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Friday, January 13, 2012

In Defense of the Field: The Study of Genealogy Does Matter

Records, Access, and Genealogy
The study of genealogy as a field is as important as the genealogy research conducted by family historians and genealogists. Asking questions about who genealogists are, what genealogists do, why they do it, and how they research allows others such as myself, businesses, archives, and government repositories to determine what services to provide, what books/microfilm to order, which databases to purchase, types of classes to offer, which records to digitize, etc.   Those caring for and preserving the information that genealogists use might not be able perform adequately without asking those questions and evaluating answers.  Genealogists, family historians, and information professionals should be communicating and dialoging about the needs of each area.  Why should genealogists do this?  To help promote what it is that genealogists and family historians do and what records/sources are used in order to continue that cycle.  Why should information professionals do this?  To keep their doors open, to remain viable in the age of the world wide web, and to have a positive effect in being inclusive of all user groups.

Simply put, all genealogists and family historians use records and sources for research.  Access to those records and sources needs to be continuous, not redacted or removed, for research to continue.  Librarians, archivists, businesses, and government organizations hold records and sources.  They need to be made aware of the needs of genealogists and family historians to keep providing access to those records and sources. 

These are important concepts to remember in the future as more and more state vital records are being restricted in access and major collections such as the SSDI are being redacted.  No one can do research if the records and sources cannot be used or are limited in use.

Now some will not be interested in studying genealogy as a field or the discussion generated from those that do.  That is OK.   However, I would encourage those that are not interested to provide courtesy  for discussion, findings, or contributions of those that do.

As a personal example, there was someone with a reference question about the Texas Birth Index on microfilm compared to the Texas Birth Index available on Ancestry.  In order for me to find out the answer I called the state archives which produced the microfilm in question.  My main question, why are the certificate numbers being redacted from the newer microfilm that was released?  The answer from the reference archivist at the state archives was that it was for privacy reasons and to stop adoptees from finding their birth families. WHAT?  Had to pick my jaw up off the floor and I won't repeat my response.

There are some other issues with the Texas Birth Index.  Actually, there are different indexes on microfilm.  After spending a full day with the Texas Birth Index on Ancestry and the Texas Birth Index on microfilm, it was determined that some individuals would be included on one index but not the other and vice versa.  When I asked the reference archivist at the state archives why this was, there was an admission that when the indexing was occuring that some people were missed and when the filming was occuring that some pages were missed.  This is probably true and understandable due to the possibility of human error.  Although no one using the collection would be happy with looking in multiple indexes at least the indexes were created.

All of this explanation is important in understanding the creation, preservation, and access of records and collections.  By understanding the context of such records and collections, information professionals can help genealogists and family historians understand their kinship connections through records.  As another example, I often say that it is only helpful to find that an ancestor received a bounty land warrant if a researcher knows what a bounty land warrant is and why bounty land warrants were created.

Historical Scope
To date there has been no history of genealogy as a subject or field.  Discussion and studies are needed to test if the historical view of genealogy is true or if studies find other significant observations.  In the archival literature there have been labels of "needy amateurs", "name collectors", and analogy of "stamp collecting".  There are also long standing views based in historical research methods and philosophy.  Friedrich Nietzsche, postmodern philosopher and historian, “took issue with genealogy as a method unfortunately lifted from zoology in the service of bad histories.”  He viewed genealogists unfavorably as “sociobiological pseudohistorians" (my all time favorite misquote about genealogy).  There are many historical research methods practiced based in Nietzsche's philosophy so his observations are significant given the close relationship of genealogy and history.  If you are interested in more Nietzsche, the following is insightful:
  • Jacqueline Stevens.  “On the Morals of Genealogy”. Political Theory, vol. 31, no. 4 (August 2003).
Who Does Genealogy?
In studying genealogy as a subject, the need arises to look at facts.  So let's turn to the national organizations that genealogists join in the United States to answer that question.  These are the organizations that have longevity and that individuals identify with so they can be a part of the genealogical community.  They have also defined and brandeded themselves, so they create an image for genealogy as well.  They also have natural statistical data, such as member numbers, to compare as well as shared aspects, such as pay for membership.  They are:

National Genealogical Society
Federation of Genealogical Socities
Assocation for Professional Genealogists
Board for Certification of Genealogists
National Lineage Societies

In looking at these group there is great identification (or association) among genealogists, genealogical societies, professional genealogists, certified genealogists, and lineage groups.  This is very interesting.  Perhaps, individuals that pay for membership in these groups feel compelled to do so to connect with like minded individuals, to learn through educational opportunities, and/or to provide back to their chosen organization.  Do they pay for membership to belong?  Or to affiliate with certain beliefs of an organization?  Hard to tell based on limited studies.

Now there are others that do genealogy that do not join these groups for many different reasons.  However, it is difficult to ascertain why they do genealogy as there has been no survey or questioning to understand why.  There is no definition, brand, or image they share.  There is no statistical data to analyze.

Can others be added to the list?  Possibly.  I think there are perhaps other areas to be explored that genealogists identify with, especially on the internet, but further thought/discussion will be needed to correctly identify them based on the above criteria.

What Genealogists Do
They research.  A lot.  They use some form of the scientific method (more in line with a research method as genealogy is an art and a science): goals, questions, information gathering, hypothesizing, testing, anaylsis, and results.  Genealogists and family historians ALL do this.  It is what we all share and unites us all.

How Genealogists Research (Studies About Genealogists)
Let me paraphrase from a paper I presented at the Texas Library Association Annual Conference last year:

Archival studies through interviews and Q&A surveys provide some background to the information seeking behavior of genealogists.  They have common themes involved in all of them about defined behaviors of genealogists and the:
·         Use of informal resources [non archival]
·         Difficulty in navigating traditional access tools [library catalog/find aids, etc.]
·         Need [for] learning opportunities
·         Organization through social networks
·         Personal connection to records
To this I would add that they also showed a tendency for genealogists to learn in stages with no mention of self appointed or designated labels.  One study was conducted with those of "expert affluence" but qualifications of the experts were not explained.  If you would like to take a look at these studies here they are:
  • Wendy M. Duff and Catherine A. Johnson. "Where Is the List with All the Names? Information-Seeking Behavior of Genealogists." The American Archivist 66(2003).
  • Elizabeth Yakel and Deborah A. Torres.  "Genealogists as a "Community of Records"."  The American Archivist 76(2007).
  • Aprille Cooke McKay. "Genealogists and Records: Preservation, Advocacy, and Politics." Archival Issues 27(2002).
Lots of questions.  And not enough answers.  This is why the study of genealogy as a field will continue.


  1. Board for Certification of Genealogists

  2. Thanks for the journal sources. I didn't realize that both of these journals are available online at no cost. I have now wasted half my day reading historical perspectives on archives, record sources, research, researchers, and genealogists. :)

  3. You should read Harry Macy's article: Recognizing Scholarly Genealogy and Its Importance to Genealogists and Historians, NEHGR 150 (1996):7-28.