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

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Are Genealogists being defined out of Family History?

The tag line on a recent family history promotion entitled "Family History is for Everyone" is "Family history is much more than dates, records, and research." The idea here is apparently to involve a wider audience in the area of family history, which is an extremely laudable goal. But isn't the implication that dates, records and research are not appealing and that these aspects of "family history" need to be downplayed so that it will have a "broader" appeal. This isn't just about avoiding the term "genealogy," this is about how we-who-are-actively-involved are being portrayed.

This promotion goes on to list ten suggested activities. Interestingly, I have done every single one of the suggested activities at some time in my genealogical career and most of the genealogists I know have also done most if not all of the listed activities. Why then are these activities something that is in contrast to the core activities of dates, records and research? These are things we, as genealogists, have been doing all along and I might add, without recognition or an audience. For example, my daughter has had a fabulous family history blog for years and very, very few of the family members, even those who know about it, take the time to even read the stories and look at the photographs.

For example, I have been adding photos, sources and information to's Family Tree now for over a year. Unless I go back many generations, I can find no indication that anyone else (other than my one daughter) has even looked at the information online.

Interestingly, none of the suggested activities are directly aimed at finding and identifying your ancestors. How do you move from something such as interviewing family members and sharing their stories online, to finding the identity of unknown family members. How do you interview someone you cannot identify?

Dates, records and research are the engine that drives this family history vehicle, not something that can be ignored. Some of the suggested activities fall into the category of the survey in the research cycle, but other of the activities are things you do after your research has provided names, stories and photos to share. What is missing is the connection between the listed activities and where the information comes from. I fully realize that we can all ride in the car and that we don't all have to be mechanics, but without the mechanics, the car doesn't run.

I acknowledge that I personally have not done everything I could do to involve my family in family history. But it is hard to confront absolute and total indifference. I was talking to some friends I hadn't seen for a while and they politely asked what I had been doing lately, when I mentioned genealogy, they quickly changed the subject and walked away.  What are the new, budding family historians going to do when they meet this kind of reaction?

I applaud the effort being made to involve a wider audience in family history, but how are these new family historians going to move on to the next step of research, records and yes, dates? Is this simply a public relations problem? Or is there something more to genealogy than meets the eye here?


  1. We researchers won't become defined out of genealogy. The folk who come for flash only will become bored and leave. Gravy (or icing) is nice, but neither works without the meat (or the cake).

    I believe that the advertising department fails to understand its product in a great many industries. They sell the "sizzle" instead of the steak because they don't know (and seem to not care) about the steak.

    In the long run such advertising campaigns are doomed. The sizzle may attract, but without the steak, the customers leave, unsatisfied.

    I recently directed someone on Facebook as to how to search a census page-by-page instead of relying on the index. She found what she wanted and will stay. The easy to do people will go on to the next phase, leaving uw "hard-core" folk holding the fort (and expanding it).

  2. I imagine they are just trying to attract more people to try family history. You know, get them in the door and get them hooked. Then teach them about the process of finding their ancestors. To represent the research aspect, maybe they could have included a picture of someone dressed in an old-time detective outfit with a magnifying glass. That would have been fun, 'cause isn't that how we genealogists picture ourselves anyway? :)

  3. Oddly, nearly half the items in the piece require that someone had done ~research~ or created ~records~.

  4. I agree with Geolover, without the 'oddly.' The ad is clearly, to me, attempting to place the ten activities, that are widely promoted in the media, in the context of family history. Involvement would be expected to result in digging out the details... sort of assumed, in my view.
    Interesting article and perspective.

  5. Drawing people to do family history/genealogy work is a challenge. The new attempt to draw people in will be temporary until a few of them catch the desire to dig deeper. It is fun being a genealogist as we can encourage them in their digging, usually one step at a time. They will take breaks in the process and overlook much that could help in their research without understanding how. That is our role as genealogists, to be patient and slowly educate those who will listen.

  6. Looking at the promotion, it seems to me that this is geared toward an LDS audience (4 - Prepare Ancestor's Names For The Temple). Because of this, I think that the ad is geared, in part, toward engaging people who already have a knowledge of their family history or have family that does genealogy. Perhaps people whose grandmother did genealogy and left a stack of papers behind, younger generations who are more tech savvy and can help spread to word about FamilySearch's technology, etc. It might be about engaging people who already are familiar with genealogy, but don't participate themselves.

    I also think that the "more than dates, records, and research" goes, in part, to the religious aspect. I don't know what the #4 idea entails, but it's obviously religious. I think there's an implication that beyond the dates, etc., is a higher purpose. Genealogy is about family and spiritual fulfillment (don't know if that's the right word). It's not tedious, it's meaningful... and fun.

    Speaking specifically to your critique, you say: "How do you move from something such as interviewing family members and sharing their stories online, to finding the identity of unknown family members." To me, this is a big part of genealogy. How can I not interview my relatives? They have a ton of information about people I never met. If I hadn't interview my Grandmother, I would have never known that her father's birth name was not "Mack," which he used on all of his records from his 20's on. I would never have found his childhood census records because he changed his name. Sure, it's not a primary document, but it can tell me where to look for those documents. When I've shared the information they gave me on my blog, I've connected with more cousins who have been able to give me more information. Again, you back up these stories with documents, but it's a place to start.

  7. My family is rather busy but I suspect they will get the "bug" eventually. Some of that "glitz" and being shown and told has sparked an interest in my grandson (College age). He is quite interested in "roll playing" currently Vikings. Does his homework too. Knows quite a bit about them. He has also become interested in chain mail making. Why? His grandmother. Being told (and proved since I'm a Colonial Dame XVII Century) about some of his ancestor's (Knight's and a few Kings)gave him a feeling of "it's for real". Makes a difference. I was told some of my family history at age 12...Salem Witch trials, Rebecca Towne Nurse, Mary Towne Esty, and that got me curious. First step. May not always "take", but once in a while it does. At the very least he's into history. Which isn't a bad thing.