Monday, September 23, 2013

Is Genealogy Inclusive or Exclusive?

It is pretty obvious that those who are extremely competent genealogical researchers rarely, if ever, seek me out for help with their research. I am almost always helping beginners or those who have few research skills with questions about where to find records or how to begin using this or that program. In fact, because of this dichotomy, I seldom have contact with the "upper echelons" of genealogical research. I am certainly not on the list of those who are consulted about the thorny research issues that appear in the prestigious journals. None of those who inhabit the rarefied atmosphere of many lettered, would deign to give me the time of day, much less have me as a Facebook Friend or talk to me at a conference.

How did I end up among the populist masses and not among the elite of genealogy? Well, I don't work for any of the large genealogical organizations. I have the wrong combination of letters after my name. I haven't had the opportunity of spending a 1000 hours at the Family History Library. I live on the wrong side of the tracks and I don't wear stylish clothes.

Wait a minute! Isn't this the same thing that happened to me in grade school? High school? At the university? Didn't I have the same problem in my law career? While I was out representing illegal aliens and the disenfranchised, my colleagues in the big law firms were representing huge corporations and running the State Bar Association and getting appointed as judges and being appointed to government commissions. They all drove Mercedes and BMWs and belonged to the country clubs, while I worked with the Boy Scouts, as a leader, not an executive and drove a Chevrolet truck. They all got their names in the newspaper for being on the symphony board or for attending parties for this or that foundation. I raised seven lovely children and had a garden.

In my case, being a member of the huddled masses was a choice not a default. My parents were definitely in the elite, symphony guild, politically influential group of what passes for high society here in the desert Southwest. So I feel at home in country clubs and exclusive clubs but I made the decision early that I could make a greater contribution helping common people than working with the rich and powerful. I fully realize that not many people are in a position to make that decision.

So, you are asking yourself, what does this have to do with genealogy? As I have said a number of times in the past, the genealogical community reflects the greater community. We have our self-appointed elite and we have the masses. As I have all my life so far, I choose the masses over the elite.

Oh, but you say, you are one of the elite. You are a blogger. Blogging is the great leveling force of our genealogical community. Anyone can blog. True, to an extent. But even blogging is considered populist and for the masses. Where do we see this dramatic division? I am constantly bombarded with messages saying how we need to expand the reach of genealogy, while at the same time I read of the angst of those who are trying to gain entry to the elite club of lettered genealogists. We can't have it both ways, we can't make genealogy a broadly popular pursuit and at the same time promote "professionalism" and certification. Either it is a profession like law or medicine, highly regulated and exclusionary, or it is a broadly available pastime that invites anyone to participate. What is going to be a hobby? Or a profession?

Can genealogy really be both? Can you imagine doctors or lawyers practicing law or medicine as a hobby? Do we really want to structure genealogy so that it is entirely exclusionary? Do we want to force those who would investigate their family history to go to a specialist? Am I the only person who sees these opposing goals as opposites?

I suggest that those of us out here with the masses begin to realize that we do have a choice. We can help those who need help to find their families and we can focus on our own personal research and we can decide that becoming a professional is acceptable, if you want to do so, but we should also realize that genealogy is not completely like law or medicine. There is a place for both the masses and the elite. Let's just not condemn the masses for being masses and praise the elite for being elite. Let's also stop expecting elite level work and contributions from the masses.

20 comments:

  1. I love this post. I'm not a professional genealogist - just a hobbyist - but this divide between "elite" and the huddled masses was one of the first things I noticed when I got started in this space. ...And it was one of the first things I noticed when I became a freelancer writer. ...And when I got into digital marketing consulting. I think we build up idols in every industry and we can choose to worship at their feet or do our own thing. That isn't to say that many elite and famous aren't that way for a reason!

    As for the question of inclusive or exclusive, I was very surprised to find a lot of griping toward amateur genealogists when I first entered this community. After I got that off my mind but blogging about it, I decided to ignore it.

    One big problem I still see is people wringing their hands and asking "Why aren't young people interested in genealogy?" Well, that whole spark-killing criticism is part of the problem. Be constructive, but don't make genealogy seem so hard and complicated that you turn people off from trying. In my experience, most people get into genealogy because a story, or an artifact or a mystery has piqued their curiosity. I think it's sad when a curmudgeonly response kills that curiosity.

    And I'll quit rambling now!

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    1. Thanks so much for your comment. Of course there are those who cross-over the differences and who are generous with their time and expertise at any level.

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  2. James - excellent post. I believe that your last three lines are magnificent. As a "masses" kind of guy - I agree with those lines 100%. Thanks for stating them. I believe that by focusing on those who just want to enjoy the quest, with a few tips here and there, we can help more folks have more fun. Thanks again for this post

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  3. Bravo, James Tanner! You wrote my feelings exactly, but said it so much better than I could have. I made a comment the other day on my Facebook wall with reference to this same belief, but you are much more eloquent. We in the masses embrace you for joining us, supporting us, speaking for us, for teaching us and for believing in us!

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    1. Always nice to hear from you Becky. Keep up the good work.

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  4. Nicely stated. I agree with you. There is more than enough room in this big genealogy world for all types of researchers.

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  5. James, you say "We can't have it both ways, we can't make genealogy a broadly popular pursuit and at the same time promote "professionalism" and certification. Either it is a profession like law or medicine, highly regulated and exclusionary, or it is a broadly available pastime that invites anyone to participate."

    Here I am afraid you set up a straw man. The prevalent meaning of "profession" is the occupation to which one has a high degree of dedication. Professionalism suggests both a high degree of skill in that endeavor, and adherence to ethical standards (e.g., understanding the need to cite sources and not rip off others).

    The "initials" signify that peers have evaluated one's skills and professionalism. If you know of a real proposal that genealogical pursuits be regulated to the same extent as professions that can do real physical and/or financial harm, do come right out and state its source.

    What you are doing is increasing skill levels in research strategies, use of technology and maybe even clearer ways of thinking about how to evaluate what is found. Maybe sometimes you give out a self-produced flyer congratulating someone on their progress.

    So there are indeed many in the field who have very high skill levels -- not that every single one can not learn *something*. This does not mean they are an elite in the sense of removal from or disdain for "the masses." Many of these persons teach classes, for close-to-beginners as well as for the highly-skilled. Often these persons give generously of their time to assist someone with a research problem that may be just a step down the yellow-brick road from the seeker's amount of knowledge.

    Many highly skilled researchers do not seek the certifications that come with initials. So what? Such processes take a lot of time and effort investment that many do not have to spare. One can still try to improve one's skills in research and in organizing and evaluating what data is gathered.

    Everyone has to start somewhere. Most of us were at ground-zero at some point. It's not too much to expect that some amount of logical thinking (no one produced children before they themselves were born) and maybe a little understanding of history (the US Revolutionary War was before the War of 1812) will stick, and for some there might be a spark of interest to really learn more.

    So there is a variety of types and degrees of dedication, but the most splendid researchers, with and without initials and publication lists, can and do still talk to the novice-at-sea about ways to get better organized.

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    1. Very good points. I agree. I do like to poke a little at those who feel self-important however.

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  6. There is room in genealogy for people of all levels - there must be, because nobody starts at the "top". Even an expert in one area of research may be unexperienced in another. Snobbery satisfies only the snob (and the wannabes).
    James, you've used the analogy of lawyers and doctors as regulated professions several times. However, both law and medicine also have less rigidly regulated participants - for law, from paralegals to do-it-yourself will kits; for medicine, nurses, paramedics, first aiders, even mothers taking temperatures, removing splinters and applying bandaids. The difference seems to be mainly in the scope of the work.

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    1. I guess my answer to that is, do the professional genealogists really want the level of regulation imposed on practicing attorneys and medical doctors? Is that level of regulation even necessary or desirable? Maybe we need to appreciate the diversity.

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  7. James wrote:>I am certainly not on the list of those who are consulted about the thorny research issues that appear in the prestigious journals.

    James, being an optimist, I’d argue that this is soooo easily fixed! Just submit some of your own work to whatever journal(s) appeal to you. The editors are not at all elitist. They don't care what initials you have after your name, or whether you have any at all. (Besides, genealogy has lots of J.D.s we love and value.) What the journal editors want, and need, are good articles that demonstrate soundly done research. You'll help others by showing how you have resolved your own thorny problems. The journal editors will be grateful for your support of their journals and any other participation you offer after that.

    My own experience in this field has convinced me that no one need feel they are "on the outside looking in." All we have to do is take the plunge—as many times as need be. On first leap, we may land short of where we aimed; but the only limits on the plunges allowed are those we self-impose. You’ve created a wonderful site with GenealogyStar. Please don’t feel you aren’t appreciated on the other playing fields that exist.

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    1. Thank you for your kind comment. You make a very good point. I think I am too busy teaching, writing and talking to do a serious journal article, but it could happen. For now, I'll leave that up to my very talented sons and daughters. They do the journal writing more than I do. Thanks again.

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  8. Great post James! I once told my better half, who wondered why I didn't try making money doing something I loved so much, that I was quite certain it would take all the fun out of it for me. I love helping people and offer my help frequently, but to do it as a profession is not my cup of tea. I feel I am very good at what I do, but I also know I do not measure up to those who are professionals...and I'm OK with that.

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    1. I am also tired of making money, although I do enjoy breaking even now and then.

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  9. I think genealogy can be both a hobby and a profession, just like golf. I think we can, as you say, have "genealogy a broadly popular pursuit and at the same time promote "professionalism" and certification. I think the goal is for our genealogy to be "accurate" no matter what our level of involvement. Each person can choose what meets their needs. I have seen professional genealogists and hobbyists work together and help each other on many levels from local societies, to Family History Centers, to national conferences and institutes. Those you say are in the "upper echelons" of genealogy take their time to teach, mingle with, and encourage "hobbyists" on a regular basis.

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    1. It is hard to get too involved in any discussion such as this because there are no common definitions for the words professional or hobbyist.

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  10. James, you are an inspiration for volunteers in the genealogical world. After a tiring day helping others with their genealogical adventures, it refreshed my batteries to read this article tonight.Thank you ,and keep blogging.

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  11. James I always find your posts thought-provoking and stumulating. I think it's that sense of critiquing work and seeking better practice and more knowledge that represents our growth as genealogists or family historians.

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