About the Geneabrarian

My Photo

Wired up and ready to go, I don't sit still for long! 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Eliminating the Hobby from Genealogy

Doing the Genealogy Twister Game
Having been involved with genealogy in one way or another for a number of years, I have become a firm believer that genealogy is more than a hobby.  I began researching at a very young age and have since become a genealogy librarian with a strong background in archives, museums, and libraries.  As a professional, this can be a difficult field and reminds me at times of the game Twister: one foot planted in the genealogy circle, one foot planted in the librarianship circle, one hand above me in technology, the other below me on archives or history or social sciences or some other area.  To say that genealogy relies heavily on other areas of learning is an understatment as it is an extremely multidisciplary field!

Is genealogy really just a hobby?
What I have found more interesting (and increasingly bothersome) over the years is that genealogy is consistently referred to as a hobby.  The field is branded as a hobby by researchers, historians, genealogists themselves, and those outside of genealogy that really do not know what it is about.  There are many times that I hear genealogy librarians and self proclaimed professional geneaoligsts refer to the field as a hobby.  Many probably use the term for lack of a better word or lack of a definition of what it is that genealogists do.  Some probably do view it as a hobby.  However, this belief can have lingering and catastrophic effects such as lower funding for local libraries and organizations that support genealogy collections, limited access to records on a all levels, and other fields looking down their nose at those "name collectors".  Perhaps, I am one of the few concerned by this.

Genealogy as a hobby is a poor image to display.  Really, the term hobby implies that it is non-essential, it is an extra, a nice thing to have.  Why continue to fund something or provide access to records when it is just a bunch of people doing a hobby?  Now genealogy cannot compete with the physical and medical necessities of life.  However, genealogy does provide ready access to private histories of families that created nations.  As families settled, grew, and moved, they created communities, buildlings, and participated in important events that define individuals, groups, society, and culture.  The individuals and family groups of genealogy left an imprint in history.  Sometimes discoveries made through genealogy research can change the history books!  Also, genealogists as a group of people provide grass roots efforts for any number of projects and areas.  The point being that there is so much more to genealogy, the term hobby cannot possibly give credit to what is accomplished.

Genealogy is a Research Method
Let me plead to your inner advocate and ask that genealogy be no longer referred to as a hobby.  When looking at the ins and outs, genealogy can really be called a research method.  A simple comparison of the scientific method and genealogy may help provide an understanding of what is meant by this.

Science usually calls for some sort of empirical data that rests on results, however many fields in the social sciences have adapted some form of a scientific method for the purpose of research.  What is common among all of them is setting goals for questions, gathering information, hypothesizing, testing, anaylizing, drawing conclusions, and perhaps publishing results.

Defining questions and gathering information from sources comes naturally to most genealogists.  Where was grandpa born?  What happened to his first wife? These are examples what questions genealogists ask even if they are not aware they are doing it!  Genealogists use libraries, archives, websites, and DNA for information.  Some genealogists may hypothesize about the answers to their questions and use specific sources such as a book or manscript to test that hypothesize, then they can analyze their findings and adjust tactics as needed.  Finally, genealogists can draw conclusions from all the activity and perhaps publish their findings with a periodical, journal, or a blog.  Genealogists do this everyday as part of normal activity.

The Genealogy Brand
What genealogy needs is a cohesive brand that provides an understanding of what genealogy is and what genealogists do.  This may be difficult given that the genealogy community is loosely defined.  However, with prime time programs such as Who Do You Think You Are and the Ancestry ads among others, genealogy is being given an opportunity to show itself to the general public and other fields of research.  What many are experiencing in the information profession is a resurgence of genealogy and family history that has not been seen in quite a long time.  From those with a passing interest to those with a long standing passion to those with an affinity for documenting local history, there is much that maintains interest.  These occurences are advantageous for promoting genealogy as a research method.

There are many reasons why we as genealogists should move on from genealogy as a hobby.  In fact, I have written an entire paper on the topic (to be published soon).  Since many would not want to be bored with the details in the paper, let me simply say that genealogy is at a pivotal point.  Promotion of genealogical research methods and benefits of the field to other disciplines is a must for genealogy to continue to thrive and to be taken seriously.  In order for this to be acheived, the word hobby must be eliminated as a definition for genealogy.


  1. Amen & well said. Thank you! I have to say, I think the recent commercials for a certain subscription-based site has promoted the "you don't have to know what you're doing, just point & click" mentality. Consequently, it is now saturated with "amature/hobbyists" which makes it more difficult for those of us that do take it seriously! Don't get me wrong, I have subscribed to that site almost since its inception and love it, but I don't like the "point & click" mind-set it promotes. Just sayin'....

  2. I would have to disagree. Genealogy is very much a hobby to some and a profession to others. I think it absurd that professionals would refer to their profession as a hobby unless they are referring to those that they are researching for. The majority of people that are doing genealogy are, in fact, hobbyists. I don't think that hurts funding in the least. Genealogy is one of the fastest growing hobbies and that would increase funding for libraries if you have those people demanding access.

    I have been doing genealogy for over 10 years now and I was very much a hobbyist. I'm working toward making it my profession, but that doesn't mean that it's a profession for everyone, in fact the professional genealogical community is rather small.

    Shows like WDYTYA? are not there for the professionals. Yes, we enjoy having them on there, but they are very much aimed at the hobbyist and those that may not have even begun researching their family history/genealogy yet. These types of shows are out there to help increase interest in genealogy, whether as a hobby or as a profession. And as far as SwampDog's complaint about "a certain subscription-based site", well I think if you read the genealogical riot act to someone that wants to start their family tree research you would be scaring away more people than you were drawing in. I don't think that anyone at Ancestry truly thinks that you need to only "point and click". It's marketing, and anyone beginning genealogy knows the high they get when they make that first discovery or connection. Some perform sloppy research. Some get better. I am concerned with how I conduct my research, and not how others conduct theirs.

    Without hobbyists loving genealogy, professionals wouldn't have a job. I will always keep that in mind as I continue down my path toward certification, and I hope I don't ever forget it.

    Your post was extremely well written and I can appreciate your post, but I can't agree entirely. We have to work to improve the community and how we are viewed without alienating non-professionals.

    Thanks for posting!

  3. Thank you both for your comments! Cheryl, this issue is much larger than defining if researchers are hobbyists or professionals. It is more or less looking at genealogy holistically. In fact, I do not consider myself a professional genealogist at all. I am not a CG. Neither am I a hobbyist. Whether someone identifies as a hobbyist or professional they are still practicing the resesarch method as described above and they are still part of significant field whether they realize it or not.
    Of course people are interested through shows such as WDYTYA and websites such as Ancestry. The marketing by both provides a magnifying glass for genealogy to promote itself. They are both attracting a great deal of attention to genealogy which is a great thing.
    As a librarian, I can attest that identifying genealogy as a hobby for other professions is damaging. It does hurt with funding and with access to records. To make a general statement, genealogy is not taken seriously outside of genealogy. Recent limitations to vital records in certain states and redacting of SSDI information is proof enough. However, there are some bright spots out there. For example, Illinois opening up adoption records. Thanks again for your insight and good luck with certification. Personally, it is not for me as I believe it creates the very devisiveness you hinted at, but I can appreciate the dedication of those that follow through with it.

  4. Geneabrarian wrote:
    >What genealogy needs is a cohesive brand that provides an understanding of what genealogy is and what genealogists do.

    Thank you, Geneabrarian. You've managed to sum up a complex situation in a single sentence.

    Cheryl is right that genealogy is *considered* a hobby by most practitioners and by most of the world at large. But you are right, too. We need a "cohesive brand" that unites, rather than divides.

    The longstanding tug-of-war between "hobbyist" and "professional" is a self-defeating one. Two realities exist. First, we are totally codependent. We research the same families. Any wrong conclusion reached by any one of us is a wrong conclusion that misleads everyone working on that family. Second, both good work and bad work is done on each side of the idealogical divide.

    Regardless of the hat we wear when we set out to study families of the past, genealogy is a *research* field. It's not a game of solitaire or an afternoon of knitting in which our screw-ups can be quickly unraveled with no affect on others. As in all research fields, most genealogical screw-ups--all those wrong conclusions--can be prevented by following the standards and practices that create reliability. Yet we have largely failed to get out that messsage.

    Finding "a cohesive brand that provides an understanding of what genealogy is and what genealogists do," would go a long way toward helping both sides of the tussle realize that we all share a common mission.

  5. Thank you very much as I appreciate the comments and insights! Realizing that many do view genealogy as a hobby within the field and without, my blog was an attempt to address the branding of genealogy as other than a hobby. Although those that come to genealogy may first find it as a hobby, they still use the same research method as family historians and professionals. I firmly believe that defining genealogy as a hobby is damaging and does not address all that genealogy accomplishes as a research method as stated in my original post. Some may identifying with genealogy as hobbyists and some as professionals, and that is their preference. The definition of genealogy as a hobby and its promotion as a hobby to other fields is not the definition of what we do.
    As I am sure you are aware, there have been many empirical studies done in other fields about how genealogists research, what sources they use, and how they interact with each other. These studies are mostly from librarians or archivists. Other fields are making their own definitions about genealogy and genealogists and it may not necessarily be to our advantage. This is important because genealogy is so multidisciplinary and it relies on records and access to materials in libraries, archives, and websites (aka those other fields). To address this concern, I believe that creating a different brand of genealogy that is more inclusive of what genealogists do might help define the field and promote the actual research that is accomplished rather than being termed as a hobby.
    Let me just add, Elizabeth Shown Mills......you rock!

  6. Wow - what an amazing post! So much to think about.

    I had never considered thinking of genealogy as a hobby as a bad thing - until this post. I never thought of it as "this belief can have lingering and catastrophic effects such as lower funding for local libraries and organizations that support genealogy collections, limited access to records on a all levels, and other fields looking down their nose at those "name collectors". I never saw it from this point of view.

    But now it brings me to a new problem: What word to use then? What word possible captures everything that a genealogist does? How do you possibly even begin to define it? How to cast an umbrella over this ever growing, changing, and varying fields that this community encompasses?

    I don't have the answer - but it has definitely given me food for thought.

  7. Hi Elyse,
    Most people refer to themselves as a genealogist or family historian. How you identify with genealogy is something personal. No one can tell you to not refer to genealogy as your hobby. For some it is a hobby, a passing interest, or something they enjoy to do occasionally. For others it is something different. My goal was to point out that defining the subject of genealogy as a hobby does not encompass what genealogy is all about. How people identify with genealogy personally is different than how genealogy is viewed as a topic for a wider audience.
    When speaking about genealogy I never use the word hobby. And I have had some really awesome debates with colleagues about this. Usually, I use words such as genealogy, family history, research methods, and explain the importance of records for research, etc.
    Thank you so much for reading and understanding the topic of the post!

  8. This post and the above comments really do bring us to the crux of a major problem in genealogy. I find myself agreeing with both Genebrarian and Cheryl, and for the reasons stated by Elizabeth Shown Mills. I do avoid the terms "hobby" and "hobbyist," yet, like Cheryl and Elyse, I do not aspire to be a professional genealogist. I prefer the terms "dedicated amateur" and "avocation." They capture the way I feel about genealogy and my relation to genealogy as I described in the post "Why I Want to Remain an Amateur" (http://gretabog.blogspot.com/2011/11/why-i-want-to-remain-amateur.html). Not wanting to be a professional does not mean that I am not extremely serious about genealogy - and I believe that Cheryl and many other hobbyists/amateurs share this attitude. ESM has homed in on the importance of the relationship between professionals and amateurs as well as the reason why people on both sides must be united in their focus on doing good research. I look forward to seeing a continuation of this discussion.

  9. Hi Greta,
    Cheryl is actually working toward becoming a professional through certification as stated in her comments. Although I am a librarian, I am not certified and do not desire certification to become a professional genealogist.
    Again, this discussion is not really about what we want to call ourselves but rather how we can define genealogy for others to know what it is we do instead of labeling it as a hobby. It is about perception for those not in the genealogy field.

  10. It had not occurred to me that the *terminology* we use might influence those who allocate funding to libraries. I am a family historian who now has a part-time business doing genealogical research, indexing, writing and publishing. In other words, I do 'personal research' and also 'paid research'. Some people have negative perceptions of 'professional genealogists', so I sometimes feel uncomfortable about describing myself that way.

  11. Oh my. Thanks to Elyse's Blog for giving me something else to think about. I've been doing my own family history since 1998, thinking of it as genealogy for a long time--but I knew I did it to find out who I am, and the old English teacher insisted I document Sources, and then it became all consuming...not a hobby like golf or Scrabble. Now I was leaving something for some descendent someday, sometime. Credibility will be gained over time by the TV shows, and the pervasiveness of Ancestry advertising. Until a "branding" happens, I'm going to call this mission of mine Family History. And put this blog on my Reader.
    Thank you Geneabrarian.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. Just posted a comment at Eyse's blog, where I started, but must add to this very good discussion, as well. The two words I come out with are Passion, and Avocation (Thanks to Greta). Also, for me, I always think of Family History and Genealogy not just genealogy. That is me. You are you... and I'm pleased to be a friend and colleague of each of you. THANKS! ;-)

  14. Awesome post, and very well-said! Thank you for clearing stating what so many of us are already feeling. It's interesting to me that all of this commentary has followed my recent post on, "Into the LIGHT", where I began by sharing that a relative of mine had referred to my genealogy work as a "hobby". This left me feeling befuddled, and (temporarily) insulted, and though it's been a couple of months since the statement was made, it instigated a response that simmered inside me until I wrote my post, just last week. If you'd like, you can read my post at this link: http://tinyurl.com/6q6uber

    Thank you again for your eloquently-written post!


  15. You are correct, Geneabrarian, Cheryl did state that she is working toward certification - my mistake. I focused on the terminology because that contributes to the perception that this pursuit is a mere pastime that does not have consequences if the quality of execution is not high - something that both professionals and dedicated amateurs want to avoid, as Elizabeth pointed our in her comment. I am employed in a field in which many of the people working as professionals are not qualified for the job, and down the line the consequences can be disastrous - all because people underestimate how difficult doing this job well is and what the fallout may be from doing that job poorly.

  16. Hi Greta, in re-reading my previous comment it appeared very curt. My apologies! I enjoy reading all kinds of comments even when the observations are opposite of my own. Its what makes the world go round.
    Thank you very much for posting a link to your blog. The posting you linked to was great to read. Like yourself, I do not have a desire to be a professional genealogist as I am of a different profession: librarianship. I refer to myself as a family historian. One of the best things about my job is that I get to explain the importance of records, their organization, and their uses for genealogy every day. It is always advocation of genealogy and archives at the reference desk!

    1. I like the titles Family Historian or "Genealogy Researcher." I have a bit of a problem with Genealogy being a "Research Method" because one must use many methods to achieve desired results. At least when I think of "methods" I think of searching films, talking to cousins, writing emails and searching Google as different methods.
      I like Genealogy "Research Field." I see that Hobby is not the right word, but neither passion, research method, addiction, avocation,or profession cover the place research and organization of records hold in the lives of those doing it. Good discussion.

  17. I too am annoyed by words "hobby" and "hobbyist" in genealogy. I used the example of astronomy in a recent post (http://blog.geneablogie.net/2011/12/the-zen-of-genealogy/); it's a field in which so-called "hoobyists" have made huge contributions. Aviation is similar; no serious pilot, whether or not flying as her primary job, wants to be thoguth of as an "amateur" or "hobbyist." Having said that, I've always liked Greta's term "avocation," and I agree with you and Elizabeth Shown Mills that we need a "brand."

  18. Your post is very interesting as are all of the comments. Certification and professional in genealogy has been in the spotlight lately. I admire anyone who takes the initiative to better themselves in any area of their life, be it a hobby (taking golf lessons) or a profession (acquiring an industry certification).

    I can't help but wonder if the lack of accredited, university-level programs for genealogy has an impact on how the "brand" of genealogy is viewed. Brigham Young University has degree and certificate programs for family history and Boston University does as well. The University of Washington offers a genealogy certificate program through their continuing education program. What other university-level options are there? My local community college system does offer one or two classes that could be considered genealogical in nature, but no type of "program".

    As a librarian you earn the respect as a professional because the "world" knows you had to go to college and earn a degree in order to have the title of Librarian. A Certified Public Accountant has the respect of the "world" because they were certified by an accredited body. Now before anyone gets up in arms thinking I am suggesting that a professional is only a professional if they have a degree or letters behind their name, don't. That is not what I'm suggesting or what I believe at all. I am discussing brand and how the "brand" of genealogy is viewed by the world, right or wrong. The genealogy brand is not what we "say" it is, it's what the world "perceives" it to be.

    I do not believe that Ancestry.com's current advertising campaign helps with the perception of genealogy as a serious, academic pursuit. As a marketer I love it, it's brilliant! As an genealogist I know that it does not support or suggest that serious research is needed in genealogy. While we can't demand that the genealogy brand be viewed in a certain light we can certainly influence it through our actions and messaging to the "world". Unfortunately, we have opposing messaging being put out by companies with deeper pockets than our own. That makes it a tough perception to overcome.

    Thank you for this post, I have read it and the comments several times. It really got me thinking!

  19. This continues to be a very interesting conversation (spread out over a zillion blogs, lol).

    However, there's an ELEPHANT in the virtual room; namely 'MONEY'.

    There are genealogists out there (you know who you are) that are scratching out a living 'doing genealogy'. They need the distinction 'professional' to be separate them from that of the 'hobbyists'. Ancestry.com needs the 'hobbyists' to subscribe to their offerings as there are more of them than 'professionals'. The 'professionals' need Ancestry.com for its resources. Thus, a subtle tug of war subsists. Because of money.

    If you want to get PAID, you have to present yourself as a professional. End of that tale.

    You can, of course, be a professional without ever seeking re-numeration. What defines you as a professional is your demonstrated skills, ethics and integrity in genealogical research.

    Do credentials and certifications help? Boy, howdy! Are credentials and certifications the be-all and end-all? Not yet. Genealogy has to be "... recognized by researchers, historians, genealogists themselves, and those outside of genealogy..." as more than just a hobby.

    I'm in total agreement with the Geneabrarian; strike the word 'hobby' from the conversation. Let those among us, who want to get PAID, prove their worth - and buyer beware. For the rest, continue doing what we do. The Ancestors appreciate you all!

    Excellent post!

    Peace & Blessings,
    "Guided by the Ancestors"

  20. In response to Jenna's question about What other university-level educational options are there?


    Monterey Peninsula College in Monterey, California offers the following:

    The Family Research Studies program consists of the following core courses:
    Course Title
    Library Services 50
    Introduction to Information Competency and Literacy
    Library Services 60
    Family Research Studies: Genealogy I
    Library Services 61
    Family Research Studies: Genealogy II
    Library Services 62
    Family Research Studies: Genealogy III
    Library Services 63
    Family Research Studies: Genealogy IV
    Students have the option of obtaining a certificate of achievement or an Associate in Arts degree in Family Research Studies. The certificate requires 25 units, including the 13 units in the core courses listed above. The Associate in Arts degree requires a total of 60 units – 25 units in prescriptive courses, including the 13 units from the core courses listed above, plus prescriptive electives in business skills, geography, history, and other library studies courses.

    The curriculum was developed by Karen Clifford, AG, FUGA who also authored six text books that are used in the courses.

  21. I do not like the word "hobby" myself. To me a hobbyist in genealogy is someone who copies Printed Family Trees in order to collect names.

    When I have contacted some to inquire about the source of their information I have been told that they do not have it, they just copied the information.

    We all (professional or amateur) spent a lot of time doing our research to obtain our information. I like Greta's term of avocation, or as my husbands states "She looks for dead people. Perhaps it is a research avocation...

  22. Why is it that the "hobby" of watching football games attracts zillions of dollars and the "hobby" of researching your family is permission to cut funding? Football fans buy tee shirts and beer; genealogy fans buy scanners and copies of probate packets. Yet people in the business of serving football fans get public funds to build stadiums, while people in the business of serving genealogy fans get their library branches closed. I doubt that football fans get together to talk about how to become more professional or whether there should be standards for fans. Maybe we should be getting more vocal about our right to have a non-sport hobby?

  23. The discussion of "branding" of genealogy has run off and on in other arenas for at least the last four years. There are avocational golfers and professional golfers, avocational pilots and professional pilots, avocational mechanics and professional mechanics.

    It's been my impression the avocational genealogists and professional genealogists seem to have a much greater history of creating "sides" and the resulting tug-of-war. I have never understood this. Nor the animosity sometimes demonstrated against those who choose to move beyond avocation and become professionals in the sense of vocation. Even more animosity sometimes directed at those who work so hard to earn professional credentials.

    You don't see this in the golfing community, where the "profession" seems to be held in high regard. We look for licensed plumbers, board-certified legal or medical specialists.

    It's almost as if someone needs to stand up and loudly proclaim that it's OK to be an avocational genealogist and it's OK to be a professional.

  24. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  25. One additional comment from me on this blog. I appreciate difference of opinions and always try to view things from the other side. However, name calling and personal attacks do not help in any ongoing discussion. If you disagree with me that is your right and I respect your opinion. If in any comments there is a high degree of flaming and personal attacks I WILL DELETE YOUR POST!

    Let me just add that before comments are written, it might be helpful to re-read the posting one more time to make sure you understand what the point of it is.

    Thank you to those that contributed to respectful dialog in the blogging community

  26. I think the recent problems with the Social Security Death Index are a perfect reflection of the negative aspects of genealogy. The fact remains that the perception of genealogy as a hobby is no different (outside of the field) than the perception of philately (stamp-collecting) as a hobby. No matter how many genealogists have objected to the loss of the SSDI, Congress and the SSA have not listened. Why not? Because in their view, the risk of identity theft outweighs the needs of a bunch of hobbyist name-collectors.

    Two generations of genealogists have tried to correct this perception problem, through the creation of standards, the promotion of "scholarly genealogy" as an academic field, etc. Unfortunately, this has not been enough to change the perception. Maybe this is because "avocational" genealogists do not universally accept these standards -- maybe it's not.

    It is clear that it is not enough for us to stop calling genealogy a "hobby," we somehow have to convince *other people* -- non-genealogists -- to stop thinking of it as a hobby.

  27. Thank you Michael for understanding the topics of the blog post: "It is clear that it is not enough for us to stop calling genealogy a "hobby," we somehow have to convince *other people* -- non-genealogists -- to stop thinking of it as a hobby." These are very true words.

  28. I started seriously researching my family in 1978 in the days before Ancestry.com, Google, Find-A-Grave and other gems that now allow me to search deeper. I spent an extraordinary amount of time in research libraries, state archives, NARA, LDS centers, courthouses, and countless hours on the road. I seriously believe that my years as a genealogist help me tackle on the largest projects in my life/career - my doctoral dissertation. I used many of the tools I learned through the school of hard knocks to get through that process. Thanks genealogy - not just for the casual hobbyist - but the serious researcher.

  29. Hi Jim, just read your blog post A Higher Education Rebranding Interview at http://collegerebranding.blogspot.com/ and found it be very informative concerning the college and university designation. It is always great to read about other fields of research and learn from them.

  30. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.