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

Monday, October 22, 2018

Why Genealogy?

Each of us follows our own path that takes into the world of genealogical research. Some years ago, I wrote a series of posts on the demographics of genealogy. I found that the demographics of genealogy has been the subject of several scholarly articles. Some of the studies report on the relationship of genealogy to generativity. In case this is a new term for you, generativity is defined as a concern for people besides self and family that usually develops during middle age. See Here are three studies that have considered generativity in the context of genealogy.
  • Drake, Pamela Jo Willenbring. 2001. Successful aging: investment in genealogy as a function of generativity, mobility and sense of place.
  • Umfleet, S. Bradley. Genealogy and Generativity in Older Adults, A Social Work 298 Special Project Presented to the Faculty of the College of Social Work San José State University. Special Project, (M.A.) San José State University, San José, California, 2009. 
  • Hackstaff K.B. 2009. ""Turning points" for aging genealogists: Claiming identities and histories in time". Qualitative Sociology Review. 5 (1): 130-151.
I think I jumped the gun a little, my interest in genealogy began when I was in my late 30s and had nothing to do with any of the assumed motivations explored in the above publications. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I was exposed to the concept of doing genealogy or family history at a very early age as part of my religious background. My home, during my childhood, had shelves of books that included several surname books about my own ancestors. We were also told stories about prominent ancestors that became part of my oral heritage. Basically, genealogy became an interest that amalgamated several of my skills and interests including history and research. Genealogical research has always been so challenging that it has managed to keep my interest for over 36 years of intensive involvement. 

Just today, I was talking to one of the volunteers in the Maryland State Archives where we are digitizing records for FamilySearch and he mentioned to me that he had never learned how to type. I am fairly certain that had I never learned how to type, that my interest in computers and in genealogy would have been significantly reduced. Attempts to explain the motivation of genealogists would have to take into account the fact that the numbers of people who are involved include some rather distinct levels. As I have written about in many previous posts, genealogy per se is not a very popular area of interest compared to interests such as movies, sports, and a myriad other interests. The fact that millions of people have taken DNA tests or posted a family tree online does not indicate more than curiosity. Interest in genealogy may be increasing, but many of the indicators of interest such as attendance at genealogy conferences seen to suggest that active, participatory interest is either stable or on the decline. 

So why should anyone be interested in genealogy? The usual pat answer to this question involves discovering one's "roots." The genesis of this interest is attributed to a TV series called "Roots" that aired back in 1977. This date is significant because it pre-dates the development of the internet and all of the current large, online, genealogical database programs. The largest of these websites is clearly with more than 99 million users and 43 million family trees. Even these apparently large numbers are only slightly more than one-tenth of one percent of the total world population. You can compare this to statistics that indicate that approximately 43% of the people in the world are interested or very interested in Soccer (Football). See

Because of my church membership, many of the people I associate with consider their genealogy to be "all done." What they usually mean by this is that they know most of their ancestors back from four to six or more generations. But this viewpoint is usually focused on either direct line ancestors or descendency from a prominent person. I could certainly have gotten that impression from the books I have available to me as a child. It was only after my interest in genealogical research expanded past the point of casual interest that I began to realize that comparatively little real genealogical work had been done on even my direct line ancestors. 

As with any special interest from bird watching to raising rabbits, once you become significantly involved in the interest, you tend to find and associate with people who have the same interests. However, that is not always the case. I am significantly involved in photography but I do not go to photography conferences, nor do I take classes or associate with other photographers. I was involved in genealogy for more than twenty years before I ever took a class or attended a genealogy conference. 

Like many other interests, there are those individuals that become well known in the area. We have a number of very prominent genealogists, most of whom are professionals or semi-professionals. But the actual number of these individuals is very small. For example, the directory of the Board for Certification of Genealogists has less than 250 individuals listed. By comparison, when I was practicing law in Arizona, there were over 14,000 attorneys in the state. 

If you were to attend a major genealogical conference, such as the upcoming RootsTech 2019 Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, you could get the impression that there are lots of people involved in genealogy. But I talk to many people around the United States who are doing genealogical research who, like I was early on in my interest, not planning on attending a conference or taking a class. There are many local, county and state genealogical societies in the United States and other countries. Some of these have a core of very active genealogists. But by and large, genealogy is not particularly a group activity where people attend for social interaction. 

I think that the reasons for an active interest in genealogy are highly personal. We should not feel bad because others do not share our interest and we should, by no means, feel isolated or unusual. Because genealogy requires a lot of different skills, it should not be surprising that there are a limited number of people who are or could become interested. In addition, we should welcome any level of interest. 


  1. Genealogy is your personal story of how you came to be, that is unique to you and your full siblings. An ever-expanding picture puzzle, with always more pieces to place. A detective adventure with clues and fascinating mysteries at every turn. Honour your ancestors by discovering them and remembering them and allowing others to know them as well.

  2. I have been studying my family since my mid 20s. I look for not only my direct ancestors, but also the extended family and, when possible, the community that my ancestors lived in. In studying my Cleage ancestors who were enslaved by the Cleage family in Athens, TN, this has led to ordering pension files for all the men from the plantation who fought with the United States Colored troops during the Civil War. Reading the testimony, although none of them are my ancestors, is giving me a picture of the life my ancestors led when they were enslaved that I could never have received from just looking at records.