhere we can find more positive portrayals of the pursuit of genealogy. The Geneabrarian points to the TV show Who Do You Think You Are as a venue wherein genealogy can “show itself to the public.” This is one of the reasons I would like for the show to place a bit more emphasis on the challenges of genealogical research and how much work goes into finding “small details” that lead the researcher to the answers he seeks. I am aware that not too much of this can be included in a show that has to be marketed to a broad audience, but even a few minor tweaks could paint a more realistic picture of what is actually involved in good research.
Ancestry’s current advertising campaign is singled out as another promotion of genealogy as an easy pursuit that can be practiced by anybody - no particular analytical skills or long hours of research required. As opposed to Ball’s broad-brush slander of the motivations of genealogists and family historians, these commercials pander to the “genealogy as a pursuit of the non-intellectual” stereotype. It seems that both those who despise us and those who court us are intent on pushing our beloved pursuit into the realm of triviality.
So what can we do? The Genebrarian and those who commented on her post have pointed out some of the difficulties we confront in dealing with this problem and have also touched on the areas where efforts need to be applied to find solutions. I hope to make some constructive (and realistic) suggestions in my next post.
I would like to thank Genebrarian for her eloquent post and for inspiring such a lively discussion!