First, ignorance is nothing new. The Nichols' post seems to make the basic assumption that ignorance is the product of our information age when I believe that it merely gives it voice. In years past (pre-Internet) if you were thoroughly ignorant, your views were mostly confined to your immediate neighbors and family, although you could write to the editorial section of the daily newspaper. But in most cases, the newspapers of the day acted as a gatekeeper and edited out most of really blatant ignorance. Nevertheless, the fact that the ignorant had very little voice did not mean that they did not exist. In this I agree with Michael's statement,
The major issue, though, is that folks like that now have a public forum for their views. They can create a website or a blog and get followers who are even less experienced than they are, and mislead these beginners. And anyone who dares to speak against them is simply elitist.I further agree with Michael that one of the manifestations of this trend is the proliferation of online completely unsourced and unsupported family trees. As Michael says,
For all they have done to help us, computers have also worked against us. In some ways, the ability of computers to process large amounts of information quickly has become a problem. Instead of trying to find out ancestors, many people are in a competition to build the largest database of names. Little attention is paid to things like proof and documentation.Now I begin to disagree. Michael assets that,
Throughout the twentieth century, genealogists worked to move away from the unstructured and undocumented compiled genealogies that had been published with little to no documentation, and many made up out of whole cloth. They worked to educate people to understand how easy it is to make mistakes and link individuals into families incorrectly. We developed peer-reviewed journals like the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, The American Genealogist, and many others, to provide high-quality documented genealogies. This was not only to make such work available, but to show others how to properly research.Here we part. I think part of the problem lies with the experts. In my experience, they are more concerned with credit for their "work." than they are concerned about participating in the rough and tumble public forum. Each of publications named by Michael are peer reviewed but also largely inaccessible. If I want to read an article in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, for example, after 1923, I must do so by subscription on the American Ancestors website. My attempt to read a current article exhibits the following, "You must be logged in as a member of the NEHGS to view this issue." This is exactly the same issue with each of the other named sources. Why would I subscribe to a website merely for the purpose of reading articles when I had no idea of the content or purpose for those articles. Here is a list of content of the current articles:
Volume 168, Whole Number 669, January 2014There is a vague chance that I am actually related to some of these people, but can you explain to me how I am supposed to motivate my very newly minted genealogy students as to why they should pay for a subscription so they can read these articles? No matter how valuable the content of these articles may be, they are so far removed from the daily activities of most people's ancestors that they cannot understand the connection between such articles and finding their great-grandfather or whatever.
- The Origin of Thomas Gleason of Watertown and Cambridge, Massachusetts by Judith Gleason Claassen
- The Earliest Shermans of Dedham, Essex, and Their Wives: Part 6: Edmund Sherman and His Descendants by Michael Johnson Wood
- “Book of Births & Deaths of Benjamin and Rachel Brenton’s family” by Cherry Fletcher Bamberg
- The Family of Philip (Sole) Sales of the Winthrop Fleet by Patricia Law Hatcher
- Henry 1 Butterworth of Halifax, Yorkshire, and Weymouth, Massachusetts by Clifford L. Stott
- Early Coy and Harris Families of Eastern Connecticut: A Further Analysis of the 1798 Estate of Martha Harris by Gale Ion Harris
- Abigail Cobb, Wife of Ebenezer7 Fairbank, and Daughter of Ebenezer2 (Stephen1) Cobb of Cheshire County, New Hampshire by Patricia Sezna Haggerty
Don't get me wrong. I respect the expertise and time and research that goes into such publications, but I also see how irrelevant they are to nearly all of the people I talk to and teach each day. Oh, did I mention that each of those articles is also fiercely defended by a claim of copyright? Any attempt to copy the research is met with hostility. This is true of many (if not most) academic journals. Most people do not even know they exist partly because they are inaccessible.
If there is a problem in the genealogical community with, as Michael says, "losing the ability to understand the basics of research and how to really find our ancestors," then the fault lies with those same "experts." I realize that many of these same people spend time presenting and educating, but at the same time, they shouldn't expect that the scholarly articles they write, directed at a tiny segment of the genealogical community and sequestered behind subscription services, should be read by those same masses they decry.
Rather than wringing my hands over the death of expertise, I would suggest that those same experts realize that they have a duty and an opportunity to teach others. Rather than dismissing the ignorant bloggers, how about teaching them. Rather than dismissing the ignorant, help them to become educated. Here I make a distinction between ignorant and stupid. An ignorant person can be educated. A stupid person cannot. Let's not confuse the two. Most of the online family tree people can be educated. That is our challenge in the genealogical community. We do not need to hide behind a wall of "expertise" and condemn the ignorant masses. We need to extend ourselves as teachers and servants of those who need our help and are ready and willing to be educated.
One last word about blogs. If I say something wrong or even have a typographical error (which I frequently do) I find that the community is quick to correct me. Michael asserts about ignorant bloggers,
They can create a website or a blog and get followers who are even less experienced than they are, and mislead these beginners. And anyone who dares to speak against them is simply elitist.If this is true, then let's write about the errors. After being involved in litigation for almost 40 years, I don't expect anyone to agree with me, so I am never offended when they do not and I am usually surprised when they do. I also do not expect to change many minds. Neither of these expectations, however, stop me from trying. Thanks to Michael J. Leclerc for a thought provoking article. Perhaps I am one of those that mislead the beginner? If I am, please let me know. Please dare to speak against me, if you wish. Oh, by the way, Michael J. Leclerc is one of those who patiently and publicly educate and help us all. Thanks again, Michael.