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.