One suggested standard for genealogical research involves the phrase, "a reasonably exhaustive search." The question I pose involves not only this suggested limit to research but addresses the more general issue of genealogical limits as they apply to all phases of genealogical or historical research. When I begin to help someone with genealogical research, I sometimes ask them what they expect to find or achieve. I phrase the question like this, "What do you expect me to help you find today?" There is usually a followup question that goes something like this, "How much time are you expecting to spend today?" The answers to these questions give me a good idea about the scope and limits of what I need to do to help them find their family.
I think there is a much wider issue however. The wider issue involves the ultimate goals and expectations of the researcher. For those who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the goal is usually couched in terms of finding opportunities to perform Temple ordinances for their deceased ancestors. See also Baptism for the Dead. With the online research and record hint tools available today, this is goal that is often fairly easy to achieve.
But, I am focusing on the greater context of genealogical research as it applies to a more intensive and much wider investigation. One thing is apparent, many genealogists have not thought through what they are trying to accomplish. From my own experience, I would guess that during the first fifteen or twenty years that I spent accumulating information about my family, I had almost no concept of what I was trying to accomplish. I was too busy trying to organize and evaluate the mass of information I acquired and I spent very little time reflecting on what I was going to do with all that information, i.e. the piles of paper, that I accumulated.
Some researchers set a short-term goal such as compiling a book about a particular ancestor and his or her descendants. Once that goal is achieved, if it is, they are at a loss as to what to do next and many simply stop doing research at that point. I am certainly not criticizing that goal or any personal goal set by a researcher. I am simply asking the questions that need to be asked to focus genealogical research in a way that is productive. The real question is why am I still doing genealogical research 33 years (going on 34) after I started?
It would be simplistic to attribute the longevity of my interest solely to a religious motivation. If the religious motivation were sufficient, then many more members of the LDS Church would be actively involved in family history. During the past ten years or so, I have returned to the issue of motivation many times. I no longer worry as much about the ultimate goals as I do about the methodology for the preservation of the information I have already accumulated.
Let me give an example. During my years of research and accumulation, I have acquired several of my ancestor's original journals, diaries and other original documents. For the most part, there has been almost universal disinterest in these valuable artifacts. When I was much younger and as a child, I recall seeing other important artifacts that have long since been lost by the family. Diligent searches have not produced any information as to what happened to other missing documents and memorabilia. What produced this lack of interest on the part of the family members who most likely simply threw out the unwanted items? In fact, who accumulations of previous genealogical research have been lost or could have been lost had I not "rescued and preserved" the piles of documents and paper. Some of documents that were in danger of loss included historical letters and photos that were and are of general historical interest.
What motivates one person to preservation and another to disinterest? Why do I have piles of boxes of documents while other family members throw away even the limited amount of information they have about their family?
If we could answer this question, we could probably also answer the question in the title to this post. The limits you impose on your involvement in genealogy are highly personal. Some view genealogy as a profession and have the goal to "make a living" from their involvement. Their activities are calculated to improve their professional standing and the recognition, honors and rewards that come from personal achievement. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we find those whose interest in their family history seems to be entirely absent. They do not care enough to know anything at all about their own history.
I recently taught a very short class about family history to a group of about twenty older men. There were only one or two of them that could recite their ancestry back even two or three generations with the exception, perhaps, of their surname line. General interest in families does not translate into interest in genealogy.
I suggest that we each examine our goals. My goals have evolved over the years and presently, my major goal is to organize and put online all of the information I have accumulated. Your own goals might be less complicated or more complicated, but I think that it is good idea, especially those of us who are older and have less time to change our goals, to spend some time making a plan as to how we are going to spend our genealogical time.