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

Friday, May 25, 2012

Confusing the beginner or dumbing down genealogy?

Advanced warning: This is one of my periodic rants, I thought you might want to know,  just so you don't try to read this while eating or doing any other activity. 

Do we really want to dumb down genealogy? It seems like there is a significant movement to make genealogy easier, faster, and simple enough for anyone to do. Is this even possible? Or desirable? Can we cater to the "instant satisfaction" generation in the complicated and challenging area of genealogy? Is genealogy a product that has to be "improved" so it can compete in the marketplace? Take a look at this page and tell me how you are going to simplify this for a beginning genealogist?

This happens to be a copy of the Italy, Civil Registration, 1805-1940 from Bologna. Tell me how you are going to convince a novice beginner that getting to the point of reading and using this record is painless and simple? Not to mention fun and exciting? Let's get real. Genealogy is a complicated and challenging pursuit. Sugar coating the difficulties does not help anyone. I would venture to say that many (if not nearly all) the people who are reading this post did not start out in genealogy because someone told them how easy and fun it would be.

I had no allusions about genealogy whatsoever when I started out. I recognized immediately that it took real work to get to the records and sometimes money, travel, and a lot of effort. Just because a huge number of records are now more readily available does not diminish the effort needed to get to the answers in genealogy. Don't trivialize my passion by telling me that what I am doing can be done by a high school student on an iPad. That is simply not true.

I do agree that, as a community, we need to be open and supportive of those starting out. But I don't agree that we need splashy media ads telling the world that doing genealogy is as easy as playing video games. When we concentrate on the beginner, sometimes we marginalize the experts. I am really tired of being considered an expert in genealogy simply because I know how to do a Google search. Genealogy is so much more than filling in blanks in a variety of search engines.

OK, so what got me started on this topic? I guess it was partly the cartoon introduction to the U.S. Census records and the 5 minute genealogy series. Why does everything in the world have to be simplified? Some things are only attractive and desirable if they are complicated and challenging. Do we all want genealogy to be over in an hour long TV show?


  1. I've always liked the idea "as simple as possible, but NOT simpler." I think the organizations that profit from genealogy just want to entice ever more people to try it, but don't do enough to follow up with education. Fortunately there are other organizations, like societies, that do that, but many people never find them.

    I always see lots of books titled some variation on "X" Made Easy. I always think that if it turns out that I enjoy "X", I'm going to want a book about "X" Made Difficult, and those books are much harder to find. Not that making things difficult is good in itself, but I'm certain that doing anything well is going to get complicated - and that can be a good thing.

  2. Totally right James! I'd venture that it's the challenge and intellectual stimulation that keeps us in this "game". Love your rants ;-)

  3. I'm not very affluent so don't go to many conferences, etc. A while back, I did pounce on the booth at a onference and told the folks there exactly what I thought of their "you don't have to know what you are looking for" ads. One thing I told them is that once people get started and find out they do need to know what they are looking for and do need to look hard for documents, then they will feel Ancestry has lied to them. People who feel lied to tend not to be "good customers". So, it is relevant to Ancestry's bottom line (all I reckon they care about) to be reasonably honest with customers and potential customers.

    I'm definitely into rants (now and then) but I also think we need to tell these companies and organizations what we think, loudly and clearly and directly to their faces. Also, offer reasons why their "this is so easy, any idiot can do it" strategy can backfire. Also, offer suggestions on what they should do instead. I suggested that Ancestry should emphasize its learning center more. I was told that different people saw different things on the home page and that beginners saw more info about how to videos and such. Since I am not a beginner and have been an Ancestry subscriber for a long time, I don't know how true this is.

    I have been answering questions on message boards and a couple of genealogy lists for years and always tell people we are not born knowing how to do genealogical research and we need to learn. Then I give them some suggestions for learning including links from and classes at local genealogical societies and books they can check out at libraries. I remind them there is no free lunch. If they think they are getting lunch for free, be aware that somebody somewhere is paying for it. So far as I can tell, the readers of these posts resent them highly and consider me a real &%$#@, but are quite willing to accept any info I find for them on their families. What I have decided is that when I help these posters with answers, I am doing it for my own amusement. I tell them to check everything I say because they don't know me and have no idea if I really found gg-whatever in some record or if I made it up. Some (few) do seem to catch on they need to work at genealogy and work at learning how to do it if they want a tree with their actual ancestors on it and not just some random names. Some just go elsewhere to find someone who will give them what they feel entitled to, a ready made family tree.

    Everything these days seems to have a book for dummies or idiots or folks who want the easy way out. We may be lucky that so few budding genealogists are even willing to buy a book! Maybe one of you out there should write a series (it will take more than one book) on how to do genealogy for folks who want to do a thorough and respectable job of it. Then again, most of these people who want everything easy would probably not buy the book(s). -------Jo

    1. Regarding the last paragraph--the Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy is written by Christine Rose, CG, CGL, FASG, and Kay Germaine Ingalls, CG--both highly respected genealogists. I myself wrote a chapter in the newly released third edition.

      I can attest that this book stresses using a wide variety of record groups and meeting modern genealogical standards, including citing every source.