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Kimberly Powell

How Do We Make Genealogy Fun for Everyone?

By February 22, 2011

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Genealogist Debra Farina made an interesting statement about genealogy in an article by Elise G. McIntosh in today's Staten Island Advance. "It's like riding a horse," she said. "Everyone wants to get on and go for a ride, but half of them get off frightened to death." She's got it right, too. There's a bit of a disconnect sometimes between long-time, well-skilled researchers and genealogy "newbies." I've personally invested quite a bit of time this past year taking classes, reading books,  and attending conferences and workshops in an effort to improve my standards, methodology and output. But just because I am working to take my genealogy research to a new level, does that mean everyone should? Who do we help by alienating others to the point where they refer to the "genealogy police."

Shows like Who Do You Think You Are? make genealogy look relatively easy for anyone. Is that bad? I think not. While we sometimes encounter particularly knotty problems that involve a higher level of experience and knowledge to solve, genealogy research is often fairly straightforward. Like Ancestry.com says in their commercials, "You really don't have to know what you're looking for. You just have to start looking." Some of these people who "start looking" will likely make mistakes, post un-sourced family trees online, or even combine family trees to the point where you can no longer sort out who is actually related to who. But haven't we all made mistakes somewhere along the way? I personally have source citations that just say "1881 census" or "Mama." I've misspelled genealogy. I've used information taken from published family history books without doing my own follow-up research in original sources. But putting a few mistakes aside, most people should be able to collect family stories and put together the basic bones of their own family tree without too much in the way of extensive education and experience. When they encounter one of those "knotty problems," they can always hire a professional.

Tamara Ikenberg feels that Ancestry's ad encourages self-indulgence rather than anything of value.

What could be more enticing than a few keystrokes revealing that you're related to someone great? What better, practically effortless way to validate your own existence? You don't even have to get off your behind and go to the library. Remember the library? That place with actual books?

She does have a point there. Do ads like Ancestry's give genealogy yet another black mark in mainstream media? Does this focus on how "easy" genealogy can be somehow diminish our goal to increase the validity of genealogical research? Yes, there may be a few people like Tamara who just attach interesting people to their family tree because they can (she did it to poke fun at the process), rather than out of any real interest in learning about their own roots. But for each one of them, there are probably at least a dozen more who see their ancestor's name in a census record or on a passenger list for the first time and become hooked. That can only be good for genealogy.

Many of us have plenty of patience for the raw newbies, but as I learned at RootsTech there are many, many people who have been researching their family history for a long time and obviously have a high level of interest and enthusiasm for genealogy (why else would they be attending the conference?), but who still find themselves overwhelmed with "standards" and "source citations." I got an eye-opening education listening to the many attendees at a RootsTech discussion titled "How Should We Handle Sources?". The overwhelming majority (at least of those who got up and spoke) were especially frustrated with how complicated everyone seemed to want to make source citations (many were LDS and were specifically referring to new FamilySearch). Many had never heard of "this Elizabeth person" or referred to her book, Evidence Explained as a doorstop (hint: read or review the first two chapters for the basics of evidence analysis, citation...the rest you can use when and if you have a need for a particular citation model). They just wanted to write down a simple statement of where they found a particular piece of evidence and move on - something akin to one attendee's statement, "I just want to say that I was there when she married the jerk."

Most people involved in the discussion seemed to understand the need for source citations (hurray!) but felt swamped with the need to include "four-line," "scholarly" citations. How do we convey to all of those individuals that the important part about citing a source is 1) to do it and 2) to write down enough information that you can find the source again and properly evaluate the evidence it provides? How you write the source information down isn't nearly as important unless you plan to publish your family history. Even then, if you've written down all of the "pieces" when conducting your research, reassembling them in proper format for publication shouldn't be that difficult. Kerry Scott addressed the issue very well this week on her ClueWagon blog - Source Citations in Genealogy - Church or Cult? Elizabeth Shown Mills even chimes in with several comments - one of which is the best thing I've ever read about why we should take the time to cite our genealogical sources.

It's not just (as we were taught in 8th grade), we cite our sources so others know where we got our stuff. To heck with the idea of doing all that for "others." Let's be totally selfish here! We spend the time it takes to identify and analyze our sources so we can find the real people who actually were our ancestors Not just names and interesting stories about other same-name people, but the actual men and women whose genes we carry, whose talents and impulses we inherited and act upon today.

Be sure to read the rest of Elizabeth's comment, and those contributed by others for a great discussion on the citation topic.

But back to my original question. How do we as genealogists strike a balance between encouraging sound genealogical standards and practices without discouraging family history newcomers who find themselves quickly discouraged by those same standards, which they often don't understand and find unnecessarily complicated? Isn't there room for genealogists of all viewpoints and varying skill levels? Can't we find a way to educate and encourage without beating people over the head with our genealogy ideals?

I'll leave you with a comment aimed at the "Genealogy Police" from JL Beeken of the JLog genealogy tech blog:

If you find any errors, you are not welcome to send email beating me across the head about them. You may, on the other hand, approach with kindly interest and attempt to engage me in mutually-beneficial conversation.

February 22, 2011 at 3:58 pm
(1) Tessa says:

Excellent post! I have found that sometimes people make things harder than they need to be and oftentimes people do not understand the purpose of Elizabeth Shown Mills’ book Evidence Explained.

She wanted to give examples of almost every known source in order to give us templates (with explanations) to use. It is an aid folks – don’t get hung up on the size and scope. Use the aid – take what you need – and move on! I find the book (mine is in pdf format on my computer, bookmarked, highlighted and noted) really helpful in working through sources.

As to the discussion regarding “dumbing down” with ancestry.com and WDYTYA – both are trying to generate interest and show the fun aspects to entice people to join our community – I say MORE POWER TO THEM! We will have plenty of time to work with newbies (I still consider myself one at 5 years in) – to work with items in libraries and archives; go to genealogy society meetings, check out other online sources; wander through cemeteries, attend genealogy conferences. But we need to get them in the door first – use honey not vinegar!

February 22, 2011 at 5:04 pm
(2) Andrea says:

What a helpful and timely article! My genealogy group is trying to publish a book of the research that members have done thus far. Our biggest challenge, in getting participants, is that they say that they feel intimidated when it comes to citing sources.

February 22, 2011 at 6:10 pm
(3) Suzanne Favreau says:

I can see the need for really good source citation if you’re: 1. a professional genealogist, and you have to offer proof to your clients that you’ve found their family members; 2. you’re someone famous or related to someone famous; or 3. you’re publishing a book. Genealogy is a fascinating hobby, and I was completely hooked when a wonderful woman at the local LDS family history center helped me find the ship’s manifest for my great grandmother and her children. I do make an effort to be sure that the people I find really are related to me. To be honest, I do find it annoying when someone attaches one of “my people” to their family tree because they haven’t done enough research. Would I blast someone who does this and tell them their stupid? Of course not, but I would offer information about the person they thought was in their family and ask if maybe we are related. I’d like it if someone did that for me. This is a sometimes frustrating but always interesting hobby.

February 22, 2011 at 7:03 pm
(4) abby says:

What a great article! I have been actively researching my family history for the past few years and while I am not a certified “genealogist” I do feel that I have an above average knowledge of researching family history. A main reason for starting my genealogy blog was to engage all levels of genealogy interest to identify and cross the boundaries separating the newly interested from the expert.

I do agree that shows like “Who Do You Think You Are” are great catalysts for generating interest in family history and genealogy- but are they enough to actually walk a newbie through the steps? I don’t think so. Ancestry.com is the main website people think of when they think of genealogy- it’s “free” to start a tree, but to see the documents $20/month might not be for everyone.

I feel there is a lack of education of what you should be doing/looking for when it comes to researching your family. There isn’t a cookie cutter formula used to find your great grandparents- the experience will be a different path for everyone. I was lucky to have my Mother In Law as a mentor when I started researching- she taught me how to read a census record, the different types of records, and lessons learned from her MANY years of research. This is how I have been able to continue researching and learning!

If we want more people to be interested and see genealogy as fun- we can’t polarize the newbie from the expert.

February 22, 2011 at 8:28 pm
(5) footnoteMaven says:

Kimberly, I think your post is a brilliant educational discussion.

I really like the questions you formulated and I have made a stab at my thoughts on them in It’s Not Going To Be As Easy As It Looks On TV.

Thank you for the discussion framework.


February 28, 2011 at 9:55 pm
(6) ~Kimberly says:

I love your thoughts, footnoteMaven! Thank you so much for both your kind comments on my post and your great input into the discussion.

February 23, 2011 at 4:35 pm
(7) Kerry Scott says:

One thing I’ve learned in the past week is that there isn’t necessarily consensus on the fact that there is a problem.

I think everyone agrees that there are newbies who don’t understand that source citations are important. But the idea that some of them are upset or feel put-upon, or that there could be professionals who are unintentionally contributing to the idea that source citations are scary or hard…well, that’s definitely not something everyone agrees with at all. I’m still not through all of my email from my post on that.

I do think that everyone has the same goal in mind, and that’s to see higher quality work at all levels. Discussions like this are critical in making that happen; nothing changes if we don’t talk about it.

February 24, 2011 at 8:13 am
(8) Angela McGhie says:

This is an excellent article that really got me thinking. I too have been working diligently to get an education in genealogy by attending national conferences and institutes. I love everything that I have learned, and feel that my skills are greatly improved. On the other hand I teach beginning genealogy courses at the community college and work to help others find their ancestors. It is a balance between taking their enthusiasm for finding their family and teaching them to do it “right” without scaring them off. I teach them to write a research plan, use a research log to write down everything they search, and cite their sources. I don’t get upset if their source is not in exact EE format. My goal is to broaden their understanding and let them know that there are records their ancestors left behind beyond what is available on Ancestry.com. I want to educate them, but never let them lose their excitement for family history.

February 28, 2011 at 10:02 pm
(9) ~Kimberly says:

Education is definitely key as you said, Angela. footnoteMaven talked about this as well. Genealogists of all levels, from newbie to professional, can improve their skills, presentation and even passion through continuing education. Just because the people we research are dead, doesn’t mean that genealogy isn’t a constantly evolving field.

March 7, 2011 at 1:54 pm
(10) genesis says:

this is pretty good advise

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