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

Sunday, February 28, 2016

What should be the primary focus of genealogists?

Because we are investigating our ancestral families, genealogists (family historians) begin by accumulating a lot of names. In our present computerized online world, a neophyte researcher can simply tap into one of many relative's family trees and start copying off names, dates and places. Those with a little bit of time and/or money to spend can expand by benefiting from the automatic record matches and suggested relatives accumulated by the larger online genealogical database program that host family trees. Most recently, some of these programs provide the new user with an instant set of relatives.

I am certain that many, if not most of those casually involved in the greater genealogical community, never get much beyond the copy stage. I probably spent about my first fifteen years of accumulating names on family group records in this category. Eventually, the combined weight of the contradictory and incomplete information I had accumulated motivated me to move into the second stage of attempting to sort out what could and could not be verified. As I worked through relationship problems that turned out to be more and more complicated, I was further motivated to learn about what I was doing. 

Now, I could have passed through these two stages in my genealogical development much faster or started much earlier, but each of us seems to have our own unique pathway to becoming involved in our own family history and very few of those who start out keep learning and adapting to the developing conditions, especially the technology.

In living through these changes, I realize completely that some people have inherited much more information about their families than others. Some people struggle to find their birth parents and never get beyond that stage. Some people never make the transition past an immigrant and focus on adding more information about the few family members they do identify, but most of the world find that their pool of potential ancestors and relatives continues without end. Finding your birth mother or father can be as much or more of a challenge than extending your pedigree into the 1700s or 1600s. We all have our challenges in identifying and documenting our ancestry. Some people begin their research and find out for the first time that they were adopted. The size of the pedigree is no real measure of the difficulty of the challenge. 

I analyze the development of an interest in genealogy or family history into the following research stages:

Stage One: The Accumulation of Names Stage

This is the bare beginnings of an interest in genealogy or family history. This is where the beginner starts to become aware that they are related to a vast web of people both living and dead who are mostly unknown. The main focus at this point is accumulating a lot of names. If you ask someone in this stage to tell you about their family, they will likely relate to one or more ancestors but have little awareness or knowledge about their relationships to more immediate family members. They may rely primarily on an online family tree accumulated by relatives they don't really know. 

Stage Two: The Verification Stage

Eventually, if the beginner gets involved in examining the information they have accumulated, they begin to notice that all is not well. They start to find that much of the information is contradictory or even impossible. Some dates and places don't correspond with reality. This is either so disturbing that they abandon the pursuit or they start to wonder how they can correct all these apparent issues and find the missing people. The researcher moves into this stage when they start to look for documents to find the people rather than search for people. 

Stage Three: The Education Stage

This stage begins when the genealogists start to understand that they are involved with history and that their primary focus should be on documents and records and not merely on names and dates. There is also a beginning awareness that geography matters. The genealogists realize that they are going to spend more time looking for documents than for names. They also become aware of the vast fantasy land of names and dates that has likely accumulated in conjunction with their family, especially if the family has several online family trees. 

Stage Four: The Correction Stage

When the research reaches this stage, the search for documents and records has finally impacted the accuracy of all of the researcher's family lines. The information becomes more persuasive and accurate as the research ties the names, dates and places down to real events substantiated by documents and records. At this point, some of the cherished family traditions may begin to look a little less authentic that they were previously.

Stage Five: The Focus Stage

At this point, the genealogist decides to become involved in the genealogical community. Some decide to make it into a business. Others look to the social side and join societies and other organizations. Some become popular presenters and teach and write. Others spend their time with more formal education and certifications. Some stay focused on their own family research and start making real progress in verifying and adding substantial information.

These stages are generalities and may not apply to anyone's personal experience. But as we move through the various stages, we find that the research becomes more detailed and requires a cosistently greater effort. 


  1. A fascinating analysis of the stages of research; I've not seen it presented so clearly before. At various stages in our research we will want to share and publish the results of that research so far. I'm really looking forward to your presenting a similar analysis of that area; looking at both the genealogical lines (the skeleton) and the stories of families and individuals in their contexts (the flesh on the bones).

    Thanks for giving me (and no doubt many others) such food for thought.


  2. Fascinating is indeed the word, and your analysis is spot-on.

    Several years back, The Ancestry Insider proposed a Genealogical Maturity Model:

    What's interesting to me is that AI's model wouldn't even come into play until stage 3, and is entirely focused on research.

    If on-line trees are representative, it appears that many people never make it past stage 1, which frankly baffles me.

    I'm currently in the mode of wanting to do all the things mentioned in stage 5 (do research, write software, get involved with societies, publish, etc.) and struggling to find focus (or balance, at least).

    Thanks for an insightful article.