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

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Sanitizing Genealogy for General Consumption
When products are presented to the public for general consumption, they are nearly always "sanitized." Computers and printers are shown without cables. Garages are shown organized and beautiful. Cars, even when shown on dirt roads, are spotlessly clean. It goes on an on. This even extends to people. Most of the people in the ads are young, beautiful and a sharp contrast to what we see day after day in Walmart and shopping malls. Commercial online genealogy companies are no exception. They present their products in a way to imply that everyone is doing genealogy and having a wonderful time with happy smiling family members.

The results of our monolithic advertising images of young, beautiful, always happy, produces a Leave it to Beaver mentality. But reality is far different than the world of advertising. What happens if we begin to believe the sanitized versions and accept them as reality? One of my favorite images from the advertising world is the "active retirement" couples strolling leisurely along the beach. Yes, I have strolled along a beach once or twice, but that is certainly not my life's goal. Here are some of the most common images contrasting with the reality of genealogy:

Image: Genealogy is enjoyed as a family with happy people gathered around the laptop.
In reality, genealogy is mainly a very solitary activity. This is not to say that genealogical research cannot be cooperative in nature, but gathering together in "study groups" to do research seldom happens. The products of genealogy are enjoyed, if they are at all, in reunions and family gatherings, but the activity that produces the enjoyable material is almost uniformly produced by individual effort, commonly at the risk of alienating other family members.

Image: Genealogists are shown as happy, smiling, beautiful young people.
I am sure that many of us once were happy, smiling, beautiful and young, but those days are long gone and most of us a older and not as thin and beautiful as we once were. There are exceptions, but always portraying genealogists in the average kind of advertising beautiful people mode is really degrading and prejudicial to the reality. In a society the values wealth and beauty above any other values, genealogists are definitely counter-cultural.

Image: The most common icon of genealogy is an idealized family tree or fan chart.
I spent some time yesterday helping a patron at the BYU Family History Library untangle a difficult relationship that was "messed up" in an online family tree program. The lines went through a single mother with no husband to grandparents who actually raised the out-of-wedlock child. The way the program showed the relationships obscured, rather than highlighted, the actual relationships. This is what happens with all fan charts and simplified family tree images. They are forced, by creating an icon, to depict families as neat and ordered when the reality seldom conforms to this image even when the tree depicts only a few generations.

Image: Genealogy is reduced to a logo on a teeshirt.
In our rush to conform to sanitized advertising images, we adopt logos for genealogy as if it were a product to sell to the public. Large genealogy companies employ the same advertising companies as do those who sell electronics and automobiles. Genealogy then becomes a product that people are expected to buy rather than the complicated research activity it is in reality.

Image: Just as computers are shown in advertising without cables, genealogy is shown without the work associated with research.
To "sell" genealogy it is necessary to reduce it to a commodity that can be packaged in a way that the average consumer will "buy" the product. For this reason, the words accompanying ads for genealogy services always emphasize common advertising jargon: free, easy, affordable. If you are aware of what is happening, you will hear some of the same phrases and buzz words used to sell insurance and investments.

This is not at all an exhaustive list of the ways that genealogy is sanitized for public consumption. But my question is why is this necessary? If genealogy really conformed to the sanitized image, I would not be interested in it at all. It is only the difficult parts of genealogy that hold any long-term attraction. I am sure that my life would be less complicated and I might be enjoying an "active retirement" as imaged by all the media, but I would not be anywhere as completely satisfied with my present status as I am involved in the gritty real world of genealogy.


  1. Ahh, well put, James. Who wants to know that a Civil War vet. ancestor was arrested more than once for desertion before dying of disease (I do)? Who wants to know about the desertions and their survivors, the passer of bad checks and the embezzler, as well as the pioneers and the amassers of appreciable land? Moi.

    It is all part of the fabric -- who wants holes, rips and tears to obscure the vision of the whole.

    1. Thanks for the additional good examples. We often want to sanitize our own genealogy to make it more acceptable also.

  2. Very True! Just yesterday I observed a site showing a child at the computer and four family members standing behind while doing their genealogy. No notes or items to write with and out of vision with the monitor, sure looks like a fun time. Also thanks for the beach scene since I am nearing closing my business and retiring. After 47 years, my wife and I need only minutes to communicate, not hours long walks every day with my pants rolled up. Thanks

    1. My wife and I do take time to go for walks and ride bikes but we are now getting so busy, even those are hard to come by.

  3. "It is only the difficult parts of genealogy that hold any long-term attraction."

    Your point couldn't have been made any better!

  4. This is an excellent post James. Thank you! I'm in complete agreement with the others who've commented. While I have made many friends and met several cousins and even a half brother in the course of my research, it is mostly a solitary endeavor. I would not have stayed interested if my research was the simple, sanitized version you spoke of.
    Love those challenges and will keep trying to break through those brick walls.

    1. I don't ever feel alone, like I used to years ago because the entire genealogical community is right at my finger tips. Thanks for your comment.