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

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part Sixteen: Where will you go to search?

What is the origin of the formality of genealogy? Quoting from Tevye in the Fiddler on the Roof ,
Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything... how to eat, how to sleep, even, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl... This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I'll tell you - I don't know. But it's a tradition... Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.
Do genealogists follow certain rules and conform to certain formalities all because of "tradition?" It would certainly seem so. We do have a rather complicated set of traditions and following those traditions may not extend to how we eat, sleep and wear our clothes, but the certainly extend to almost everything else in our genealogical sphere of activity.

What is the interaction between our fundamental activity of research and these traditions? Sometimes, I believe, we substitute our traditions for actual, productive genealogical research activity. Some of us spend more time fussing with formalities that we do extending our knowledge and accumulating information.

When I write about formalities and genealogical traditions, I am not condemning all of them by any means. Some formalities and traditional ways of doing things are necessary for continuity and stability. But when we start making those same formalities and traditions binding on everyone who wants to learn about their ancestors, we start to create a huge burden that ultimately becomes exclusive rather than inclusive.

Where do these formalities and traditions come from in genealogy? Who started them in the first place? When did they start to be burdensome and confining rather than useful and helpful? It is time to go back into our genealogical history, not our ancestry, but the history of genealogy as a pursuit.

I am aware of only one book that has an over view of the history of genealogy in America. That book is,

Weil, François. Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America. 2013.

In order to have a perspective about our genealogical history, it is necessary to read the entire book, but here is a quote from page 168, that gives an idea of what I am writing about:
Once research had been carried on with appropriate skills and documentary evidence had been carefully gathered, information had to be organized properly. Chester, Whitmore, Waters, and many others repeatedly insisted on the necessity for genealogists to “follow one of the well known and approved modes of arrangement.” How-to books, like Whitmore’s Ancestral Tablets, were meant to help enthusiasts succeed in this all-important task. Scientific genealogists insisted on rules of presentation of pedigrees and authorities, which journals like the New England Historical and Genealogical Register attempted to spread to their readers.

Weil, François (2013-04-30). Family Trees (pp. 165-166). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.
The book referred to is the one in the image at the start of this post. Here is the bibliographic information on that particular book:

Whitmore, William Henry, and Dean Dudley. Ancestral Tablets: A Collection of Diagrams for Pedigrees, so Arranged That Eight Generations of the Ancestors of Any Person May Be Recorded in a Connected and Simple Form. Boston: Wm. Parsons Lunt, 1871.

The literal descendents of this attempt to impose a decree of formality on genealogy are myriad. They include hundreds of computer genealogy programs and dozens, perhaps hundreds, of journals and other publications pertaining to genealogy that impose on their users a certain formality. The imposition of this formality requires the user to think and act in a certain way about their own ancestral research. 

I can offer one personal example. When I wrote my Masters Thesis at the University of Utah, I had to write it on a typewriter. My wife, an English Major and English teacher at a local high school, spent at least as much time trying to get the document formatted and the citations correct, as I had spent writing the paper in the first place. How many of us, now in our advance age of computers, spend the majority of our time conforming to the "requirements" of the formal presentation of our research?

Dare I express the heresy that much of this formality interferes with actual the actual research process and reinforces form over substance?

Another quote from the Weil book is in order (I am certain I have used this quote before but it is once again appropriate):
It took a new generation of genealogists and new strategies to revive the fight for scholarly standards. Their assessment of American genealogy was harsh. “Conditions in the genealogical profession are unsatisfactory,” Donald Lines Jacobus explained in 1930. Anyone could become a professional genealogist. “No course of training is required, no examinations as to fitness have to be passed.” Genealogy, Jacobus regretted, often appealed “to many who lack the mentality for this kind of work, and who might be unsuccessful in other professions.”

Weil, François (2013-04-30). Family Trees (p. 167). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.
There we have the dichotomy; on the one hand the need to accurately discover, evaluate, extract and report our research and on the other hand, the distinct movement that somehow, at its heart, genealogy should be a regulated and licensed profession like law, medicine and many others, including dog grooming.

So, research, whether into our own personal, ancestral heritage or into astro-physics comes with its own burden of tradition and formality. The difficult task we all face is the need to separate the essence of the research process from its background of tradition and formality. Here a quote attributed to author Michael Crichton is appropriate:
If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree. Michael Crichton, Timeline (1999) p. 73. 
Are we leafs that don't know we are part of a tree? This quote works on many different levels when applied to genealogical research.

Final note for this installment: please observe that I use citations to all my quotes in a standard form. The next post will address the issue of the need for all this tradition and formality.

Previous installments of this series include:


  1. I think there is a difference between working on a family history and working on a genealogy. When I first started I was told that one was supposed to follow the paternal lines only to do genealogy properly. I decided right then and there properly did not matter to me. I considered the maternal lines just as important. In fact it is the history of the women in my tree that especially interests me. If one is going to publish a work I agree that the form is important. In a working file I myself don't worry about it. But I see the point of why it might be a good idea to be more concerned with form than I tend to be.

    1. There is no real difference between family history and genealogy, just the name. In Great Britain, they call it family history, here in the U.S. the term "genealogy" is more prevalent. Any attempt to differentiate between the two terms is purely artificial.

  2. I see where you are coming from. But if people are included that are important to the family but not related I think there should be a different term for the work. For example, my great grandmother died in childbirth with my grandfather. My great grandfather remarried and the woman who filled the role of mother for my grandfather and her entire family embraced my family. They were very much a part of who we all were. I have included the line but they are not related. So to me it would be more of a family history than a genealogy. But I am sure you are correct in the strict meaning of things and perhaps there is another name for including non related lines that were a major influence in a family.