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

Saturday, July 7, 2012

What is the Nature of Genealogy as an Activity?

As I finished teaching the classes at the Sacramento Family History Expo, and had conversations with some of the attendees, I was thinking about the overall nature of genealogy as a persuasion. There were somewhere near 500 people at the Expo and my impressions were that the attendees were predominantly female and over the age of 50. There were a significant number of men involved but they were far outnumbered by the women and the men were mostly the same age as the women.

 As a side note, if you look at the images associated with the genealogy programs online, you would get an entirely different impression of who the genealogists are. Given the demographics at the Expo, I would think that most of the advertising is misdirected. 

But I draw on my own experience. I became very much involved in genealogy about the age of 35. So, I did not then, nor do I now, fit into the predominant demographic. But when I was younger, I did not attend even one genealogy conference. In fact, given the lack of Internet in those times, I don't think I had ever heard of a genealogy conference. Further, it never occurred to me that genealogy could be or was cooperative in nature. During nearly all of those early years doing research and adding names and dates to my genealogy, I don't recall ever finding anyone in my family or otherwise, who was similarly interested in genealogy. In the nearly thirty years since I first began working on my genealogy, I have found limited pockets of interest in people on certain of my family lines. However, my attempts at organizing some sort of cooperative effort have never matured into a productive research situation.

So, if the genealogical community is predominantly female, older and a solitary pursuit, why is there such a marked effort by online software and website developers to make into a "cooperative" activity? Who am I supposed to cooperate with? For example, I have been online with for over five years. Although I have had contact with others interested in my genealogical research, I have never found anyone who even vaguely suggested cooperating on any projects. Am I disappointed or discouraged because no one else in my immediate or extended family is cooperating in genealogical research? Not at all. I do have one daughter who is very interested and writes a fabulous blog, and we do exchange information. But I would not consider that the exchange consisted of cooperative effort.

I view myself as a solitary genealogical researcher working in parallel with other researchers who are working on their own lines. I have heard about and seen the results of some cooperative research projects, primarily conducted many years ago by my wife's family. I have attended some very successful genealogically oriented family reunions (cooperative events?) with my wife's family and one branch of my extended family. But those events cannot be said to have produced a cooperative effort in doing basic research. They are more of an exchange of documents, photos and artifacts combined with information about current living family members and how they are related to a distant common ancestor.

Further, I am not at all upset or disturbed about the solitary nature of genealogy. I do not intend to give the pursuit merely because I can find no one else in my family who is even slightly interested in combining their research efforts with my own. So, this seems to be the dominate model of genealogical activity, single older adults who are interested in pursuing genealogical research, some of whom began their interest a some time earlier in their life. Now, what about the extended family of these researchers? I believe you could say that there is a cloud of immediate family members, some of whom are somewhat tolerant of the genealogist and even including a few that will participate in genealogical activities if coerced into doing so. Having more than one central genealogist in an extended family is likely an unusual situation. Beyond the central genealogist, there is a further cloud of relatives who are only vaguely aware, if at all, of genealogy or the researcher's efforts.

Are any of the present genealogical databases or online resources calculated to create an atmosphere of cooperation among these extended family members? If the programs emphasize family cooperation and "beginners" at the expense of providing support for the established genealogical hub individuals, doesn't that at best ignore the present structure of the community or at worst alienate the people who are actually doing genealogical research?

More on this later.


  1. Interesting post, Jim.

    From my point of view it all depends on A)your goals and B)the tools you utilize to achieve those goals in one's work.

    With A), I have been very successful in attracting and building interaction, support, communications, and sharing within our family, but this is because it is a twin primary goal of my genealogy work. These twin goals are 1) to create a high quality, documented, inclusive family genealogy and 1) build and then nurture family involvement worldwide by focusing on family history, not just genealogy. (I purposely use the two terms as I have learned the simple term of 'genealogy' turns off way too many people.

    Concerning B) I make great use of the genealogy and family Social Networking site. It has wonderful features to encourage and develop involvement. Our membership is now over 200 and this has become a news hub, a communications station, and a sharing platform as well as the 'keeper' of our family tree.

    I do things like a once-a-week Family Update to all members on what is new and ask for input. Response has been tremendous and positive. Additionally I constantly preach inclusiveness and each person's role in preserving the culture and values of those who have gone before us.

    I then augment this with the more public use of Facebook over and over.


  2. Online databases and resources are a miracle for serious amateur and professional genealogists who will pursue verifying everything, and a windfall for people who believe accumulating names and posted "facts" is genealogy. Genealogy has become big business:it is impossible to gauge how many of us who pay for subscriptions are accumulators or verifiers. Do we care when the cost adds value to our own research? Do we care how old the researcher is? Is one-time help, paid or unpaid, cooperation? Would hub individuals be doing genealogy if we didn't, by nature,love researching by ourselves? Don't we all find our own genealogy communities because of the internet? My question is where is the online community for the intermediate amateur who is reasonably happy with the quality of our Sources and Citations, aware that research will never be done but also aware that we won't be here forever and need our information in permanent form so some future ancestor will have a head start,tells the stories which make genealogy interesting to some family members who we usually bore to death, some repository will have our research-and doesn't cost the earth, and isn't the computer-generated narrative of our wonderful genealogy programs? What if we aren't writers? Do we need to go outside our area of interest and look to scrapbooking? Thank you for making me think. Janet

  3. Talk about outside the demographic... I started my genealogy research when I was 12. I worked on it for about a year calling relatives visiting the national archives regularly with my aunt and even took a trip to central IL and visited courthouses and cemetaries. I didn't pick it up again until last year.. now 32.
    As far as collaboration on the family history... I have run into several genealogists in my extended family. Another aunt that I rarely talked to turned out to be deep into However did we collaborate on a tree? No. We shared some info sure.. did a gedcom export and merged some data. However, her recordkeeping and style is not the way I like to keep my research. We didn't agree on certain conclusions, either. So we maintain our own separate history research. There have been other second and third cousins that I located through research who were also doing genealogical research. But, this has been the pattern.... Just a data swap and keep our own records going.

  4. I think having practically no family members interested in one's ancestry is better than there existing myriad extended-family members who have entered published misinformation and/or their own baseless speculations into myriad trees, including new.FamilySearch. In some cases, simple chronologically impossible assertions taken from published material have been migrated from n.FS to Family Tree at