RootsTech 2015

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

Monday, March 3, 2014

Is Genealogy Broken? If so, can it be fixed?

One overall impression I got from listening to presentations at #RootsTech 2014 and reading blog reports about the Conference was that somehow genealogy was "broken" and needs to be fixed. This impression comes from a variety of statements concerning the following:
  • Lack of involvement in "genealogy" by younger age groups
  • Failure of "genealogy" to produce or collect stories and photos of ancestors
  • Genealogists make genealogy appear difficult and unfriendly
  • Genealogy is out-of-date, stodgy and unattractive
I have used this analogy before, but it is as if genealogy is somehow a product that has sat on the shelf too long and needs to be replaced with a newer, more attractive product that will fly off the shelves. The new product is called "family history" and it is coming out in a new package with new features and definitely replaces the old product. 

At the other extreme, we have a significant number of genealogists who are concerned that "genealogy" is not accepted as a serious academic pursuit by universities and colleges. They focus on the problems as follows:
  • Genealogy is too populist and hobby-like
  • The entire community needs more academic rigor and attention to sources
  • All aspects of genealogy need definable standards 
  • The genealogical community is drowning in a sea of mediocre family trees
Are we as genealogists involved in a rather simple manufacturing process that is designed to produce a product or are we serious researchers involved in a misunderstood, complex and challenging intellectual discipline?

It is interesting to me that in both cases, the attitude is that there is something wrong with genealogy that needs to be changed so that it will appeal to the youth and at the same time be accepted as a valid academic discipline. Aren't we talking about two different things here? Aren't the goals of the two extremes going in opposite directions? I have been trying to think of an analogous example that might work to explain the issues, but nothing seems to fit. My perception is that the genealogical community is relatively, very small. There have been several attempts by bloggers to "define" the community and most of them acknowledge that there are layers of interest starting on the edge with interest in family and family history to a central core of professionals who are totally immersed in genealogical activities and research.

Are the extremes reconcilable? Why is there a strong undercurrent of angst over the "problem that youth become involved in genealogy?" Are we really concerned about preserving our family heritage or is genealogy about numbers? Going back to the product analogy, is genealogy something that can be easily defined and packaged? Have we gotten to the point where "genealogy" is like a modern electronic device that economically cannot be fixed and must simply be thrown away and replaced with a newer, more functional model?

For what it is worth, my perception is that genealogy is alive and well, thank you, and there is nothing about the pursuit that particularly needs fixing. Genealogists pretty much know what they are trying to accomplish and the central core of genealogists all have a pretty good understanding of how to go about doing genealogy. Promoting genealogy as easy and fun, to make it more attractive, is self-defeating. Preserving our cultural, religious and social heritage is important, but blame for our collective failure to be involved with that heritage cannot be laid at the feet of the genealogists. In fact, the main reason we have so many stories and photos to preserve is due mainly to those same people who are attracted to and involved in the core pursuit of genealogy. Adding more people as collectors of the heritage is definitely helpful but does not equate to producing more genealogists. 

What we do need is a realization by those who would fix the genealogical community that they cannot throw away the old product. Doing historical research is a mostly a very solitary, demanding, intellectually stimulating, intensive, engrossing, overwhelmingly difficult and very academic discipline. It cannot be sugar-coated for broad public consumption. If you want to view genealogy as a manufacturing process, then you need to recognize that increasing production involves helping the serious, central core of genealogists to do their job more efficiently. Rather than being denigrated, they should be allowed to do what they do as efficiently as possible even if some of us are old, cranky and difficult to deal with. Oh, by the way, some recognition of the amount of work done by the genealogists might help also. Why would the youth want to become like the old genealogists who nobody talks to and all avoid? Think about it. 

16 comments:

  1. What I find interesting is that, in our stake at least, "getting the youth involved in family history" means sending them on "green arrow hunts." Just yesterday in our priesthood meeting one of the youth leaders reported that the Young Men's quorums had identified nearly 300 names to take to the temple (green arrows) during a recent activity. I'm sure some enterprising application developer could write a simple program that would find and display all the individuals in your lines who have a green arrow. It seems such a utility program might then eliminate all the youth involvement in family history, since all we seem to be teaching them is how to look for green arrows! The concept of doing research, finding records, and documenting findings seems to be totally lost!

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    1. Looks like it is time to write another post on green arrows. Thanks.

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  2. James, I love reading your blogs. It feels like your messages are written for me. I feel this conflict all of the time. I do think that genealogy is alive and well. The reasons that people are attracted to it are different. It is kind like of the way that genealogists use technology. I learn as much about new technologies and resources from genealogists as I do my professional magazines an colleges. However, the technology I learn about from genealogists are those that can have a genealogical purpose, otherwise they are set aside or not mentioned. Genealogy is the same way. Mormons in general view genealogy differently that the stars of WDYTYA. Most people want to easily know where their family name is from but not how it got to where they are living now. Some look at a family tree and only see themselves and the end of the line and rarely focus on the people in-between.

    Thank you for all of your efforts.

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    1. Thanks for the kind comments. We have a very diverse community.

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  3. I think my concern about the youth learning genealogy is that they are the next generation of researchers and I, for one, started too late. I wish I had another 25 years to research. I'd like my grandchildren to become interested earlier so they won't have such an intensive catch-up on how to research and write correctly. The LDS Church is working with their youth....how come the rest of us don't educate our youth by helping with family history projects in schools? I think we can get them interested because there is so much available with technology now and they won't have to sit in libraries when they first start out. We need to educate our teachers to let us help.

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    1. Good points . I wish I had another 25 years to do research also.

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  4. James, I've wrote pretty extensively about getting youth involved in genealogy on my blog. There's pretty much constantly the insinuation that we must get them involved, that there is something wrong that they are not involved, and that something must be done.

    What doesn't seem to be on the radar is looking at their own activities to see how they are and their own presentation of how they do genealogy. I know plenty of kids who are bored stiff with their grandparents talking about how "John begat Joe begat Jane begat...." and those same kids who LOVE helping out with cleaning a cemetery and finding the names of all the folks who served in WWI. And they love a "quest" to find out more about specific people by searching across the Internet to find the evidence and figure out if it fits the case. And with the explosion in popularity of detective stories like Sherlock Holmes, drawing the appropriate parallels to genealogy can really get kids excited by it. Some of the most exciting work in genealogy is being done by the under 40 set, in advancing genetic genealogy, thinking of alternative proofs (such as using ground penetrating radar in cemeteries to determine the true number of burials), and working to make genealogy popular on tv.

    Genealogy has so much going for it already. It doesn't need repackaging. If people rethought their own attitudes and how they present their own work, that would be plenty enough to get other folks excited about the hobby.

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    1. All good ideas. I agree especially that genealogy does not need repackaging, it mainly needs mentoring.

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  5. There appears to be a lot of angst and hand-wringing lately over the future of genealogical (or family history) research as well as about the excellence (or lack thereof) in many studies and projects. I believe we should keep in mind that this is still very much a hobby for most people. Yes, there are a few individuals who make their livelihood by conducting specific research, probably mostly in heir-finding, or by teaching others how to go about looking for information about their ancestors. But as much as we would like to think of genealogy as a major area of study, whether sociological or scientific in style or substance, it still does not quite have the importance of other disciplines. Our family trees may be perfectly organized, or not, but the work in assembling them does not have the consequence or value of studying to be an engineer or a lawyer or a teacher or a scientist. In those fields, education is basically directed at learning how to earn a living. Discovering how to do proper genealogical research is just a way to make our free time more interesting and, in some respects, fulfilling. Let’s not get carried away by thinking that, if we do the best we can to assemble information about the history of our families, it will result in some significant improvements to the human condition or the world’s economy. Genealogy is done mostly for fun, so just enjoy it!

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    1. Hmm. That is a very good explanation. But I would not include lawyers. :-)

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  6. Hi James, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    The concept of needing to constantly improve seems to have effected most aspects of life, including genealogy.

    One thing I would like to suggest is that rather than seeing two extremes, I see genealogy as a continuum, from dipping ones toes into the odd family story, through to the totally dedicated and passionate, 24/7 genie.

    How we progress along that scale is the art. How those of us at one end of the scale help those who may wish to move along the scale to do so, now there is the knack.

    Michelle

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    1. It really is a continuum of interest and abilities. But I think we like to organize and file things away and so we look for groups with a common interest.

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  7. Thanks for your great posts. I, too, worry about youth not being interested in their genealogy; but I am finding several in my family from different collateral lines who are very interested who are in the 18-45 yr old age group. They ask questions about methods, sources, and all manner of things. They quickly understand and find things on their mobile devices that it took me ages to learn or accept. They are giving me hope that my 50+ years of research will be passed down to our family.

    I don't think genealogy is broken. I am trying to do my part with my family, even though it may not be the way some others may choose to do their genealogy. I learn a lot from bloggers like you, Randy Seaver, Thomas MacEntee, Judy Russell and others. I have also relented and am now using an iPhone and several helpful Apps, such as the new FindAGrave and RootsMagic. And this 70-year old loves them!

    Keep writing your thought provoking posts, and I will keep reading them.

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    1. I will be 69 this year and I don't consider myself to be old at all. I do need more exercise however. Thanks for the kind words.

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  8. I don't think genealogy is broken. I believe there are more entry points (or touch points) today than ever before. I started working on genealogy when I was 12 years old - back in the early 1980s. I was a "weird" kid. While my classmates played sports and were in theatrical plays, I went to genealogy conferences and cemeteries and hung out with really old people. I was a detective in my own family ... part of my FBI (family bureau of investigation). I have spent many hours documenting, researching, sourcing, etc. For more than 30 years this has been my life ... with 18 of those years teaching others about genealogy and family history. I am excited that young people today want to be involved and that today it is considered "cool".

    I think genealogy is more segmented than in the past. There are many more ways to so similar things. And because it is a hobby for most people, they will enter and exit it at different times in their life. Some will find stories and will fall in love with their ancestors. Others will become most concerned with exactness in every detail. There is room for everyone. I don't see it as fractured. I see it growing exponentially and in different ways and forms than ever before ... thanks to technology.

    I think of it like the field of medicine. There are surgeons, nurses, paramedics, etc. There are also people certified in CPR and trained in basic First Aid. And when given the opportunity, most people on the planet can put on a bandage. That is how I see genealogy and family history. Some have studied for years and are proficient and experts in the fields. Others only touch the subject for just one moment. And yet everyone has some kind of connection .... we are all part of families.

    I say, welcome those who just pop in and out. Something got them interested along the way ... share what you know with them ... feed their curiosity ... teach them standards and guidelines ... then let them take the lead in their own way. This industry will grow and thrive. There is room for everyone and every contribution, no matter how small.

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    1. I don't necessarily believe that genealogies broken either. I am more concerned about people who think there is something wrong with the core process of genealogy that can be fixed by adding some commercially attractive activities.

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