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

Friday, May 18, 2018

Genealogy is Basically Collaboration

The stereotypical idea of a genealogist is an older, sort of out-of-touch with reality, dowdy aunt or uncle that collects and relates stories and spends time gathering names and dates about your family. He or she is usually the person you want to avoid at a family gathering. As I have mentioned several times before, the demographic for this blog is usually an older person with a university degree and with no children at home. I suggest we start to move beyond the stereotype and realize that genealogy is dramatically changing. 

The main problem with the old model genealogist is that he or she worked alone. The new version of a genealogist is someone who is definitely part of a larger, online genealogical community and is collaborating with a network of others who are researching the same family lines. We no longer have to rely on the interest level of our close relatives, we can now reach out to people who share our interest and are willing to cooperate in researching shared family lines. 

What is strange about this "new" model is that the lone genealogist was only lone because of a lack of ability to network with others who shared the same interest. In the past, you could join a genealogical society, but it would be pure chance that anyone in your circle of genealogists was working on the same family lines you were working on. With today's online family trees, finding relatives is usually pretty simple. Deciding you want to talk to them and collaborate with them is still a challenge. 

I "grew up" in total isolation from anything that could be considered to be a genealogical community. My family was mostly allergic to genealogy. The mere mention of the word made most of them break out in hives. Today, I have a huge circle of people who are working on my ancestral lines and helping me to find sources and making progress with the "end-of-line" ancestors. 

For many years now, I have been immersed in collaborating with a number of people who share my interest and enthusiasm for research. Unfortunately, I still encounter a considerable number of genealogists who think that they own their genealogy and are afraid that others will steal their information. Some are so concerned about protecting their information that even when I am trying to help them, they are afraid to let me see their pedigree chart or look at the sources they have copied. 

The irony is that genealogy is about families. The isolation comes from failing to involve those around you even when they do not have your level of interest. It is true that some families are dysfunctional, but in many cases, it is possible to find those who share an interest in the photos, stories, and memorabilia but may not have an interest in the dates and places. 

You might think that the benefits of collaboration are so obvious that it would be natural for genealogists to freely share their information with family members. But my own experience leads me to believe that there are more people out there who are worried about protecting their data than is logical. One factor that I see that will break down this isolation is the movement to use DNA testing as a component of genealogical research. Once a person has "relatives" that they did not previously know and who are related by "blood" it makes the idea of genealogical research take on a new dimension. 


  1. Collaboration is a two-edged sword, James. While a typical family history (incl. paternal and maternal branches in each ancestral generation) is beyond a single lifetime to fully research, the sharing of "information" is also responsible for the decline of online tree quality and the virus-like proliferation of errors (poor research is shared more readily than good research, where time, effort and expense were involved). Although I have seen comments where people don't want their hard-earned research data plagiarised with no attribution or other links being evident, there is another side to this: some people (like myself) *want* to share, but not just trees, and not in a manner that requires every member of my extended family to have a subscription to a commercial site. This is not on the radar of those sites because there's no financial benefit to them.

    1. Good points. But the danger is that those who fail to collaborate may end up repeating research that has already been done by others.

  2. But that's a good thing. Reproducibility is the norm in the sciences. If independent research confirms something then it supports it -- making its claims stronger -- but if it refutes it then it prevents erroneous conclusions from propagating.