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

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Is genealogy a hobby?

Tammy Hepps of wrote a thought provoking blog post entitled, "In Defense of Genealogy as a Hobby." Tammy says the following about genealogy after referring to this book
Peterson, Carla L. Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 2011 :
In short, our field is belatedly undergoing the standardization that pharmacology and every other respected discipline has had to undergo to enter the ranks of academic fields of study.
Is this correct? Is genealogy belatedly undergoing standardization? At this point, I might suggest reading another book I have referred to several times. This one talks about the history of genealogy in the United States: Weil, François. Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America. 2013. The history of genealogy as both a pastime and a profession is much more complicated than a simple characterization of a dichotomy between, as Tammy states,
Experts who believe that the only way to do genealogy is GPS-guided research don’t understand what genealogy is. Like most liberal arts, it falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. It is about truth and meaning. Denying the role of meaning altogether rejects much of what makes genealogy a distinct discipline.
The reference to GPS is the Genealogical Proof Standard. There is a very extensive discussion in the comments to Tammy's post that I recommend to anyone even vaguely interested in topic. What caught my attention was Tammy's link to a post by Drew Smith that was essentially aimed at some of my own earlier comments.

I would like to make a few points. First of all, unlike other hobbies and even professional disciplines as a genealogist, I am not dealing with an abstract concept. I am dealing with my family and my relatives. Let me go to my usual hypothetical situations. Let's suppose that I would like to build a house and live in it. Do I care about the standards to which the various components of the house are constructed? Do I care if the electrical wiring is "up to code" or conforms to some standard? Sure, I could hire someone off the street who thought it would be "fun" to build a house. But would I want to live in the house that resulted from this fun activity?

The difference between genealogy and other avocations, interests, hobbies or what not, is pretty simple. I have to live in the family tree house built by the other genealogists. I do not have an elitist or scholarly viewpoint about the standards of construction of my genealogical house. I have a very basic practical issue. When there are people who are either related to me or claim to be related to me and they make up information or do sloppy work, I have to live with the results. We are not talking about someone's efforts to sew or make their own woodworking projects, We are talking about a shared inheritance of information. The fundamental issue is one of accuracy; am I really related to these people or not? I understand that you may think I am overly fastidious about my efforts to convince people to be accurate, but they are building my genealogical house and I have to live in it.

There is a pretty good review of the issues involved through Tammy's post and extensive comments. But all this talk about whether or not there is a place for "hobbyists" in genealogy misses the point. Of course people are entitled to participate in their own activities. But as we live in complex societies, we limit those activities that impinge on the common good and interests of the group. Out here in the Southwest, we have a lot of people who have the hobby of riding All Terrain Vehicles or ATVs. I don't happen to one of them. But do we allow people who have fun riding ATVs to drive their vehicles anywhere and at any time they please? No, we set some standards for their participation in their "fun" activity. Why do we do this as a society? Because what they do for fun can impinge on what we perceive to be a greater good; the preservation of our wilderness areas. Because, like genealogy, we all have an interest in the general environment. Is there a heated dispute between the ATV riders and those who wish to preserve the wilderness? Of course. Likewise, there are the same kinds of interests being disputed in the genealogical community.

If you are an ATV rider, you may think my objection to your "sport or hobby" is elitist and academic. But even though you don't like my viewpoint, my answer is the same, too bad. I have my viewpoint and you have yours. I will not give up my standards and if I had my way, ATVs would be even more limited than they are presently. Do those who ride ATVs have a right to ride their machines? Yes, of course, but only so long as they maintain certain standards. For example, do not ride in a National Park off of designated areas.

My example is not a contrived as you might think. The question is this: do I have some kind of expectation that my ancestors be correctly and accurately identified? This issue becomes one of more than academic interest when you factor in the issue of a unified family tree such as's Family Tree. Does some hobbyist have the right to go in and change my mother's birthdate to the wrong date just for fun? Should ignorance be an excuse?

Most of the discussion by the various parties on Tammy's post talk around this issue but regardless, it is a basic issue. When we share the genealogical road with each other, we should have some expectation of conformity to an established standard. We do share this road because we are related to one another. Are we really prepared to let the genealogical ATV riders go anywhere they please at any time?

From my standpoint, the issue is whether or not accuracy in family history really matters. I happen to have deeply held philosophical and religious beliefs that say that accuracy does, in fact, matter. So you can brand me any way you like, but I will still go on teaching and writing as long as I am able and trying to help anyone interested enough to listen to aspire to higher standards of accuracy, hobbyist or professional alike.

Of course, I am not a certified expert and my opinion does not count in some circles but I do think I know a little bit about what genealogy is and is not. This brings up another issue, probably the topic for another post, who is and who is not an expert genealogist? How do I place myself in the community? Is community validation important? Isn't the issue one of self-awareness and even self-promotion rather than any particular level of competency? I am certainly not always "right" as my readers and detractors are quick to tell me.

I would like to end with an excellent comment by Drew Smith to the original post cited above.  I quote,
And the one thing that *all* aspects of genealogy share is that they are about establishing relationships (parent to child, sibling to sibling, spouse to spouse), whether those are biological or legal or some other variation. It may involve all kinds of other things, too (family stories, photographs, historical context, and much more), but at its heart, it is still about establishing the relationships. And if those relationships cannot be established with evidence to justify the conclusion, then it all falls apart. It may be wishful thinking, but it isn’t genealogy. It simply doesn’t qualify under any reasonable definition of the term.
Sorry for all the mixed metaphors.


  1. As a slightly humorous counter to this post James, I'd like to extend your house-building example to rural Ireland (or Britain). Many houses here have a private "septic tank" for their waste, because they're not on any mains sewerage system. OK, temporarily ignoring the fact that standards of operation are now being brought in, you might be arguing that the choice of how they're implemented belongs to the person(s) who live in each house. This isn't true, though, because the final run-off from the percolation area goes back into the shared water table. Hence, if it's not operating up-to-scratch then you're feeding sh**** back into everyone else's water supply. The analogy with genealogy is when poorly researched data is published, and it gets assimilated into the shared consensus of what's "true". :-))

    1. Well the wording is a little strong, but I tend to agree with your analogy. All of the bad data contaminates the water, so to speak, and makes it that much harder to find the good data, if it exists. This may not be true for someone who is very experienced, but it certainly is true for someone starting out who does not have the experience to discriminate between good and bad data.

    2. Actually, that was my second attempt at the wording James ;-)

  2. I tried to have a calm discussion with Drew on that blog but the Wordpress formatting on her site crashed that. Here's the thing - those people who actually care that their ancestors are accurately and correctly identified are rare folks. More often there are folks for whom genealogy is their "bucket list" item - something to do and get it done fast. Yet, we all have to play in the same sandbox of data and without everyone critically thinking about what the data is in that sandbox and how valid it is, we cannot distinguish between the people who are checking off the "done" box on their genealogy vs. those people who will spend their entire lives sourcing, citing, and attributing the documents and data that constitute the remembrance of their ancestors.

    To borrow your example, the ATV riders are already out there riding roughshed over your neighbor's lawn. What are we going to do about this? At the very least, we should have them site their basic information of where and how they got their information (to keep the analogy going ... leaving a note of apology about your neighbors lawn). For the rest of the people that know better, they can cite and attribute more (steering clear of your neighbors lawn). For the rest of the folks that know even more, they can write to academic or journal standards (not only steering clear but staying on the road). If we can at least force them into a "floor" level of standards (whether voluntarily or automatically by computer), we can then start to elevate that floor until it means a base standard (be it GPS or whatever), and then identify the "go beyonds" that are fantastic to have.

    The problem becomes that there's no equivalent, to borrow your example again, of the police who would arrest the ATV riders for riding roughshed all over your neighbors lawn. And if we were to create them, who would they be? Ancestry? FamilySearch? BCG? APG? The idea of creating a regulatory body to try and wrangle people into a standard of submission makes me shudder.

    This talk of "we do genealogy and they don't" reminds me of your series on genealogy vs. family history. Are we about to walk that road again, with the "amateurs" and "hobbyists" doing family history and the rest of us doing "genealogy"? Goodness.

    Sorry for this comment to get so long, I get very passionate about this topic because I feel I'm at least doing something by getting folks who don't care one whit about standards and citations to do *something* to give the rest of us an idea of where their data came from and from who.

    1. Exactly. I did not get into the discussion on Tammy's blog because I thought all of you were doing a good job of discussing the issues. The problem, as I point out with my reply to Tony's comment, is that the the unsourced data becomes so overwhelming that many would-be genealogists cannot begin to decide which of the choices are correct. Let me give another hypothetical. Suppose I am researching my ancestor's birth, marriage, death etc. I come across an unsourced family tree with all the dates and places and then I come across another family tree with different dates and places but with sources. Now, suppose I am not as sophisticated as some might be and I conclude that the one with the sources is correct, merely because the sources exist. Now, what if the information without a source is actually the correct data and the one with a source is not. In fact, the sources were "made up." The difference is that I could, if I were so inclined, check the sources and I could find out that they didn't exist or had been fabricated. But no sources, I am forced to do all the work and guess whether or not the contributor had a source or not. So, having no source is essentially the same as having a bad or non-existent source. It is representing to the genealogical community that you have some information that you may or may not have.

      Now, if we take the position that we need to make everybody feel good about themselves and about genealogy, we end up with an equivalent to the American school system today, a lot of people involved but a mediocre product.

      I am not about to abandon my teaching and writing about the need for standards just because some hobbyist needs to feel good about their online family tree. Sorry, but I care too much about the end product to give up and allow that to happen without pursuing the issues.

  3. Your comments are as worthwhile as the post. I came to genealogy fairly recently, with the intention of writing family stories from the documents, artifacts, photos, and tapes shared with me. A researcher/detective at heart, I gravitated to other geneabloggers like me and was stunned to discover the sloppiness of other work when I joined Recently I have realized that one thing I can do to help the cause of accuracy is to publish my sources for blog posts. I stumble over how to consistently do that, and struggle to learn proper citation, but I will. figure. it. out! Our ancestors deserve to have their lives told accurately, compassionately.

    1. Yes, I agree. I am not sure that the problem is sloppiness. It is more a lack of awareness of the need for accuracy. Someone who is sloppy, knows better but fails to act accordingly.

  4. James, you say, "The difference is that I could, if I were so inclined, check the sources and I could find out that they didn't exist or had been fabricated. But no sources, I am forced to do all the work and guess whether or not the contributor had a source or not."

    The genealogy-data-provider outfits' marketing does say to customers that they can add to their trees by copying other trees. This has been going on since at least the 19th century, when folks were copying from published genealogical accounts, whether based on documentation or not.

    There have been and are a lot of gullible people who believe that if it is published it must be true.

    But people create and publish trees to the internet for a lot of different reasons -- not necessarily viewing the audience as the 'genealogical community.' Many do it just for their own immediate family, and can be seen as equivalent to scrapbookers.

    The misinformed tree-creators whose sources are the half-dozen published works (and their tree derivatives) that give wrong data for one of my ancestral couples do not poison my watershed; they can do as they like, with no impact on my own research. I have no strong expectation that what is on the internet is intrinsically accurate unless I put it there myself with no editing allowed by others.

    1. I agree to some extent, but I do feel that having so many copies of the wrong information out there on the Internet makes it very difficult for a beginner to discover the correct information. Why should the new researcher doubt all of those copied family trees? Who is to tell them that they are not accurate?

    2. Doesn't doing genealogy research in and of itself teach us how to examine data critically?

    3. Well apparently not. But unfortunately, some people never get passed copying information without doing any research.