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

Monday, August 3, 2015

Commercial vs. Non-Commercial Genealogy

I recently viewed a summary of a locally held genealogy conference where the presenters were praised for their presentations. I was interested to hear the comments about these "genealogists" because the focus of the comments and the ratings of the presentations were based on the success of the presenter's business enterprises. The comments made about the conference and the specific presentations were not so much about how valuable the information was to the genealogical researchers attending the conference, but rather how successful the presenter was as a business person. In short, the attention given to the presenter was measured not by the value of the presentation, but more by the value of the presenter's occupation or business associations.

There is no real measure of the "success" of a genealogical researcher. Some of the most obscure and unknown people involved in genealogy are the most skilled at research. But if that person is employed by a major corporation or has their own successful genealogy-related business, then, of course, they are considered more skillful and more authoritative than the quiet, unobtrusive researcher. This is equally true for those who are entertaining presenters. Sometimes, genealogical expertise and the ability to entertain an audience go hand-in-hand, but they are more commonly exact opposites. It is rare to find a person who can sit in a library day after day and do research that is also an entertaining teacher.

I have seen the same phenomena in law and business. However, I am not so sure that success in convincing judges and juries and making lots of money has anything to do with genealogical research. Genealogy conferences obviously rely on "sponsors" and it is natural that the sponsors' representatives get top billing at the conferences. This does not mean that any of the sponsored presenters are particularly expert in genealogy. What I have found is that "going on the conference circuit" drastically limits the amount of personal, serious research I can do.

Now, I am not in any way against the commercial side of genealogy. Most, if not nearly all, the technological advancements and the increased availability of original sources are attributable to commercial or large non-profit enterprises. Many of the best tools we have to do genealogy today are the results of successful businesses making excellent products. My observations are directed more at the genealogical conference phenomena. One example is the "keynote" speaker phenomena. The conferences try to attract a famous or infamous person to boost attendance. Conferences, in general, have a variety of purposes, but unless the sponsoring organization has an agenda that coincides with the conference objectives, they are not likely to keep having an event that loses money year after year.

Part of the strategy to cover costs is to attract entertaining and prominent people to "present." Hence, the presenters at larger conferences receive a "rating" dependent not only on the comments of the attendees, but also on the number of people that attend a given class. More popular presenter's classes are jammed, while often those with more valuable information, but less popularity, are poorly attended.

There are probably some who will argue that the popular presenters are popular because people get what they come for, that is, information. But I would note that some of the presenters at the larger conferences, really have no background or special knowledge about genealogy. Many have risen to prominence because of their association with a particular institution or company. Some are purely entertainers and have no association with research or genealogy at all. So the genealogy conference becomes a show with ratings like movies or TV series.

Those who are attracted to the conference circuit have to decide if they want to spend time preparing and attending the conferences or pursuing genealogical research. Sometimes, that decision is made for them by those who select the participants and arrange the schedules for the conferences. Some of those who believe their job is to educate and teach, soon find themselves on the periphery of the conference, scheduled at odd hours and with less than desirable physical facilities.

I would contrast that sort of environment to the teaching that went on week after week at the Mesa FamilySearch Library (when it was in operation) and the teaching that goes on day after day at the Brigham Young University Family History Library. For the most part, with some limited exceptions, the teachers are not paid employees or associated with any commercial enterprises. They teach because they love to teach. The classes are not judged on attendance and if only a handful of people show up, the class proceeds as planned. Currently, the classes at the BYU Family History Library attract about 100 plus people each set of class sessions. This would be considered a disaster for most conferences, but having this many people each session is considered a success. The reason is that the goal is to teach, not make a profit.

Most of the questions raised by the students are answered in one-to-one consultations with the volunteers (missionaries) that serve at the BYU Family History Library.

Realistically, there are some heads of companies who are knowledgeable about genealogy and there are some obscure researchers who are not at all good at what they are doing. But my point is that conferences involve a different set of dynamics than are evident and needed to do really good genealogical research and it is only, perhaps by chance, that the two dynamics coincide.


  1. Thank you for expressing something I have felt for a long time. I do understand the fiscal realities of holding conferences and the need for sponsorship and all that entails, but it is good for genealogists to understand that there is a spectrum of presenters available and a variety of settings for learning. We can all benefit from looking past the marketing and finding classes that help us stretch as researchers. There's nothing wrong with attending popular classes, of course---they are popular for a reason! But it's good to look at presenters much the same way we look at records, and try to evaluate their reliability and sponsorship, and extend our learning to a variety of sources.

  2. I present without compensation. One point I totally agree with is that wow, we put a lot of time in getting ready to present at one of these conferences. And yes, we could instead by attaching sources and doing research. As long as these conferences don't happen too frequently, I'm okay with presenting and going. But if they interfere more frequently with life in general, Im getting more and more reluctant.