Genealogists are not being pushed out, Reinforcements are being invited in

Perhaps I’m a pot stir-er, but I’m going to share my thoughts in response to Genealogy’s Star: Are Genealogists being defined out of Family History? James Tanner seems a little bothered by the following promotional item:

His blog starts off saying how the above enticement to involve more people in the genealogy tent is great but feels genealogists, in short, are getting a bad rap. I am tired of this hypocrisy. On one hand, genealogists tell you that to know an ancestor, you must move beyond the names, dates, and places on a family tree; but on the other hand, we’re not supposed to? Which is it?

Instead of leaving a huge comment on his comment feed, I decided to blog here. Let the pot be stirred.

The genealogy tent is too small. It can and should be larger. 

It takes a long time to build a house if one person is doing every part of construction. But if a designer designs, a framer frames, an electrician does electrical stuff, a dry wall-er does drywall, etc, etc… the house gets built a whole lot faster. And, usually, the house is built better. Why? Because people who do their part, usually do it well and with more energy than one person doing every piece of the puzzle.

Might you consider this… how many ancestors’ stories and documents have been lost because few people want to be the jack-of-all-trades genealogist rather than a player on a family history team?

The LDS Church, and by extension FamilySearch, has been preaching the research proof standard for so many years, very few people want to participate. It’s tough. It’s time-consuming. It doesn’t appeal to everyone. I’ve attended classes and worship service ‘lectures’ on family history and they are B-O-R-I-N-G to anyone who is not a genea-addict.

Many LDS church members have “Books of Remembrance”  that are copies of copies of copies of family group sheets and pedigree charts. Few have any documents, which is what was preached in the days of my mother-in-law. Why? Because copying those items was more difficult, than copying the group sheets? Because finding those items for inclusion is too difficult? Probably both, and other reasons.

There was an adage, ‘don’t put anything on the Book of Remembrance charts until you have documented proof of the fact.’ Genealogists would say, “Heck yeah! That’s right.” But how many genealogists also have recorded ‘theories’ for people until they can find the proof. And what about persons who have no proof? Does a relative knowing the person existed count for something when documentation can’t prove it?

Teaching the masses in this way has scared far too many people away from genealogy and its cousin, family history. But, how many people who ‘aren’t into genealogy’ have a house full of photos, a head full of memories, or artifacts that give the details of a particular ancestors life?

Expanding the tent put into action

Brown family research team
My Brown Family Team players

When I traveled to Ohio on a research trip, the cousins and aunt I visited with had a wealth of information, but are not genealogists. The stuff they had are priceless keys to so many puzzles that I have still not sorted through.  As I asked these family members the who and what of the photos and artifacts, the stories were recorded. And, some relatives continue to supply me with new things for my research. We’re a team. Together we’re doing all of the 10 steps listed on the charts above. Sure, I’m playing the ‘genealogist’ field position, but at least I don’t have to pitch, catch, man first base, and play outfield.

Here’s another team in my home. My mother-in-law has preserved a lot of documents. I’m so grateful to her. But, she’s not into genealogy. I’ve asked her to do a specific task, scan the family photos. And she’s ecstatic to have a specific job. I have a brother-in-law who now has the responsibility of photographing the family artifacts. Sure I could do it, but I’m hundreds of miles away and he’s a better photographer. He’ll play a role in the genealogy process, without needing to dig for facts. His research loving brother, my husband, will work on that. Three people pulling the wagon, rather than one. Okay, I’ve lost my sports and camping analogies, but the wagon pulling image fits, especially since this is a family of pioneers!

The importance of genealogist will never decrease

As we invite people to participate in family history, using their best skills, then the wealth of information grows and is richer. The work becomes easier for the genealogist. And fewer stories, artifacts, and documents disappear.

The importance of research will never decrease. Many, many times, I’ll learn a fact, open a brick wall, or extend the tree. Often, I’ll come across something, turn to the family and say, “Who knows about this?” That might trigger a memory and I have an answer. If no answer is known, I have more research to do. Genealogists are only pushed out if they choose to be.

By including my family, they buy into the whole of the family story. Again and again, my aunt tells me “Thank you for figuring this out” or a cousin will say, “How did you ever discover this?” Through research. My Brown line is learning we have a Civil War ancestor. No one knew this until I found his gravestone in a less visited cemetery with a terrible recordset. Yep… my family members would never have taken the time to research this, but I did. I’m still researching the story, but I know the fact. So you see, there will always be a need for a researcher.

The real question is this: “Do you want more people in the tent or is family history exclusive to genealogists only?”

I fully believe that there will be people who make ‘genealogical errors’ because they haven’t yet acquired the necessary education. Having been one of those people, as many genealogists humble enough to admit will do as well until I fell in love with family history, and it’s cousin genealogy, I would keep making mistakes. When the passion ignited, the education was sought, and the mistakes were corrected. I know I’m still making some now (fighting those opposed to FamilySearch’s new approach might be one of them).

Kudos to FamilySearch for expanding the tent

The people that FamilySearch just might be inviting into the tent are those who have no tree completed at all. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve discovered as friends of my family members that no one is researching. Do they matter? Are their stories tucked inside a ‘non-genealogist’ mind, never to be retrieved when they die? How tragic.

Perhaps FamilySearch is inviting people with a house full of documents in file drawers that haven’t seen the light of days in decades. Or the people with 50+ photo albums with only a hand-full of them labeled. Or the people with an aged family member who constantly tells stories at family gatherings but no one bothers to write or voice record them. Again, how many times do the ‘people who know’ die and leave the family guessing. A little invitation to participate could have salvaged those items. And those things could make the family story a treasure more precious than gold.

I am excited to see people who are in their 80s realize… “I’m not a genealogist, but I can share my stories, label my photos, and give it to a tech savvy grandkid to scan and turn into something wonderful.” She’s no in the tent, that’s not for genealogists only.

How do we get more people in the tent? We stop teaching LDS church members, and those who use FamilySearch, about genealogy and we start teaching them the roles in family history. You do that by saying “Family History is more than just dates, records, and research.”

I fully believe you won’t push genealogist out, you’ll invite reinforcements in.

(In case you missed it, I also wrote a post called Tech Tuesday: Family Search Redesign Hacks Off Old Guard Genealogists, but not me about negative posts associated with the redesign).

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

16 thoughts on “Genealogists are not being pushed out, Reinforcements are being invited in

  1. I'm glad I inspired you to create a team. It's 'our story' so it shouldn't be done one only one person. If we can invite people to play the position they were born to play, then we'll have a great family and a great family story. Good luck with inspiring the nephew. Let me know how it goes!

  2. Love, love, LOVE the team analogy!! Nobody in my family, except me of course 😉 likes digging around in courthouses but many of them enjoy family stories. I also have a nephew that is a great photographer and reading this post has given me a new idea for getting him "on the team"! Thanks so much ~

  3. Wow! I'm honored. I respect Jams' work. In this instance, I thought those who we're trying to bring into the tent needed a cheerleader rather than a door slammer. So… I'm waving family history pom-poms for them.

  4. I had planned to write my own response to James' post, but after reading yours, Devon, I have no need. You expressed it VERY well and I'm just going to add this post to my Follow Friday post this week and say, "Ditto!"

  5. One aspect of genealogy/family history that I have always loved is its many facets. Some write well, some research well, some have leadership skills for an organization, and on and on. You have said it all so well. Thank you.

  6. Marla.. thank you for your anecdotes. The one about the shed going up in flames makes me ill. My mother stored our family stuff in the garage. I wasn't ready to get it out of there and move it out of state, so I didn't snag it. When she downsized, a relative wound up tossing all of her research and the German Family Bible which I have a very poor Xerox copy of (to tell you how old this copy is). It makes me ill to know how close I was to the information and now it's gone forever.

    I think we need to change how we invite, encourage, persuade church members (regardless of religion) to participate in this work. We should be saying, "Come join the ranks" and "This is what you can do!" Glad you are starting that discussion in your church.

    – Devon

  7. Thank you Thomas. I used the "Family History Is For Everyone" ideas in a talk I gave to an LDS congregation this weekend. FamilySearch and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is trying to encourage more of its church members, including young people, to become involved in family history in some way. A relative of mine was in the congregation and now wants to get with me and share the information her mother passed on to her. She is not a genealogist. I am excited to meet with her and see what she has. Sadly, she has let someone take her pictures to scan. I hope she gets them back. I would love to use my Flip Pal mobile scanner on them. I think a lot of non genealogists have family history stuff sitting in their homes just waiting to be shared. Some of it might be insignificant, but if this new push for everyone to become involved in family history gets some primary information out there it will be well worth the posting. On one of my other lines, a relative chose to be stingy with her family history goodies. When she passed, her daughter stored it in a shed. One day her husband was burning weeds and the shed and contents went up in flames and is now gone forever whether it was significant or not.

  8. Devon,

    I absolutely love this post! And I heartily agree with what you wrote. The criticisms of the FamilySearch website redesign I've read lately have bothered me. Personally I like the new design. And I can see how it has the potential to introduce many more people to family history.

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