Last summer I attended a talk by nationally-acclaimed genealogist D. Joshua Taylor advising genealogy societies how to recruit the younger generation. He opened my eyes to the differences between my generation’s genealogy goals and the mainstream’s: we value the stories of people’s lives over individual facts and prefer to share our findings in digital, multimedia formats, not traditional charts. (His assessment subsequently inspired Treelines’ emphasis on narrative over data. )
This talk came to mind recently when my friend Elliott, a fellow next-generation genealogist, shared with me the culmination of his latest research — a touching blog entry written in the voice of his great-great-grandfather as he tells his life story, reflects on Elliott’s efforts in uncovering it, and philosophizes about the changes in his family four generations later.* With accompanying family photographs it proved a beautifully effective, if non-traditional approach to get across what Elliott saw as the lessons of his gggf’s life and the vagaries of historical research.
Elliott sought feedback on his efforts from the geographically-proximate society. Here is the condescending email he received in return:
The website is very nice, but as I believe I wrote to you months ago, a family tree or at least a list of surnames and locations would be more helpful to genealogists seeking connections.
Did you hire a professional to go into the archives in [country] to obtain documents to prove relationships? It doesn’t appear you have taken full advantage of [Society]’s projects to translate records and make them available to contributors.
It’s true, Taylor explained, that the younger generation takes a less rigorous approach to research, hence the society leader’s assumption that because Elliott mostly did not cite his sources, he must be a novice (though the essay obviously reflected significant research, some of which I watched him do at our local Family History Center.) So how did she handle this opportunity to educate?
- She instructed him that the superior way to share a family history is to organize research into traditional formats.
- She suggested that laypeople can’t do adequate research on their own.
- She insulted his thoroughness without actually offering any concrete direction on how to take advantage of [Society]’s resources, or investigating if [Society] even has any relevant information, perhaps because:
- He’ll have to pay money to her organization to find out.
In short, she heaped scorn upon Elliott for her own failure to recognize the merits of his creative approach and presented a mix of helpful and doctrinaire recommendations as antithetically as possible to his outlook. Taylor recommended a subtler approach: use the next generation’s focus on personal discovery to encourage methodology as a route to even greater discovery.
Woe betide her society that it so little understands where its audience is headed and how to cultivate it. Its future depends on understanding, not criticizing why the next generation is channeling their family history interests into creative presentations like Elliott’s.
* I am not linking to Elliott’s blog to avoid identifying the society.