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

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Soul of a Genealogist

There was a U.S. national bestselling book published in 1981 that also won the Pulitzer Prize called "The Soul of a New Machine."

See Kidder, Tracy. The Soul of a New Machine. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981.

One of the conclusions reached by this, now classic, book is that people will give their best when the work itself is challenging and rewarding. See Wikipedia:The Soul of a New Machine. There are a lot of things about the process of designing computer systems that relate to the world of genealogy. One of those is the fact that breakthroughs come only after a huge effort of really boring and mundane work. The main theme of The Soul of a New Machine is that the "soul" comes from the endless hours of attention and toil. Likewise, the soul of genealogy only comes from the endless hours of attention and toil.

One reason I doubt that genealogy will ever be a universally appealing activity is exactly this; hard sweaty work. As long as genealogy is considered a "hobby" or a "pastime" very few people will be willing to put forth the real effort that is needed to do quality research and documentation. This is especially true among the "retired" generation, the one that has the most interest as shown by demographics. Who want's to retire to an activity that looks an awful lot like the work most people did when they were working full time? But there are those who are willing to rise to the challenge.

So why are we trying to convince people to do genealogy? Why am I traveling around traveling around the country presenting classes on how to do genealogy better? That turns out to be a really good and difficult question to answer. I recently wrote about how hard it was to do genealogy, but hard is only part of the story. Work, that is hard work, validates us a human beings. There is an interesting statement in the Bible that is almost universally misunderstood and misquoted. Quoting from Genesis 3:17-19 the Lord says to Adam:
17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;
 18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;
 19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
The key here is the statement "for thy sake." The curse of work was given for Adam's (and by analogy for all of us) sake. That is for his benefit. From this the most common interpretation is that work is a curse. The work is not the curse. The ground was cursed but the reason was to benefit man. The work is the benefit. I truly believe that work is for the benefit of us all. Rather than shun the opportunity, we should embrace those things that are hard, like genealogy, and pursue worthwhile fulfilling activities and not idle away our time. In my case, I am ready to "retire" from the commercial world but I am not ready to retire from work. I can think of nothing worse than idleness and inactivity.

So, I would submit that whether or not you have any spiritual leanings and whether or not you think deeply about the nature of work, that the work of seeking out your departed ancestors is ennobling and regardless of your religious beliefs, will benefit your soul, the soul of genealogy is work.   


  1. I agree James, Though I am retired, it was not for "ease of life", but to become a carer for my disabled husband.

    In my working life I was a research Librarian. Continuing my late mother's work is for me, both intellectually rewarding; the time I spend on it allows me to feel as though I am "working" again, and I like to pay as much attention to the detail to my own research, as I would if I was working for an important client.

    It also allows me to honour the hard work and diligence of my mother during the past 30 years of her life, and with some of the break through's that I have made from her original notes and research, I just know that she is pleased that I have been so thorough.

  2. I see it a bit differently, but only a bit:) For my own self, I loved the texture of "work", the organization of it, the methodology of it, the results of it. When I stopped working (due to a car accident) my Mom, now 93, and an avid genealogist, handed me the perfect fix for what I'd lost in paid work. But genealogy "pays" me back 10 fold for the effort I put in. It's my new "job". And I try hard to be as good at it as I can... and I have a ton to learn!

  3. Carolyn MiddletonMarch 18, 2012 at 5:47 PM

    I always enjoy reading your blogs James. For me you hit the nail on the head that "seeking out our ancestors will benefit our soul". I have always felt a bit like I don't belong in this world! I have been researching since I was a teenager (only 20 odd years ago) and genealogy certainly wasn't the done thing then. Your comments in this and a recent blog help me to understand why genealogy is so important to me. I was an accountant before children so I also like the organisation and structure of research and, of course, the absolute thrill of finding something!
    I never consider genealogy and the work of it to be dull. Yes sometimes the road is long but there is always a purpose to what you do. I would have much preferred a job in genealogy to being an accountant!!!

  4. I enjoy your reasoning, and the posts. However, I must point out, in the spirit of accuracy, that it is a common misconception that the majority of people doing genealogy are elderly. This idea, although popular, is wrong. Genealogists are of all ages. How do I know? I ran the largest study ever done so far -- please see the results at and/or look through the Ancestry magazine past issues to find the article.

    1. You made a comment to my post in which I alluded to the demographics of the
      genealogical community. You also referenced your Thesis on the Fullerton
      Study. Before mention either the article you cite or the findings of the
      study, I notice that you request that I obtain permission.

      If I mention any article or website, I give full credit to the originator
      and a citation to the original. I will not make any mention of the study at
      all without your permission. But I would like to use the article if

      I must mention that my first criticism of the findings would be that the
      study was conducted online. My experience would indicate that the majority
      of the people I deal with who fit the commonly held demographic are not very
      involved in the Internet. So the study would have eliminated the largest
      group of genealogists, those who do not use the Internet for any thing other
      than research and email. An online survey done in about 2001 would have been
      even more influenced by the overall demographic of the online computer user
      rather than the average genealogist.

      Obviously, I have no measured survey or statistics to challenge anything you
      concluded. I would agree that the average computer literate and Internet
      using genealogist is much younger than the average genealogist overall.

      Any thoughts? I tried to use your email for this response but it was not available.