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

Monday, January 20, 2014

What we bring to our genealogical table

One of the most prominent issues I encounter every time I teach or talk to a patron at the Mesa FamilySearch Library and elsewhere is the variety background skills and interests we find in the genealogical community. It is not unusual in the course of a week or so to talk to people with tremendously different social, ethnic and economic backgrounds. The past two weeks, I have been working with a newly interested genealogist whose family comes from Lebanon, not the town the country. It turns out that Arizona has a very distinct Lebanese community that arrived in the 1800s and presently have several very prominent families in the area around Mesa. This started me thinking about this subject.

As I get to know new volunteers and missionaries at the Mesa FamilySearch Library, I am interested to find out that some were truck mechanics and some were doctors and even a few lawyers. We have school teachers and university professors and others with little or no formal schooling. What is even more interesting is that their individual backgrounds do not seem to have much effect on their interest or even their ability to do genealogical research. Some of the most persistently careful investigators have few qualifications or skills and just as possible, some of the most educated professionals seem to lack the motivation to do their own research. What is more, the abilities seem to be spread across all ethnic backgrounds and races. We have Native Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans and almost every other immigrant and racial group represented just in those who are helping with genealogy at the Mesa FamilySearch Library.

In the past, I have written about the demographics of those who read my blog. But the problem with the demographics is that they do not tell the whole story. The web-based measures of demographics do not tell us who belongs to the greater genealogical community, the demographics merely tell us what the online users reveal in profiles. Few of the characteristics I am talking about here make their way into the web profiles. The reason for this is simple; the vast majority of the people I deal with are not involved in the online community at all. When we look at the demographic makeup of our blog audience, we are in fact looking at the makeup of the online community which is, in my experience, very different from the community at large.

Over the years I have become interested in a variety of activities and attended gatherings and conferences for all sorts of interests from gem and mineral shows to radio-controlled models. In almost every case, you can go into those groups and see a very distinctive type of participant. At the huge Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, for example, it is very easy to stand there and spot the professionals. They mostly fall into a very distinct category. If I stand around in an RC hobby store for a while, I am struck by the consistency of the customers. In contrast, when I go to a genealogy conference, which I will do this Saturday in Casa Grande, Arizona, the only thing genealogists seem to have in common is age.

What does this mean? It means that when we are dealing with our fellow genealogists, we are likely dealing with someone who shares no other interests with us other than a common interest in genealogy. Realizing this, we need to be more sensitive than we might be to individual differences of education, social position and economic level. This is something I need to remind myself of constantly. I have genealogical associates who live at or below the poverty level and others who drive Corvettes. I can be teaching in a classroom with both extremes present.

I think genealogy is a great leveling pursuit because, as you go back in your own ancestry, you find out that you have ancestors in all levels of society and often of all ethnic backgrounds. Would you be more interested if you found out some of your ancestors were royalty or if you found out they were slaves? As my grandmother used to say, you can choose your friends but you can't choose your relatives. I think the same thing applies to genealogy. You can choose to be interested in your family history, but you can't choose who else may also be interested in their own.

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