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

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Barriers to Becoming a Genealogist

Ralph Waldo Emerson is quoted as writing, "All the thoughts of a turtle are turtles, and of a rabbit, rabbits." I could paraphrase that statement and say that all the thoughts of a genealogists are genealogy. Once you reach a certain level of involvement, it is hard to imagine people who are not interested in genealogy or family history and know absolutely nothing about the subject.

Whether we view genealogy as exclusionary or inclusionary, we collectively seem to agonize over its lack of universal appeal. During the past few months, I have mentioned the subject of isolation in a few of my classes. In response, I see almost uniform sympathy for the problem of lack of support for genealogical research from genealogist's own families. It is very rare to find a genealogist who has any kind of family support system for his or her research. Many genealogists have spouses that are indifferent or even in some cases, antagonistic, to their research efforts.

Because of this nearly constant background of indifference or even antagonism, I have been thinking a lot about the barriers to becoming interested in genealogy. I believe these barriers fall into some general categories. Here are my ideas about why people reject genealogy as a pursuit:

1. Lack of reading, computer or writing skills
After teaching hundreds and hundreds of people about genealogy, I find that the biggest barrier to interest and pursuing research is a simple lack of basic skills in reading, writing and computation (arithmetic). Many people simply do not grasp the concepts involved no matter how much time I spend with them and how much effort they put forth. Estimates of functional illiteracy in the United States run as high as 22% of the population. See Fast Facts, National Center for Education Statistics. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (see Organizational Chart) is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations. NCES is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences.

Face it, genealogy requires a rather intense use of reading and writing skills. Without those skills, it is nearly impossible to do genealogical research. Nearly one out of four of the people in the United States lack the basic skills necessary to become involved in genealogical research.

2. Lack of computer skills such as keyboarding
I have recently sat patiently by as patrons at the Mesa FamilySearch Library have painstakingly entered their basic information into a family tree program, one letter at a time after searching the keyboard. Even with the highest motivation and desire to find out about their ancestors, lack of keyboarding and computer skills for a formidable barrier to involvement. Being able to operate a smartphone or a tablet does not equate with the level of sophistication necessary to adequately do online genealogical research.

Unfortunately, the demographics of those involved in genealogy work against computer literacy. Many genealogists, even those with extensive paper backgrounds, find themselves lost in the challenge of moving to an online, digital genealogical world.  The United States Department of Commerce reports that nearly one-third of the lack broadband Internet access. For help see

3. Lack of interest in genealogy in general
Most people are simply not interested in spending time sitting in front of a computer or in a library doing research. These activities do not rank high as leisure activities for "active adults" and rank even lower for children and young adults. It may be considered to be "fun" to share stories or photos, but that is where it stops. Sitting down and doing data entry is often equated with homework and drudgery. Many genealogist spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about why their children or other family members do not like to do genealogy. The answer is quite simple; it appears too much like work.

4. Antagonism against talking about family matters outside of the home i.e. privacy concerns
There are cultural and social reasons why some people refuse to discuss family matters outside of the home. Talking to others about their family history is tantamount to revealing family secrets and privacy concerns override any interest they may have in doing genealogical research. I had a class yesterday where we discussed why or why not we would share our genealogical research online. I found a broad spectrum of opinions in just those attending that one class.

5. The general lack of available information about living or recently deceased family members
Privacy concerns carry over into legal and regulatory issues concerning the availability of recently deceased or living family members. For some, it is extremely difficult to find information about their immediate family and this becomes a real limit to any further investigations.

When we accumulate the totals of all of these categories, you can begin to understand why genealogy is not necessarily as popular as some would like to maintain. With so many people in the world, even very small percentages of real interest translate into millions of people involved. The main difficulty is that we cannot connect easily with each other.


  1. Hello James, I had to comment on this. I started working on genealogy at least 5 yrs ago. My son had asked me to write an autobiography and I said, "sure". When I sat down to start I thought I should really start with my GrGrandfather who immigrated from Poland. I couldn't sleep one night and went downstairs to play solitaire on my computer but instead typed in the browser "Charles Schreck" and up popped Charles Schreck in a family group from Family search. I remembered many of the names and started searching for more. I haven't stopped since. There is so much to learn and work on that I stay up many nights working... and yes when I crawl into bed exhausted I lay there trying to put pieces together until I fall asleep and then fall asleep in classes :( the next day..

    Your article is right on. All of those skills are needed and are part of the role of a genealogist. Sometimes it can be quite difficult and take a lot of time and persistence. As a result, Genealogy does become solitary but there are times we need it not to be.-- Off to classes and conventions.

    It was music to my ears when you said, this is a very solitary profession…It made me stop and think- and realize-- that I'm not the only one---But it's wonderful and fulfilling.

    Thanks for sharing all of your knowledge and experience so generously-


  2. I would add to that the finances to pay for the online resources - unless of course your a member of the LDS church
    I saw the following tidbit that I was unaware of which explains for me why FS made the deal with Ancestry :
    In February,, a nonprofit family history organization owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced that LDS Church members eventually will be granted free subscriptions to, and as part of an ongoing partnership in which the companies collaborate to obtain historical records and share resources.