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

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Beginning Genealogist Problem and Other Quandries

I appreciate that the comments to my recent posts on the some of the challenges of taking genealogy to the masses did not degenerate into name calling. But it did come pretty close. Some of the comments illustrate the fact that a few of the younger genealogists are fiercely protective of their turf and feel put upon by those of us who they perceive to have more leisure time to do genealogy when they have to work, take care of children etc.

I think I need to express my position more clearly. So, I will give it another try.

1. Genealogy is not a contact sport.

What I mean by this first statement is fairly obscure. But if you think about it, genealogy does not involve any sort of competition. There are no winners and losers in genealogy, only researchers. There is no Super Bowl of genealogy. There is a level playing field. We all have families and ancestors. So why the antagonism? However, my last few days at the Family History Library have shown me that genealogy is not for those who lack the will to keep going. Many of the people in the Library we old enough to populate the area's extended care facilities, but there they were there with their walkers, canes and wheelchairs and all, working away at genealogical research.

2. Stories are important, but we can have photos and stories without destroying and dumbing down serious research.

Believing that you can substitute stories and photos for the underlying serious research will only go so far. If it means that there will be less support for the serious kind of researcher, then you are throwing the baby out with the bathwater or as my Grandmother would say, cutting off your nose to spite your face. It should not be an "either/or" sort of proposition. If you think that emphasizing stories and photos will attract new people to genealogy, then by all means, let's have stories and photos. But there is no need to deemphasize research. Unless you somehow believe that aiding researchers will drive away the masses?

3. We all have time to do what what value doing.

I guess I kind of resented the comments that insinuated that in my dotage, I had no concept of what it is like to support a family, change diapers, work at a difficult job, contribute to the community and still have time for genealogy. I am fully aware that there are younger researchers who feel frustrated at their lack of time to spend on genealogy. I happen to live in an area that is primarily retired folks, at least during the winter months. We do see a measurable increase in traffic at the Mesa FamilySearch Library when the so-called Winter Visitors are present, but the number interested in genealogy is vanishingly small compared to the number who play golf, for example. Having leisure time does not equate to an interest in genealogy. Likewise, being busy just means you have to give up some types of activities to have time for genealogy. What I disagree with is the concept that genealogy (and other similar type activities, such as self-education, serving in the community and so forth) are "leisure" only activities.

I do not want to make you tired listing all the activities and commitments I have every week. By the way, I am still working in at least four different businesses. I do have considerably more time than I used to do genealogy, but that is because I choose to do research rather than other "leisure" activities.

I certainly do not wish to denigrate anyone who is actively raising a family. I have not forgotten when we had seven children at home under the age of 13. My observations apply to all age groups. Genealogy is not a favorite activity for a very high percentage of any population. But the nature of the subject matter and the skills required severely limit those who lack those skills from participating unless they are motivated to learn and develop their skills.

4. Why Johnny can't read.

Do you realize that this book, Why Johnny Can't Read, was written Rudolf Flesch and published back in 1955? What has changed in education since then? It happens to be my opinion that the answer is "not much." You might be aware that Flesch wrote another book entitled "Why Johnny Still Can't Read" in 1981, twenty-six years later. Almost the same book could be written today, although if the test scores can be believed, there has been some advances in reading but losses in other academic areas.

Flesch, Rudolf. Why Johnny Can't Read: And What You Can Do About It. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955.

Flesch, Rudolf. Why Johnny Still Can't Read: A New Look at the Scandal of Our Schools. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

If Johnny can't read, he can't do genealogical research. My comments were directed at the 50% of our population who don't finish high school not those with graduate degrees. I was merely pointing out that if we want larger percentages of our population to be involved in genealogy, we are going to have to become involved in the greater problem of educating our population in general. Activities such as genealogy are more like academic professions than they are like unskilled labor. Yes, we can all contribute to family stories and upload photos, but who then will do the serious research? How do you propose that we transition from stories to research? Or is research no longer necessary? 

Maybe you believe that spending time digging into source documents at the Family History Library is a waste of time. I suggest that it is not. In fact, it is one of the few really valuable things they let us old folks do with out time since they won't employ us and integrate us into society in any other meaningful way. You should have seen the reaction of the staff when my wife and I walked into the newly opened Microsoft store in Salt Lake City, Utah this last week if you want to know what I am talking about. Four or five of the young employees seemed to think we were lost. We did walk out pretty fast, but we had just spent quite a bit of time in the nearby Apple Store. 

Well, we do have a serious problem. We, as genealogists, feel the need to attract more people to genealogy. Some of us feel this for religious reasons, others out of concern for the preservation of our heritage and our society in general. My attitude is inclusive rather than exclusive. I applaud the young people who make time to do genealogical research. I applaud those of all ages who make time for genealogy. I merely think that some of the fundamental problems of our society and educational system are working against that goal.


  1. Your comment about the younger people being busy and not able to do genealogy reminded me of something my daughter said.

    She was complaining how hard it was to attend Nursing School and work. She Said "Do you have any idea how hard it is to work and go to school?"

    Her dad and I both shouted YES because we both had done the same thing working and attending school. Then I mentioned that I had at one point worked full time and was carrying six to nine credits in the evenings.

    I suppose everyone thinks they are the only one working, raising a family and going to school with little time for anything else.

  2. I've done genealogy research all my adult life--raising two children/going to school, then working in a professional position that took a lot of time. My point is, as you mentioned, you find time for what you love to do--even if, in my case, there were times I could only spend 4 hours a week on it. If you are passionate about a hobby, you'll find time for it.