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Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Wherein I eat my words...

I expressed the opinion that the Internet created a way to have genealogical community for the first time. As several commentators pointed out, genealogical societies have been around for a long time. The question that is raised is whether genealogical societies are communities? As my wife also pointed out, I don't always have to be right. Of course, the answer depends on your idea of a community.

In my area of the world we have a lot of what are called "gated communities." These are subdivisions created by developers to attract people who want an "exclusive" lifestyle. All of these communities have a locked entrance gate that requires a code to enter the "community." Some of them even have guards who require you to explain who you are and why you think it necessary to enter "their community." Most of these so-called communities have somewhat dictatorial rules and deed restrictions. They are governed by a community board that are usually elected but in effect, self appointed. I spent the last 15 years or so suing these communities, referred to collectively as home owners associations, for overstepping the bounds of their rules and deed restrictions, even to the extent of persecuting minorities and excluding people they did not like. In one case, the former president of the Board of Directors of a Homeowners Association testified in open court that the reason they had taken action against my client was because the just didn't want him in the community.

In the sense of homeowner associations being communities, I would extend that same definition to genealogical societies. Some are very good, some are not so good and some are very exclusive and bad. But in each case, the societies (and the homeowners associations) have the goal to promote the general well being of their members. I could go on and on about the problems I see with exclusive membership organizations like homeowners associations. But the ultimate argument is you didn't have to buy property in this association (read community) if you didn't want to adhere to the rules. They same can be said about genealogy societies, if you don't like the way they are run or the rules for entry, you don't have to join. Using an expansive definition of the term "community;" formal or informal, exclusive or inclusive, they can all be considered communities. So, from that standpoint I was wrong and I eat my words.

At the time I wrote, my main idea was that for the first time, we have a global inclusive genealogical community. One commentator questioned whether or not the new genealogical community had "gatekeepers." If it does, I don't know who or what they are. You could argue that the community is limited by technology. I have to own a computer and purchase an Internet connection. Not necessarily true. I can go to many different places, including my public library, and use the Internet for free (or at their expense). There are, of course, a lot of other discussion points about access to the Internet and class divisions based on that access, but focusing on genealogy, anyone who wants to join the community can do so.

Do I care if someone is a "minority?" Will I exclude someone because of their personal beliefs or race or social orientation? How will I know this unless the contributor makes it an issue? Am I the gatekeeper? Not on your life.

So, are genealogical societies communities? I have to answer yes. Were they precursors of the present online community? I am not so sure about that one. They still exist and many societies are almost antithetical to the online community or at least, ignore it. How many of your local societies have yet to acquire an online presence at all? But that is another discussion point.


  1. Thank you for your observations, James! My response:
    No Genealogy Community? That Depends On Who You Ask

  2. James,

    Good observations, especially the last point about local societies and their online presence.