Sunday, January 8, 2012

Genealogy: A Trivial Pursuit?

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!


  1. " 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." I don't know whether or not to be amused or angry at this comment. At least, in my case, I've not uncovered any "moneyed forebears." In fact they've almost all been "dirt poor." He certainly hasn't captured my motivation.

  2. In order for a mainstream show to garner ratings, it cannot portray genealogy as hard and difficult. It's main goal is 2-fold. First and foremost it must have high ratings due to a large audience. Why do they need an audience? Because they need to entice advertisers to buy ad time surrounding the show. Why? Because NBS is a business and the idea of business is to make a profit. To increase the audience, it most have a wide appeal, which is why celebrities are used and why more of the story is shown as opposed to all the nitty gritty details. People like a good story. They don't like the hard part. [And I daresay most of us wouldn't have started genealogy if someone threw all the hard stuff at us at the beginning.]

    Secondly, "Who Do You Think You Are?" is's baby, so to speak. And this leads into a doubly whammy of sorts because is a publicly traded company that is beholden to its shareholders who only care about one thing. Profits. This is why an commercial does not portray genealogy as being hard and difficult, but a rewarding experience. Their slogan, which I like, "You don't have to know what you're looking for, you just have to start." I believe many genealogists have misunderstood it because they're only looking at it from their point of view and not from the outside-the-world-of-genealogy person's point of view.'s adverising team's goal with this campaign is to tackle a non-genealogy person's reasons for not searching for their family story. Their job is to increase subscriptions, pure and simple. Not prequalify people as to how serious they are about genealogical pursuits.

    Here are 2 positive byproducts from this. First, many trees are created that are admittedly flawed but do provide clues for us who choose to take genealogy further. [They are no more flawed than all those family history books sitting on library shelves.] And these trees that provide clues for us are there because has done a spectacular job of signing people up.

    Second,'s commercials and NBC's show "Who Do You Think You Are?" have encouraged and seduced people to go to their local libraries, whether to use computers there to access Ancestry and other sites or to use the library like their favorite celebrity did in that family tree show last Friday night.

    It would behoove us all to take a step back and apply our critical thinking skills that we've honed in researching to try to understand the bigger picture.

    Make no mistake. Genealogy is no longer just a hobby. It's a business. And the question is, "How are we going to use it to our advantage?"


  3. Kathy - I had the same reaction - the families that interest me most happen to be poor or at least not too well off. My motivation was to discover and tell the story of people who might not be remembered otherwise. Some of these people who feel qualified to denigrate genealogy actually only display appalling ignorance.

    Caroline - I understand the economics of the show, so I don't really expect a complete reorientation, and I do appreciate the participation of a lot of people (as I expressed in "Toward a Genealogical Democracy"), but I just wish that they would keep in mind the "keen amateur" demographic - the people who might actually renew their subscriptions regularly. They could simply have one of the researchers mention "I searched in A and B and found nothing on your ancestor, but then I decided to check C - and look what I found!" This could make it attractive for viewers who like to "play detective"; I didn't get truly hooked by genealogy until I found an ancestor who was pretty hard to find - the rush of finding someone that others before me had not been able to find was truly addictive. But I do understand that business/government/academia executives do not think in the long term like this, but focus on short-term profits. A pity.

    And I agree that genealogy is becoming a business - but i would like it to be a public-spirited business that also advocates for preservation of records, etc. Just as some people gravitate toward "green" companies, I would like to see the big players in genealogy become advocates for supporting libraries and archives, access to records, and preservation of records.

  4. I must say that I concur with Kathy on this one. My goal in my own personal genealogical research isn't to unearth "moneyed forbears", it's to answer the question that burns in most of us; "where did I come from? What were my ancestors like?" Most of my families have been dirt poor. A few of them have been Native American. My ancestry helps tell the story of who I am today and how I got here. I think most serious genealogists pursue genealogical research for similar reasons.

    On another note; Greta, I agree with your comments about the ad campaign. I remember feeeling rather incredulous after I first saw it. "You don't have to know what you're looking for, you just have to start looking" Really? It's not that easy, as I'm sure most of your readers well know. Now only does the ad campaign downplay the level of skill involved in genealogical research, it also, in my mind, further promotes the spread and dissemination of genealogical errors. Their "One World Tree" program is a joke and full of erroneous data. In my own research I've uncovered several items that were claimed as "true" by other researchers because a cursory examination of the data didn't lend to any obvious errors, however a closer examination revealed that they were wrong. Thankfully, not even most of the so-called "hobby genealogists" that I know take such a lax view on genealogical research as Ancestry promotes. If they did the world would be full of cut-rate, sub-par genealogical records that wouldn't be worth the computer space they were saved on.

    1. Johnathan - Thank you for your comments. I was never interested in turning up "moneyed forbears" because I thought that I didn't have any. It turns out that I was wrong on that score (if I go back far enough, I can find a few), but they still aren't the ones that compel my interest. It has been among the poorer and "middling'" families that I have found my true research passions.

      One thing that amuses me about the "You don't have to know what you are looking for" part of the Ancestry ad campaign is that if you take it apart and look at it a certain way, there could be some wisdom in it - don't start your research trying to connect with a particular family, assume that you do NOT know who the next generation back is at each step of your research. But of course, Ancestry does not mean it that way.

  5. @CMPointer, I'm not sure that I necessarily agree with your assessment. You say that in order for a show about genealogy to have good mainstream ratings it needs to be portrayed in such a way that genealogy doesn't seem like a difficult pursuit. I don't agree. There are many shows that enjoy mainstream success that don't downplay the skill or difficulty of the craft involved. Take the "Next Great Baker" for example. the contestants on that show compete to the best of their ability to a job to work with a famous chef. At no point during the show do they make it look "easy" for the sake of ratings. and what about NCIS? Special Agent Gibbs and his team uses forensics and old-school police investigation to bring the bad-guys to justice. They never portray it as easy, and sometiems Gibbs, et al make mistakes, but the show remains interesting. And then there's Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe. Nothing that poor fellow does seems easy by any stretch. Personally shows that make something seem far easier than it is really irritate me as they don't depict the situation with any level of realism. I would find the show much more entertaining if they changed their approach and their format. Instead of making it seem super-easy, do a show more like "History Detectives". Have a view random people relate some "family stories" to genealogical researchers and then show how the researchers prove or disprove those stories. I think that would be a much more accurate portrayal of genealogical research that would still hold the interest of the main-stream public and it just might teach them something useful at the same time. For Example" What's that you say? You're related to the Civil War General Robert E. Lee?...and you're family is from Leesburg, VA? ...well, after careful investigation we've discovered that you are related to Robert E. Lee of Leesburg, VA, it's just not THAT Robert E. Lee. It's another guy who was born at the same time who lived in the same place."

  6. A trivial pursuit?
    Why not, that's honorable. I often have inquiries concerning my web published data bases from folks who only know what their grandparents told them. Love them.
    Before I retired I was a professional science researcher, I tackle my genealogy with all my research know how. I find family heroes and villains, rich and poor.
    What I especially like is making progress on a time scale in Months instead of experimental science where it takes years.
    Hugh Tornabene

    1. Hugh - Thank you for commenting. I have nothing against genealogy as an amateur pursuit - I am an amateur and my research often has to be done in bits and dribbles. But I do not like to think of the common public impression of genealogy being one that sums it up as "trivial" in the sense of unimportant. I believe that many amateurs can and do make valuable contributions and that the knowledge base made available by professional and amateur genealogists and the resources used by them are important.

  7. O Dear, money is so the bane of us all. I still believe that most start as a family historian, gatherer of family information, then as the bug bites deeper many know they want to do more. I have no objections to the do more.
    But we are moving so fast in the technical fields we are leaving many researchers behind. It has been made so obvious to me in my travels that we think everyone lives in a city and is up to technical speed.
    I feel I am somewhere in the middle of this adventure. I have worked for fee and worked for free. I have enjoyed the aspect of both. But we have to be careful in the future on how fast we go, and who we are accidentally leaving behind.
    "Who Do You Think You Are?" is a good show but
    much of my family won't watch because it is more celebrities not real people. O yes they are real but they are like the Congressman so out of touch with real peoples incomes and lives they have lost touch.
    Granted not all are but the list is small for those who are not.

    1. Susi's Q - I agree, the field is definitely changing very fast and money is becoming an issue we cannot avoid. Where to invest resources? My vote is for records preservation.

      I enjoy watching "Who Do You Think You Are?", but even more I enjoy reading articles, blog posts, and books about the searching done by "common" people for their "common" ancestors.

  8. " 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."

    Hmmm...not in my case. I wanted to know who my ancestors were. I wanted to leave my only child with a sense of belonging to a larger family and a real history. I wanted her to know where I came from, where SHE came from. I wanted her to know the strength of her female ancestors, to have survived the trials to live to the age of 40 if they were lucky. Their names, the places they lived, the men they were married to, the children they had and lost. What they had endured. How she - my daughter- came from a line of courageous women who deserved her gratitude and respect.

    Now just because I choose to be the family historian, which I'm not really sure is a choice but more of a genetic imperitive, it does not mean that I am looking for the Native American ie: Cherokee Princess, or the Royal uncle;ie once King Of _____ (fill in the blank )or finding myself to be the long lost niece of a Rockefeller ( fill in the $$$$). I was surprised to find myself as one of the 6 or 7 million Mayflower Descendants, no, I'm not signing up, DAR, not that one either, and a few others.

    What I found and what I search for, what I document, and who I seek are the ordinary just plain folks who settled in New England and migrated west. My ancestors who came from Ireland and made it through the starvation and despite the prejudices of the time, made a life for themselves.

    My Ancestors, these men and women, are my roots, from them came the tree, and me and mine, the leaves, the twigs, the branches, the past, the present, the future.

    Mr. Ball I am sorry- if you mean what you said then you just don't get it.

    1. Cheri - Same here: my ancestors were generally the plainest of the plain - a few heroes and scoundrels, and what surprised me most, a few fairly wealthy ones (but they are not the ones I really research). I like your hypothesis about the pursuit of genealogy being a genetic imperative. I think the people who, like Edward Ball, do not "get" genealogy, represent the case for willful ignorance.

  9. Greta,

    What a wonderful post! Your insight really highlights the issues connected with the perception of genealogy as a "trivial pursuit". Nothing trivial about losing access to records or funding for preservation. Without the records we can't do the research.

    I am always on the look out for new misquotes about genealogy. Thank you for mentioned Ball's book, which I had read lightly but did not come across the quote you provided. A new one for the misquote list!

    And as for finding ancestors that were prominent.....nah! Always proud to say "descended from horse thieves, tavern wenches, bigamists, and religious upstarts since 1720."