In Defense of Genealogy as a Hobby

phunts22.1283336178Recently I read in Carla Peterson’s impressive Black Gotham:  A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City how pharmacists sought to standardize their profession to eliminate quacks, improve their effectiveness, provide better patient care, and advance their knowledge.  The relevance of this history to her narrative is how the gates pharmacists erected mostly hindered, but sometimes aided her ancestors’ professional advancement, but it also provides a useful parallel to our unique historical moment within genealogy:  now that standards have been drafted, today’s researchers are similarly battling for widespread adherence to them so genealogy will be practiced in a more reliable manner and thus taken more seriously by the establishment and practitioners alike.  In short, our field is belatedly undergoing the standardization that pharmacology and every other respected discipline has had to undergo to enter the ranks of academic fields of study.

This process of standardization took its biggest step forward in the late 1990s with the creation of the Genealogical Proof Standard, but at the same time the Internet came along to threaten decades of progress.  The professionals dedicated to defining the boundaries of what is and is not good genealogy now find themselves guarding gates long trammeled by the huddled masses yearning to type names into search engines and get free answers.  Public perception of our field has been forever changed, academic acceptance still hasn’t happened, and the result is a community inflamed over why amateurs do such poor work and how can we get them to improve (as though that is the problem preventing acceptance).  The latest outburst in the blogosphere, ably summarized by Randy Seaver, grew out of a solidly-argued, non-genealogical article about the present pervasiveness and perniciousness of the attitude that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.”  “I fear we are witnessing the ‘death of expertise,'” writes Tom Nichols, “a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”  It’s a thesis I couldn’t agree with more.  But as familiar as this description sounds to those of us sick of finding nonsensical trees on Ancestry, its application to our field is wrong.


In assessing the proper role of expertise in the field of genealogy, it helps to assess where genealogy fits in the wider spectrum of areas of human inquiry and why.  On one end are scientific disciplines that seek to advance humankind’s knowledge.  They strive to establish truth and create methodologies for doing so, supported by a bureaucracy of training programs, professional credentials, and vetted literature.  People who run this gauntlet successfully are accepted as experts.  On the other end are artistic disciplines that seek to satisfy the basic human need for meaning.  They also have training programs with credentials, but since these fields are subjective, their bureaucracy consists more of auditions, prizes, and reviews.  The language of expertise is meaningless here.  Between these two ends is a spectrum, not a dividing line, and much of the modern liberal arts contains aspects of both.  Even within my original field of computer science we talk about the beauty of good code.


The breakdown of the 390.5 million people doing genealogy today. (Data and terminology from the Inflection presentation at RootsTech, 2/5/2014.)

Genealogy struggles because its professionals place it on one end of the spectrum, and its hobbyists the others.  The industry has teams of experts assessing prevailing attitudes towards family history, and their studies show that those who know what the Genealogical Proof Standard is and how to apply it are a very small slice of the community.  The GPS seeks to make genealogy like a science in its pursuit of provable truths (e.g. this woman is surely your great-grandmother, and here’s how we know that). commercials, on the other hand, orient genealogy around the pursuit of meaning (e.g. learning about your great-grandmother will enrich your sense of self).  The GPS satisfies experts who want certainty about their and their colleagues’ work.  The TV commercials capture the imaginations of everyone else looking to understand why they are who they are and where they fit in the world.  I am not arguing that since the GPS-minded experts are 0.13% of the audience, they must cede authority to the self-discovery-oriented 99.87%.  But why are 99.87% of people doing it differently, and should the experts even care?

Comparing the two groups, the relative priorities of truth and meaning amongst all their genealogical goals look very different.  Not wrong, just different.  Yet, professional genealogists insist hobbyists must mature into proper researchers like themselves.  To paraphrase Nichols, the author of the original “death of expertise” article, to restore the notion of expertise, and couple it with a sanctimonious insistence that no one but experts have a right to his or her own approach, is silly.  Experts who believe that the only way to do genealogy is GPS-guided research don’t understand what genealogy is.  Like most liberal arts, it falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.  It is about truth and meaning.  Denying the role of meaning altogether rejects much of what makes genealogy a distinct discipline.

In the academy truth trumps meaning, but asserting that any field is only about how the experts practice it is, again, misguided, especially in a field like ours where such a defining (and necessary) quality is active participation at all levels.  And that’s the other half of the problem:  ignoring that all healthy fields have a spectrum between professional practitioners and amateurs.  Genealogy is no different from any other field in having that range, only our experts insist repeatedly and vociferously that our amateurs are doing it wrong.  Historians don’t bother themselves with Civil War reenactors; their activities are irrelevant to the historical establishment.  They certainly don’t demand that they learn how to do better research and strive to comprehend historical journals and eventually get their PhDs in American history.  They recognize that Civil War reenactors want to connect with the past and have a bit of fun doing it.  And our amateurs are no different.  They don’t pursue their hobby for its scholarly potential.  In fact, by definition, they pursue it for quite the opposite reasons.

DOINGITWRONGMuch ink has been spilled about what experts believe constitutes genealogy:  education, certification, library research, source-driven trees, professional journals, society participation, continuing education, and above all, adherence to standards.  But what is family history to a hobbyist?  None of this.  Hobbyists start with particular questions about their families they want to answer or myths they want to prove.  A key metric Ancestry uses to assess the success of its site is discoveries per user, because hobbyists are first and foremost about discoveries, whether they prove what they already knew, add details to things they thought they knew, or just plain surprise and delight (or disappoint).  For some, yes, discoveries are channeled into building a big tree for the pride and gratification of finding oneself situated in a large, old family.  For most, though they may not understand what all the records are and how to use them, they’re more satisfied by the richer information they provide about their ancestors’ lives.  But those whom we see building trees or searching records online often wouldn’t say that this work is their endpoint.  They’re far likelier to want to compile their family history in a less specialist format, usually a book, possibly a website, that their family can enjoy.  The essential point is that though these activities resemble what their professional counterparts do, their concerns are quite different.  They aim to create meaning out of their findings for their own families and themselves.  Their work may end up having a wider reach, but it’s often an unintended (and even unknown) consequence.

Moreover, it’s important to note that though we obsess over how hobbyists do research, research is often a small part of what they do.  The 350 million casual users who pop online to perform a search or two are much more often looking at photographs with family, watching movies and reading books that connect to their family’s past, visiting museums or historical sites, and more than anything else telling stories about the past with their relatives.  If they have the time and/or money, heritage travel and family reunions are major goals.  And most importantly, when they take the time to share their findings, often they’re seeking creative approaches that emphasize audio, video, and especially pictures.  In this area, those experts who truly wish to reach the most users can learn from the best hobbyists, who are unaware (or disdainful) of traditional genealogy journals and family tree charts and therefore more effective at presenting findings in the most fitting manner (for example).

The friction between the two groups comes because we all play within the same sandbox.  Civil War reenactors and historians have separate forums for discussing their work, but most genealogy resources, online or off, invite everyone in — not only because ultimately all of our families and communities connect to each other, but also because our experts haven’t retreated into their own ivory tower (which is certainly a wonderful aspect of our field). But the proximity leads our experts to assume everyone wants to ascend the ladder to their heights of expertise.  And that’s just plain wrong.  Industry metrics confirm that only a minority of users will climb even one rung of the ladder from casual user to hobbyist, from hobbyist to genealogist, or from genealogist to expert, let alone make the entire journey.  Many find all the satisfaction they need from their hobby on a lower rung, much to the dismay of experts.  Drew Smith sums up the prevailing criticism of hobbyists who don’t want to cite their sources.  He characterizes them all as people “who think that education is not worth the trouble of visiting a library in person,” proclaiming, “The sooner that new genealogists learn [the value of libraries], the quicker that they’ll broaden their educational horizons.”  However, the fundamental assumptions behind these statements are wrong.  Hobbyists are happy to be hobbyists and pursue their hobby only so far as it remains fun and meaningful.  Sources, libraries, education — not one of these words would resonate with a typical hobbyist.  Tell them that that’s the right way to do their hobby, and they’ll still refuse.  It isn’t the pleasant diversion they were looking to fill their few free hours.  I don’t mean to single out Drew — many share his point of view — but when I read such posts, I have to wonder how often expert genealogists talk to true hobbyists — not the kind of advanced beginners who fill their classes looking to get more serious, but the typical hobbyist, who will never come to a class, conference, or society meeting.  Yes, the experts are absolutely right that the hobbyists’ reluctance to take the scholarly aspects more seriously will shortchange their ability to make discoveries, but they don’t see it that way.   They took on a hobby.  Period.  Why can’t we accept that?

Because they mess up the sandbox for everyone, experts bemoan.  “There are millions of Ancestry Member Trees with just names, some dates, some places, no sources,” writes Randy Seaver.  Inexperienced users “can create a website or a blog and get followers who are even less experienced than they are, and mislead these beginners,” writes Michael J. Leclerc.  Both Ancestry trees and family history blogs can thus put forth incorrect conclusions that are copied from one sub-par genealogist to the next, until the mistakes are too widespread to be corrected.  Much of the experts’ insistence that everyone must know how to research correctly is that bad information taints the sandbox for everyone.  Yes, but…  let’s put things into perspective.  Experts absolutely know better than to trust anything without a source, even the average intermediate genealogist knows to double-check, and beginners, well, let’s get real:  most are unlikely to know the difference, be harmed by the mistakes, or quite frankly, advance their practice to a place where they would have a different attitude.

rubber002In the First World there’s no such thing anymore as an untrained pharmacist, and we’re better off as a result (though the recent movie Dallas Buyers Club illustrates the downside of our heavily-regulated drug industry).  But untrained family historians?  What real harm are they causing?  Genealogy needed standards of practice to advance, and now we have them, as well as readily available educational opportunities for those who are interested, but the promulgation of strict standards doesn’t suddenly turn genealogy from a liberal art into a science like pharmacology.

At the end of the day experts can’t leave the hobbyists to their own devices, because the experts have the fundamental lack of confidence of thought leaders who wish their field were taken more seriously than it is.  They aren’t wrong to hypothesize that the 99.87% of hobbyists who don’t care about standards lowers the perception of our field and keeps it out of the academy.  Rather than demanding unattainable goals like universal, mandatory genealogy education for all comers, they’d do better to acknowledge the inherent, ineradicable diversity of our community, articulate thoughtful boundaries differentiating professional practice from the rest, build out more “safe spaces” like where those who choose to practice their way can do so amongst like-minded colleagues, and lobby for support from the dominant industry players who favor the needs of the hobbyists.

Let the hobbyists be.  They keep our field vibrant and growing, even introducing creative and innovative approaches we can either learn from or ignore depending on how each of us wishes to practice.  Every field has its hobbyists, and we need ours more than most.  Let them do what they’re doing and make meaning for themselves and their families as best they can.  If they decide to stick around and learn more, all the work of the past fifteen years has ensured that the next step is just one more search away.

54 thoughts on “In Defense of Genealogy as a Hobby

  1. Tammy, you raise issues well worth considering. May I offer a different perspective on some points? You rightly note that the many pursuits of genealogy represent a “spectrum” with no “dividing line.” Curiously, then, your discussion appears to draw a stark divide between “professionals” on the one side and “hobbyists” on the other.

    After 40 years in this field, I must say that I have never known a professional genealogist who was not also a genealogical hobbyist. (Regrettably, I have known many “professionals” who did not have a clue as to what the prevailing standards were!) On the other hand, the vast majority of those who follow today’s Genealogical Proof Standard are indeed hobbyists, not professionals.

    Analyzing the different mindsets that exist in genealogy is not easy. Trying to provide “descriptive labels” that casual readers can easily grasp is even more challenging. I totally agree on the need for us to understand the full spectrum of views. However, I also feel strongly that all of us suffer from efforts to divide genealogists into opposing camps. Whether we describe those camps as “professionals vs. hobbyists” or “experts vs. family researchers” (as others have done), the outcome is the same: divisiveness and ill-will.

    You rightly note that, among all researchers, “bad information taints the sandbox for everyone.” It is also true that when public voices arbitrarily divide a group into camps, and hyperbolize the views of one of those “camps” in an effort to “defend” the other, then we taint an even greater sandbox: the common goals and interests we all share.

    • Elizabeth, I am grateful that you took the time to read my post and respond at such length.

      Thank you for your well-put comments about my choice of language. I struggled with terminology, but in the end I chose to follow the industry assessment presented at RootsTech (as introduced in the pie chart), despite the oversimplifications it introduced. I apologize for not making that clearer, and I appreciate the opportunity to clarify my methods in this comment, which I hope subsequent readers of the original post will see. 🙂

      Terminology aside, to your main point, I don’t feel that within the more established community there has been a meaningful attempt to “understand the full spectrum of views.” As oversimplified as my analysis may have been, it is a rare example of someone within the community attempt a defense of those who aren’t citing sources, but are collecting names, &c. To my mind, part of the “divisiveness and ill-will” you describe stems from the unevenness of the debate. It’s easy for those with training and knowledge to feel certain they see both sides of an argument, and the latest commentary from this past weekend felt to me like yet another pile-on against those who are mostly not on the blogs to defend themselves (and judging by the responses to this post that I’ve received privately, those who are do not consider them a “safe space” for mounting such a defense).

      It’s also easy for one side of a debate to get carried away with the rightness of their position in an echo chamber. If nothing else, I hope my defense of the hobbyist approach will add balance to this most recent incarnation of this long-standing debate. To my mind, the best way to heal the long-established “divisiveness and ill-will” that some of this past weekend’s posts drew from is to argue as effectively as possible the merits of the underrepresented side of the argument. I believe my core point still stands: most genealogists don’t wish to practice their hobby in a scholarly fashion and never will. I hope that my attempt to explain why this is a legitimate point of view makes it harder in the future to belittle or vilify them as some did this past weekend. Familiarity breeds acceptance, and all that. 🙂

      Thank you again for helping to make this a real dialog!

  2. Tammy, I hope you won’t mind that I respond to your posting, since I was specifically mentioned.

    I don’t differentiate between hobbyists and genealogists. People who do genealogy, even as a hobby, are genealogists. They may be experienced genealogists or inexperienced genealogists. They may be genealogists who haven’t read any genealogy books or journals, or they may be genealogists who have read quite a few. They may be genealogists who have never attended a lecture or webinar on genealogy, or they may be genealogists who have attended lots of presentations. They may be experienced or educated in one area of genealogy, and inexperienced or uneducated in a different area of genealogy, all at the same time. None of us has done everything, and none of us has learned everything.

    Does genealogy stop being fun and meaningful because you become more experienced at it? Does genealogy stop being fun and meaningful because you become better educated about it? No, quite the contrary. The more experienced you become, and the more you learn about it, the more fun it becomes, because you get better quality results with less frustration, and it becomes more and more meaningful because you become more and more proud of what you have achieved and what you have learned.

    When I visit a public library with a genealogy room, the people I see using it are hobbyists. When I attend a local genealogy society meeting with an educational program, the people who are attending are hobbyists. Many of these people are brand new, just starting on working on their families. Sorry, Tammy, but I don’t buy your claim that the typical hobbyist won’t set foot in a class, conference, or society meeting. Yes, many of them may try a few things online first before they do, things that weren’t possible to do 10 or 20 years ago. But they’ll still go to a library to ask for help, go to a society meeting to learn something new, or buy a how-to book to learn a good way to do things.

    Finally, I want to see an end to this crazy idea of “Oh, you want us to be scholarly, and that spoils all the fun” (or words to that effect). If someone told you that they wanted to have fun by planting a home flower garden, would it “spoil all the fun” if someone else gave them a sheet indicating which flowers would grow best for the climate where they live, which are the best times of the year for planting different flowers, and which are the best locations (sunny, shady, etc.) for planting different kinds of flowers? Would they really have more fun ignoring all those guidelines and instead watching flowers die and never bloom?

    So can you or anyone else explain to me how it is “fun” to add someone to your family tree even though you don’t really have any evidence for why they should be there? Wouldn’t it be even more fun just to make up names and places and dates and put those in instead? It would certainly be *easier* than copying names from other unsourced trees, wouldn’t it?

    Tammy, you refer in your response to Elizabeth about “the hobbyist approach”. What is this approach? If it’s not genealogical research, what is it?

    • Drew, of course I don’t mind your response – I’m thrilled to get a robust discussion going and appreciate that you took the time!

      You and I spoke last summer after you took on leadership of FHISO, and I came away with admiration of your deep genealogy experience and excitement for the work you’re leading. I was impressed with your sharp perspective on both the technical and non-technical issues we discussed. But overall I find your response to my blog constrained by the same experience and expertise that make you so effective professionally. You’re assessing people who are fundamentally not like you by the standards with which you’ve carved out your own path in genealogy and so effectively educated others.

      The biggest issue is that we’re not talking about the same hobbyists. I was specific in defining the group I was addressing as those “who will never come to a class, conference, or society meeting.” Industry research on audience breakdowns underpins my analysis that the majority of hobbyists are folks you’re unlikely to meet in your impressive array of professional and leadership roles within our field. You’re right that the folks you meet in the library or society meetings are people who started online, but they’re the “minority of users [who] will climb even one rung of the ladder.” I suspect if you add up all the people who attend conferences and society meetings, all the library attendees, &c. you’re not going to make a serious dent in the 30 million people I’m referring to (let alone the 350 million “casual users”).

      Second, you’re applying your own definitions of what is fun and enjoyable. We are in agreement that the more experienced you are in something, that more you will enjoy it. It doesn’t follow from there, however, that everyone seeks to get the most experience to maximize their enjoyment of every one of their pursuits. Nor does it follow that the formal training required to gain that experience would be as enjoyable as the original pursuit. (Though I claim to love sewing, my end results are solidly below-average, and the one class I attempted as an adult was so wretched that I’m content to continue as I was before the class. If you see me in ill-fitting clothes at a conference, you’ll know why! ☺ ) Moreover, the typical hobbyist in my analysis actually does find sufficient satisfaction in growing their trees according to their limited understanding of how to do so. When you don’t know any better, it’s a delight to type a family name into Ancestry, see a tree that reasonably overlaps what with they know about their own, and suddenly get hundreds of ancestors all at once. That’s why the industry sites work so hard to make it very easy for users to do this – most people find it extremely rewarding. Finally, lamentable as it may be, for the average person scholarly does not equal fun. If it were, the world be a very different place, one I suspect I’d enjoy a lot more! ☺

      As a (different kind of) genealogy professional, I agree with your aspirations for our field, but we have to be honest about the numbers and recognize that we and our kind are in the minority. Whether we want to change how these hobbyists practice or leave them be, we have to take them where they are and not substitute our own perspectives for theirs.

      Thank you again for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. Hope we can catch up in person at one of the upcoming conferences! (I’ll be the one in the crooked skirt.)

      • Tammy, you write “You’re assessing people who are fundamentally not like you by the standards with which you’ve carved out your own path in genealogy and so effectively educated others.” Tammy, I think that we’re *all* fundamentally the same. We all want hobbies/pursuits that bring us pleasure; otherwise, we wouldn’t pursue them. We might try one (planting a flower garden, taking up a martial art, etc.) and discover that it doesn’t really fit our personality, but that doesn’t change our original motivation. Genealogy is fun, or at least it should be. If not, you’re either doing it wrong, or it’s just not the best hobby for your personality.

        You argue that I’m not following *your* definition of the group you’re addressing, but then you take me to task for defining what is fun and enjoyable. Double standard? How do you know that they will *never* go to a class, a society meeting, or a conference? Never? Maybe they don’t know about them. Maybe they won’t have time until they are retired (yes, most people who attend classes and society meetings and conferences are retired, which means that they have free time and often some disposable income that isn’t involved in raising a family). But this didn’t change just when the Web came along. This has always been true.

        You write “When you don’t know any better, it’s a delight to type a family name into Ancestry, see a tree that reasonably overlaps what with they know about their own, and suddenly get hundreds of ancestors all at once.” But, as you’re well aware, that doesn’t mean that they are *your* ancestors. And that’s the point. Do you really want to defend “satisfaction” with a fictional family tree? Seriously? As I said, if that’s all this is about, why not just make up names?

        Finally, if you really want to be helpful in this whole matter, maybe you want to rethink your efforts to create a false dichotomy between “scholarly” and “fun”. Is something “scholarly and not fun” if all that is being asked is that each addition to a tree be based upon *some* evidence? *Some* logic? When I listen to Pink sing “Just give me a reason, just a little bit’s enough”, I think of genealogy. We’re not asking for much here.

        If someone told you that they do jigsaw puzzles for fun, and you watched them, and what they did was to randomly put the pieces together, not worrying whether the pieces actually fit together or whether the final product looked anything like the picture on the box, would you honestly defend their “hobby” as “Well, that’s ok, it’s fun for them, it wouldn’t be any fun if they actually figured out how the pieces fit together to make the picture on the box.” They may have a hobby of some sort, but their hobby isn’t assembling jigsaw puzzles. Yet you seem to be defending this kind of mindset. And I still don’t understand why.

        • Where we are in agreement: people who spend time doing genealogy find it fun. People go into genealogy with personal goals for what they want to discover.

          Where we’re struggling to understand the other’s point of view: What constitutes fun? Do all genealogists define the same aspects of genealogy as fun? What is a valid genealogical goal? Do all genealogists share the same goals? Must all genealogists strive for perfection?

          I keep returning to your definition of what is fun and enjoyable, because it sounds to me as though you’re applying your own definition to everyone. You insist in return I’m creating a false dichotomy between scholarly and fun, because it’s false for you and me and the people who come to you for education, but in my post at no point did I make a universal statement about all genealogists. I characterized a particular slice of the audience for whom unfortunately this dichotomy holds.

          Your conflation of doing poor genealogy with knowingly creating a fictional family tree is pretty unfair. As Elyse Doerflinger wrote far better than I on Facebook, the people making these mistakes don’t know they’re making mistakes. They truly believe they’re doing legitimate genealogy research. You can’t seem to accept that a person might not require perfection to feel that they’ve learned something meaningful about their family’s past. If a person copies preexisting errors about Virginia pre-1800, to grab one example shared with me on Facebook, that may not matter to him, because all he wanted to know is that his family came from that place and time. I’m fine with a person settling for a lesser objective. Leave him be if that’s all he wanted.

          Your obvious passion not only for doing the best work possible, but also for making educational opportunities as broadly available as possible, must make you a great teacher. Hopefully after all of this settles down we’ll have opportunities to learn from each other in much more agreeable ways. 🙂

          • “What constitutes fun?” It varies for each person. “Do all genealogists define the same aspects of genealogy as fun?” Yes and no. Some people (myself included) enjoy the puzzle that genealogy presents. Others have certain goals (joining a lineage society, finding cousins for an upcoming reunion, etc.) and success in those goals is fun “What is a valid genealogical goal?” One that involves valid genealogical research. If it doesn’t involve valid genealogical research, then it may be a valid goal, but it’s not genealogy. “Do all genealogists share the same goals?” No. “Must all genealogists strive for perfection?” Nope, and striving for perfection was never at issue here.

            “I characterized a particular slice of the audience for whom unfortunately this dichotomy holds.” It’s either a valid dichotomy or it isn’t. And something doesn’t become “scholarly” and “not fun” just because it involves providing evidence for a genealogical conclusion.

            “Your conflation of doing poor genealogy with knowingly creating a fictional family tree is pretty unfair.” Why it is unfair? If you’re adding people to your tree whoyou have no *reason* to believe they are really your relatives, how is that different than spreading rumors that turn out to be untrue? Aren’t you still spreading fiction?

            “You can’t seem to accept that a person might not require perfection…”. Now *you* are being unfair, as nobody here is asking for “perfection” from anyone.

            “If a person copies preexisting errors about Virginia pre-1800, to grab one example shared with me on Facebook, that may not matter to him, because all he wanted to know is that his family came from that place and time. ” If he wants to *know*, then wouldn’t he want to have real evidence?

          • Drew, I would like to interject here because I have come upon that exact same example of someone sharing a tree with an error in it like that. I think the crux of the argument that you are missing is that many of the folks who are passing around those items don’t care that its not the right John Smith.

            Many of the folks that I meet just want to do the family history because they believe its something they need on their bucket list. They’re not doing it for the love of the hobby, the interest in getting through a puzzle, the interest in citing to academic standards. They’re never going to understand your argument that you should do it right. Giving them a simplified task to do (at least identifying where something came from and how they got it) can help those of us who ARE interested in going further recognize what we’ve got in front of us and tell where the error came from.

            Right now, errors are spreading virally and there’s nothing that can help us figure out where they are coming from. We can’t cure the virus, to borrow from Tammy’s pharmacological example, if we do not know what drug to use on it. If we started to work on that end of the problem (basic sourcing), we can at least start to make a dent in the unsourced, unfounded, mystery data that is out there.

          • This is a response to your reply to this comment — it seems that we’ve hit the limit on nesting comments within WordPress!

            Thanks for answering my questions! To respond to a couple points worth further discussion (or disagreement ☺ ):

            – Asserting that doing bad genealogy is the same as knowingly creating a fictional family tree is unfair for exactly the unfair reasons you give to defend your perspective. You say poor genealogists “have no reason to believe they are really [their] relatives.” Yes, they do. They are wrong reasons, but they sure do have reasons. If you really believe that novice genealogists *intend* to do bad work, then yes, you are being incredibly unfair (also, a surprising stance for an educator to take).

            – “If he wants to *know*, then wouldn’t he want to have real evidence?” Can a novice even define what is “real evidence” is, and why it matters? You would say, no, hence the need for education, and I’d return to my original position that our hypothetical Virginian met his goal, and he’s allowed to have a goal that isn’t what you define as “valid genealogical research.”(As an aside, it seems we (unsurprisingly) don’t even agree on what a valid genealogical goal is, but at this late hour (and with my webinar three hours away), I haven’t the energy to open up that can of worms (though my POV is pretty clear in my original post, fwiw).)

            Thanks for keeping the conversation going!

          • Concetta writes “I think the crux of the argument that you are missing is that many of the folks who are passing around those items don’t care that its not the right John Smith. ” I’m not missing that at all. But if they don’t care if it’s the right John Smith, why don’t they just make up fictional ancestors? Wouldn’t that be easier?

            Concetta also writes: “Many of the folks that I meet just want to do the family history because they believe its something they need on their bucket list.” So if it’s not right, then how does it qualify as an item on their bucket list?

          • Tammy writes “You say poor genealogists ‘have no reason to believe they are really [their] relatives.’ Yes, they do. They are wrong reasons, but they sure do have reasons.”

            You’re confusing two different meanings of “reason”. I’m using “reason” in the sense of “evidence and argument”. If a person makes a conclusion without evidence and argument, then they have no reason that can justify their conclusion. So it’s not “wrong reasons”, it’s *non-existent* reasons.

            Tammy also writes: “If you really believe that novice genealogists *intend* to do bad work, then yes, you are being incredibly unfair (also, a surprising stance for an educator to take).”

            The issue isn’t intent. The issue is *not caring*. If you don’t care whether the information you’re spreading is factual, or not, then you might just as well spread things that you know to be fiction. And I think there’s nothing surprising about that stance for an educator, for the educator to believe that people *should* care about the factual nature of the information they spread.

            How many times have you had a friend or relative spread something via email that, if they had taken a single moment to check it out in Snopes first, they would have quickly learned that it was false? How many times have you given them the link to Snopes to demonstrate that? How many times have they continued to do that for the next rumor? Wouldn’t that come across to you as their *not caring* whether what is being spread is true or false? Doesn’t it bother you that some people don’t appear to care?

    • If you’ll permit me a second response, I see that one point I failed to address is the one Elizabeth Shown Mills pointed out on Facebook. 🙂

      Your uneducated home gardener watching flowers die isn’t quite the right analog for our novice genealogist. I think we can all agree that the problem is that novice genealogists *are* getting their trees to grow. They naively believe that this hobby is about finding the most people, and they are! Success! So with this positive reinforcement, they continue doing more of the same, because it worked! Their tree is expanding!

      As I learn from all of you who have taken the time to share your perspectives, I feel more and more strongly that my recommendations at the end of my original post — creating more “safe spaces” and lobbying the industry for help — are where our energy should be expended. The fact is that the big industry players, who are the beginning and end of how most hobbyists do genealogy, have a vested interest in encouraging poor practice, because it leads to satisfying results. For those of you dedicated to educating others in our field in best practices, how can your techniques permeate the user experience of those sites?

  3. Tammy,

    With regard to this statement:
    “I have to wonder how often expert genealogists talk to true hobbyists — not the kind of advanced beginners who fill their classes looking to get more serious, but the typical hobbyist, who will never come to a class, conference, or society meeting.”

    There are many of us who interact with genealogists of all types on a daily basis, including myself, Drew Smith, and Elizabeth Shown Mills. We make ourselves available and we publish publicly to reach out and to help. Drew and I have both participated in online forums for all levels of genealogical experience for almost 2 decades now. In fact, we both participated in several topics online just this evening.

    In regard to this statement:
    “Historians don’t bother themselves with Civil War reenactors; their activities are irrelevant to the historical establishment. They certainly don’t demand that they learn how to do better research and strive to comprehend historical journals and eventually get their PhDs in American history. They recognize that Civil War reenactors want to connect with the past and have a bit of fun doing it. ”

    Historical reenactors are known to be BIG sticklers for historical accuracy. They study their topics in great depth. They do this for fun and because they enjoy it. But they do it right by researching what it is they are reenacting.

    In regard to this statement:
    ” They took on a hobby. Period. Why can’t we accept that?”

    It isn’t just that they took on a hobby. It is that they publish. Technology and the Internet means that anybody and everybody can publish online. Wake up this morning, decide I want to do my family tree today, and publish that tree tonight. Prior to the Internet the hobbyist’s collection wouldn’t have been published beyond their journals at home. But now the publication of that material is open to a worldwide readership. The propagation of family myths, of misinformation, of mistakes and errors becomes exponential. And it is unfair to the next set of researchers that may encounter that information and absorb it into their own family story. It is the duty of those who have come before–those who have already learned from our own mistakes–to help train those who are new. Do we want people to have fun as “hobbyists” and just graft limb after limb onto their family trees willy-nilly whether or not those limbs belong there? Or do we want them to have fun as hobbyist genealogists by getting to know their own, true family members?

    • Cyndi, thanks for taking the time to read my article and respond so thoughtfully! Everyone who knows you, myself very much included, admires the time and effort you’ve contributed to our community to make us all better researchers. But the vast majority of hobbyists as I’ve defined them in my assessment, which is based on market research from the industry (see my comments to Elizabeth and Drew above), aren’t people who knows your name, or Drew’s, or Elizabeth’s. They aren’t attending webinars or classes or engaging with online forums. They’re doing their online and picking up expertise as they go.

      I completely agree with you say that it is the “duty of those who have come before–those who have already learned from our own mistakes–to help train those who are new.” (You have certainly put your money where your mouth is more than most!) But that only addresses those of us who are already experts. It doesn’t address
      most newbies, who are not interested in training. They don’t recognize the mistakes in their work, and they certainly would not accept that they shouldn’t publish online when (a) the big sites encourage just that, and (b) it is the way of the Internet in all things.

      Do I *want* hobbyists to “graft limb after limb onto their family trees willy-nilly?” No, and most aren’t, even if their mistakes seem obvious to us. I agree with you that the best we can do is make education easily available for those who it, but I still don’t think we should go so far as to be proscriptive about what newbies should and should not do and how they do it. It wouldn’t work even if we tried.

      Thanks again for adding your thoughts to the conversation – I really appreciate it.

      P.S. You and I must know different Civil War reenactors, but point taken – I shouldn’t be surprised that there is a spectrum of practice here as well. ☺

      • Tammy –
        “Do I *want* hobbyists to “graft limb after limb onto their family trees willy-nilly?” No, and most aren’t, even if their mistakes seem obvious to us.”

        Um…I’m wondering how many lineage linked family tree databases you’ve worked with online. My 2nd great-grandfather and his siblings have been grafted onto one family tree at Ancestry THREE times. One set of parents, with the children listed 3 times with a variety of slightly different names and dates. This is not something new or unusual. I have encountered this numerous times over the past 18 years. This is the problem as I see it. Yes, the way genealogy is advertised and encouraged online makes this easy to do. And yes, the users aren’t aware that there is anything wrong. Thus our need to do what we can to help make things right with advice and education.

        “I agree with you that the best we can do is make education easily available for those who it, but I still don’t think we should go so far as to be proscriptive about what newbies should and should not do and how they do it. It wouldn’t work even if we tried.”

        I don’t think anyone is telling newbies not to do this or that. I think we’re trying to lay out the templates and bits of advice for them to find when they are ready to find it. We also know that there are some people who will never find it. In which case we publish educational materials for those who do stick around so that they know to look out for trees with willy-nilly grafted limbs full of misinformation.

        Just because I know all of this doesn’t mean I’m not a genealogy hobbyist. Just because I make money from genealogy does not mean that I’m out of touch with those who just started their family tree this morning. I would venture to say that I’m in a unique position to welcome most newbies to our hobby. And I plan to continue to do so by sharing what I learned and helping them to head down the right path to collect their own, true, real ancestors instead of family members that belong on another tree.

        • Hi again, Cindi!

          First, a clarification: My objection to your comment about “[grafting] limb after limb onto their family trees willy-nilly” had less to do with its actual prevalence in the field (which you would know better than I) and more to do with that adverb willy-nilly, into which I read a perception of a lack of intent. When I said “most aren’t,” I meant to say that I believed that “most aren’t doing it willy-nilly,” which is to say that most honestly (and incorrectly) believe that are doing legitimate work. (Elyse Doerflinger put it much better on that Facebook post you just commented on. 🙂 )

          To the second part of your answer, we’re in agreement there about the importance of making educational materials available. I still can’t help but be cynical about how many will take advantage of these opportunities, but as you note, it’s the best we can do. I still feel that many in conversations like these take a proscriptive tone. My apologies if reading that into your original post was unwarranted.

          Thanks for keeping the discussion going!

          • Tammy, part of the issue here is that genealogists tend to narrowly define what is education – that being at formal gen soc meetings, conferences, etc. Some begrudgingly admit that Ancestry’s YouTube channel is helpful, etc.

            What we need in terms of education is reaching out to the masses. For example, I belong to a social site for knitters and crocheters called Ravelry. One of the forums that I interact with most is one for genealogists there. A poster started with a rant about stolen copyrighted content, and most of the folks started the usual path – they said “what’s the big deal?”.

            I painstakingly wrote out a “here’s what the issue is and how to fix it” in layman’s terms and more than half of the posts in response were “I didn’t understand this before, and now I get it.”. We’ve now got 36 more genealogists out there that understand why you can’t just gank a photo from somewhere without getting permission and doing at least a minimum attribution – and that’s only counted the ones that said something. Something like 400 people read the thread and will now have some clue that there’s something wrong with their actions that didn’t before.

            I know it seems small, but every time we make use of these “teachable moments” we increase the education level of the average genealogist out there. And thanks to the internet, that thread will be archived forever, so who knows how far in influence it will go?

            I am a firm believer that every time an expert or intermediate hobbyist interrupts a debate politely and points to genealogists to the educational materials that are out there, it does infinitely more than ranting or some of the worse behavior that I have seen occur on the genealogy forums and pages on Ancestry.

          • Thanks for replying! Your attitude is wonderful and remarkably sane and a great start. Sounds like you made a real difference and reached people off the beaten path. (Also, Ravelry is a great site! Didn’t know they had a genealogy forum.)

  4. Hello, Tammy.

    You wrote, regarding incomplete analytical practices: “… and beginners, well, let’s get real: most are unlikely to know the difference, be harmed by the mistakes, or quite frankly, advance their practice to a place where they would have a different attitude.”

    Perhaps the individuals themselves will not “harmed” by their mistakes, but their results will be, and when a hobbyist is long gone and their materials are all that remains for their own families to consult will be incorrect conclusions and flawed assertions. That does harm, and as Cyndi points out above, the flaw grows exponentially when the mistake is knowingly or unknowingly copied into a database, and then multiply recopied and added to new databases again and again.

    I’d call that intellectual harm. Practitioners of the liberal arts know that one of our primary responsibilities, like physicians, is “do no harm.”

    No one conducting personal research wants to get it wrong. When I was first trying to learn long division many years ago, I tried to teach myself how to do it and I faltered miserably. When I took time to consider and listen to my siblings, all of whom had had to learn it before me, I realized my mistakes and was horrified at how wrong I was in my conclusions. My long division homework from 1972 quickly went into the rubbish bin.

    Regrettably, my mistakes in repeating incorrect conclusions in the world of post, post, post to a genealogical website can never be put into the rubbish bin, no matter how badly I might wish otherwise. The internet is a place where things posted take on lives of their own, beyond our intent and control.

    Those who argue for careful consideration of resources and evidence are not arguing a false dichotomy of academy/amateur, they are advocating for competence. Even an absolute novice would want to be seen as competent whatever the undertaking, whatever the field. Surely competence is not too high a standard for genealogists?

    • Hi David, thanks for taking the time to post such a thoughtful response!

      You and I are 100% on the same page in advocating for competence, but we split when you apply the word “harm” to those amateurs whose personal work we consider sub-par.

      I agree with you that “first do no harm” is a solid principle for life in all areas. Your professional knows what is harmful because he has received training in just that. But it’s unfair to say that hobbyists are actually doing anything harmful. They’re doing what the software and websites encourage them to do to the best of their (limited) abilities. They create a tree for their families, put it where they can easily see it, and if it spreads beyond that, it was, as I wrote, a consequence they probably aren’t aware of, so assigning blame isn’t productive. They certainly never meant to get it wrong, but like you and me in our early days, they didn’t think they were, did they? 🙂

      That’s why I say we really should let hobbyists be. If we take the time to see it from *their* perspective, and not from a paternalistic or disdainful one, they are being as competent as is within their current level of knowledge. Like you, I wish it were otherwise, but it’s a reality that I don’t think actually harms the majority of us.

      • Tammy,

        Your remarks suggest a separation of amateurs from professionals. I thought that was something we hope to avoid? When you suggest, “we really should let hobbyists be,” the implication is that they are not capable of performing competently because they’re ‘just’ hobbyists, who cannot be expected to comport to the field’s expectations. Tell me how we can do so? It can’t be done.

        Just like the rules of the road for drivers: in America, we drive on the right. Even novices have to do that. If we let folks just drive wherever they wish, someone’s going to get hurt or damaged. The same applies here: even an absolute novice can be expected, reasonably, to perform within appropriate expectations.

        Such an implication–that novices be excused from minimal expectations–does a disservice to anyone who hopes to produce–if even only for themselves–believable and accurate results.

        • Thanks, David, for adding to the conversation!

          It isn’t that I feel that they are “not capable of performing competently.” It’s that I believe most have different goals to which our standards are an ill fit.

          Standards are a blanket requirement in areas where true harm can be done — you mention driving; I started with prescribing medicine. Standards are not required in genealogy because the stakes are much lower (though ya wouldn’t know it from the flurry of discussion on this post! 🙂 ).

          What you highlight in your response (and has come up in others) is that we don’t all share the same notion of what it is a person has signed onto when they decide to do genealogy. I “excuse [them] from minimal expectations” because I don’t think choosing a hobby should come with any expectations other than personal goals.

          To your point, I sure would prefer that they advance to the point where they want more!

          • Tammy, you write “I ‘excuse [them] from minimal expectations’ because I don’t think choosing a hobby should come with any expectations other than personal goals.”

            It should if the hobby involves making public claims of fact.

            Let’s use another example: amateur astronomers who discover comets. It’s a hobby, isn’t it? Do you think that it would be ok if those astronomers were careless about making claims as to their discoveries? Lots of false alarms? Or would you want a minimal expectation that the hobbyist astronomer would use professional standards before announcing that they had discovered a new comet?

  5. I’ve read this post several times now, and am still struggling with how to respond. As someone who would definitely be considered a “hobbyist” I don’t identify with any of the traits you want to “defend” for me. However I know I’m not a professional so that seems to be the only slot available. I would rather put myself in Randy Seaver’s camp of wanting to be a life-long learner.

    I have always found the truly professional genealogists that I’ve had the privilege to meet to be helpful and more than that – they are gracious about it. They have never chided me for my lack of knowledge but simply helped me.

    I think the part that disturbs me the most is the idea that genealogy can EITHER be fun or adhere to standards. Yes, as a hobbyist I want to have fun ~ I wouldn’t be spending my precious free time doing this if I didn’t find it to be fun. For me though, and so many other hobbyist-genealogists that I know, learning IS fun.

    I know that I will never publish anything in a scholarly journal but that shouldn’t immediately lump me in with “the 99.87% of hobbyists who don’t care about standards…” I would even argue that the number of people who truly don’t care about standard is no where near that number.

    • Hi, Diana! Thanks for taking the time to consider my arguments so thoughtfully!

      I definitely see that my reliance on the industry analysis isn’t jiving with how most of the community sees things. For what it’s worth, by your description you’re probably what is termed as one of the 10MM “genealogists,” the tier that sits between experts and hobbyists. 🙂 Even if all of these genealogists are as standards-aware as you, that’s still 2.7% of the pie.

      I think one of the problems is that there is a difference between trying one’s best to do good work, and being aware of what the experts have defined as good work. I agree with your argument that “the number of people who don’t care about standards is nowhere near that number.” But what standards do they think they are following, and are they actually the best practices? If nothing else, I wanted to convey in my article that most hobbyists really believe they are doing solid work within the limited time and effort they allocated to this pursuit.

  6. Two quick thoughts:

    Everyone who is or aspires to be an expert has been a hobbyist, and has experienced more meaning once they figured out how to do genealogy better.

    The distinction between wanting to find out the truth and wanting to make meaning of it will not hold up. The two are intertwined. Most people find it more meaningful to identify and learn stories about someone they *know* was their ancestor.

    • Thanks, Harold, for your thoughts. I 100% agree with you and wish that after introducing the science vs. art spectrum, I had spent less time defining the extremes within genealogy and more time elaborating on what I meant when I wrote, “the relative priorities of truth and meaning amongst all their genealogical goals look very different.” Of course you are right that most practitioners care about both, just to different degrees. I appreciate that your comment gave me the opportunity to express myself slightly better. 🙂

  7. Tammy, I am really intrigued by your “market research for the industry”. I have studied empirical data and statistics for genealogy as a field and genealogy as a business for about 4 years now. Would you be willing to share some of the research you have acquired about the genealogy industry whether through studies, surveys, or alternatives? I am sure others would appreciate reading about it and perhaps it would help support your definitions.

    • I know this is going to sound all kinds of suspicious, but the bulk of what you’d find interesting came from internal decks that I should have never been given access to in the first place… so I apologize that other than Inflection presentation from RootsTech that I mentioned, I am unable to source the rest publicly. Again, I know this sounds fishy. I’ve also conducted user interviews as part of developing Treelines, but the sample size is pretty meaningless for a conversation like this… enough to capture/confirm sentiments, but not the magnitude.

      Not to turn the question around, but has your research led to different conclusions? I would surely be interested in knowing if I’m off-base (so would everyone else here!). If you prefer, you can email me at tammy at treelines dot com. Thanks!

      • Has my research led to different conclusions? I would say it depends. There are different surveys provided by the genealogy industry such as Ancestry and now Inflection that seem at face value to support your conclusions. If you dig a little deeper, some issues come up. In 2007, Ancestry published a survey stating that 73% of 18-24 year old, 77% of 35-54 year old, and 73% of 55+ were interested in learning about their family history. Not stated was how many individuals of specific age ranges were surveyed or if the survey was done completely online or not. If the survey was done completely online that would account for the high number of individuals in the younger age range. I have been in museums, archives, and libraries for 8 years and can add that there is still a large older demographic that does not do “the computer” but are highly involved in genealogy in various ways. Obviously these people were not included in the 2007 survey rendering the survey slightly skewed.
        In questioning the infographic by Inflection – how do they know 390.5 people do genealogy? Obviously they did not poll so many people so the question I would have is what they based that number on – what was the algorithm or formula? How did they determine who was an expert and who was not? Until those details are disclosed publicly the survey loses its meaning. As another example, I was called by a New York market firm this week to answer a poll about genealogy databases in libraries. Most of the questions were about Ancestry and what vendor I prefer to work with the most. It would have been great if they would have asked how how many of the books and microfilm are used too.

        Since many of these surveys focus on the genealogy industry via the big database companies that are selling a product geared toward consumers, they miss the mark when it comes to providing information about the spectrum of genealogists, from hobbyist to professional and everyone in between, that you are blogging about. They do not provide the evidence based data to support your definitions.

        There are much more robust studies provided by librarians and archivists that seem to go unnoticed. To be honest, we are not a very vocal group as a whole so that probably has something to do with it. These studies indicate themes among genealogists of diverse backgrounds (not just online): genealogists use informal sources, genealogists learn in stages, genealogists learn through educational engagement, genealogists organize through social networks. Not once in any of these studies was there a mention of designations such hobbyist or professional either by a group of people or self-designated. These studies were accomplished through group sessions, interviews, polls, and surveys and were completed to offer insight on how genealogists research in order for librarians and archivists to provide better services. No product was being sold. Studies were submitted to Independent Review Boards to ensure quality of the controlled variables and privacy of participants. In other words, the studies were thorough.

        Here are some of the studies/surveys that I have on hand:

        Duff, Wendy M. and Catherine A. Johnson. “Where Is the List with All the Names? Information-Seeking Behavior of Genealogists.” The American Archivist 66(2003): 79-95.

        McKay, Aprille Cooke. “Genealogists and Records: Preservation, Advocacy, and Politics.” Archival Issues 27(2002)23-33.

        Yakel, Elizabeth and Deborah A. Torres. “Genealogists as a “Community of Records”.” The American Archivist 76(2007):93-113

        Yakel, Elizabeth. “Listening to Users.” Archival Issues 26(2002): 111-127.

        There are similar studies in another journal, Archivaria, that I can’t recall off the top of my head.

        Hopefully, I will be adding to this list sometime this year as I am planning to launch a study of my own. So there will be more to add later.

  8. Tammy, not being able to share your research data from unknown and unnamed source(s) may not be suspicious but it reinforces what many of us are saying about publishing genealogy with badly done or missing sources.

    How can others decide for themselves if a work has merit if they cannot look at the source(s) to determine their accuracy *and* their validity?

    Citing an anonymous source doesn’t give credibility to the conclusions drawn from that source.

    • I hear you, but I felt it better to be honest than to ignore the question altogether or dissemble. (Anyway, I also come from the media world where anonymous sources are permitted if handled in an appropriate way. I know the two worlds don’t operate the same, but both have shaped me. I meant well and did my best to argue fairly under my constraints.)

      Despite, yes, my semi-sourced conclusions, we’re all in this community together, attending conferences, classes, societies meetings, &c., and we also exist in the wider world, where some discount what we do, and others claim to share our interests, but act on them in a very different way. My hope was that with this range of experience, readers could connect their own personal experiences to what I wrote.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts; yours is definitely one comment I wish I had a better response for! 🙂

  9. I found the link to this on facebook and have read it and it’s comments with great interest. WOW, what a diverse group of folks we are! That is what I love about us. What I don’t like about our community is the great divide. Is genealogy fun for a hobbyist? I hope so! Is genealogy fun for a professional? I hope so! What would make genealogy NOT fun? The first answer that pops in my head would be when someone else makes it no fun. It’s when one person looks down on another, makes someone feel unfairly judged or unwanted or not appreciated or accepted, that things loose their “fun” value. I would like to know when, where, why, and how this great divide was born in our family? And I’m not speaking about the majority of people in the genealogy community – because MOST people are fun, supportive, helpful, and just great folks to know. I’m speaking about a few who poo-poo others and make others feel like there has to be a better sandbox to play in than the one belonging to the genealogy family. If anyone feels that a newbie or hobbyist or even a pro is doing work that doesn’t meet someone’s personal standards, you do not motivate them to increase their skill set by making them feel like worthless slime, and I am sad to say, there are a few in our sandbox who do that and no matter how many times the subject gets brought up, they refuse to see the light. Different strokes for different folks, and I see no harm in letting people learn and grow when they are ready to do so. It is a beautiful day here in northern Minnesota and as far as I can tell, the sky is NOT falling. The harm that some fear in my opinion is not as great as the fear or the attit

    • Skip writes: “If anyone feels that a newbie or hobbyist or even a pro is doing work that doesn’t meet someone’s personal standards…”. It’s probably a good thing that the standards we talk about aren’t personal standards. They are standards that have been an integral part of genealogy long before any of us were doing genealogy.

      • Point well taken, Drew! Yes, we have Genealogy Standards, and they are our best tool to strive for. I very much agree with you. Do you hear a “but” coming????? LOL 🙂 I was not doing a good job of properly wording my comments, by “personal standards” I’m referring to the divide in our community, where people really get stuck on their personal view of “right” or “wrong” or what genealogy should be, when it is many things to many people. I strongly object when people think their “right” is the only “right” and everyone else is “wrong”.

        I loved your reference to the garden. It is true that it would be hard to imagine that anyone would find it fun to just watch their flowers die. But there are many ways to get satisfaction and find fun in making flowers grow. Some will read books, some will google, some will grow what their mothers grew, and some will learn by doing – for the shear joy of experimenting and facing the challenge all on their own to find out what grows best in what soil in what light with certain amounts of water. Each of the methods will be fun for different types of people. They might all experience success or something could happen to make any or all of them fail. But in doing and learning in their own way at their own pace, they can each find that which brings them the most joy.

        I still beat the drum I have always beat on, it is how we all treat each other that is going to have the greatest impact on growing or killing genealogy. 🙂

        • Skip, when you say “genealogy is many things to many people”, then yes, it is, if you mean that people are motivated to engage in genealogy for many different reasons (to plan a reunion, to join a lineage society, to research their family medical history, to learn about history, to learn something about themselves, to solve puzzles, and so forth).

          But it can’t be *everything* and *anything*. At some point, it must stop being genealogy and become something else, or otherwise the term “genealogy” loses *all* meaning.

          And the one thing that *all* aspects of genealogy share is that they are about establishing relationships (parent to child, sibling to sibling, spouse to spouse), whether those are biological or legal or some other variation. It may involve all kinds of other things, too (family stories, photographs, historical context, and much more), but at its heart, it is still about establishing the relationships. And if those relationships cannot be established with evidence to justify the conclusion, then it all falls apart. It may be wishful thinking, but it isn’t genealogy. It simply doesn’t qualify under any reasonable definition of the term.

          Yes, there are many ways to learn how to be a good flower gardener, and many ways to practice the art of gardening (some traditional, some scientific, some a mixture of the two). But a reasonable person will still judge a gardener based upon the health and beauty of their garden.

        • Skip —

          You wrote, “I’m speaking about a few who poo-poo others and make others feel like there has to be a better sandbox to play in than the one belonging to the genealogy family.”

          This issue comes up at least once a year. Someone always makes this vague statement. Who are these people? I have never met them myself, but since my experience is limited I have repeatedly asked for specific examples. No one has ever provided one. Can you?


  10. attitude of some towards others. Thank-you for writing this Tammy. I always appreciate when this topic is brought to the surface and we think about it and talk about it. 🙂
    P.S. I sure can tell I’m not used to typing on a laptop keyboard. I keep hitting the touch pad……..

    • Thanks for your kind words, Skip! I am in agreement with much of what you wrote (except for the part about not being used to laptop keyboards 🙂 ). “I see no harm in letting people learn and grow when they are ready to do so” — well said!

  11. Whenever I make a mistake and someone points it out, I have three choices: (1) hug my mistake close and lash out at the critic, (2) shrug my shoulders and ignore it, or (3) learn better. Of course in genealogy we want to minimize the #1 responses. But there will always be some. Why should that handful of responses dictate that we keep quiet about standards, and pretend that name collecting is just as valuable as finding out the truth about the past?

  12. Tammy, what a thoughtful, interesting blog post. I think I operate somewhere in the gray area between a hobbyist and a professional – I help point people to education for the most part and write about my trials and tribulations in figuring out genealogy on my blog. I also volunteer for genealogy organizations, trying to help people find the right proofs and the get content out there.

    I think the thing about the “two camps” idea that bothers me the most is that, well, the horse and the cart are already out. There’s really no way to “pull back” on all of the information that is already out there, whether people like it or not. And at this point, the argument is starting to sound like sour grapes. Folks, arguing about what sucks more isn’t going to change the fact that there are literally millions of people who are interested in genealogy and need help.

    I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to (at least in the hundreds, if not a thousand or more) who I’ve sat down and explained some common sense ways to help others as well as themselves when doing their genealogy. At a minimum, we need some things about each piece of information (i.e. Did it come from your mom, FamilySearch, a census record, a photo, etc? If it came from somewhere other than the fam, where can someone else find it?) and that at the maximum, we need people following strict APA or MLA format citations and the attribution standards set out in the GPS. For the crew that’s doing this as a casual hobby, that standard gets us way more information than we have now. For the folks in the middle, we can intervene with education (see: GenWeb, Genealogy Trails, Ancestry, WFT,, FindmyPast, Legacy Family Tree, ISGS, SCGS, FamilySearch, FHCs, and many local gen societies, etc. that are providing this for a reasonable fee or for free) to help them understand which group they are in and what they can do if they want to make sure that their John Smith is the correct John Smith.

    In the end, I think there are three ways that we can address this problem: 1, have the experts posting in the same sandbox as everyone else but in the highest quality possible. We need people to point to for inspiration for the middle group of genealogists who want to elevate their work from hobby to excellence. 2, expand the best education out there. Work with Rootstech, FamilySeach, Ancestry, GenWeb, etc. to help push common sense education that anyone can understand to get that genealogy isn’t about names and dates, its about history and people and life. 3, Work to help people get the best quality information out there. Helping them get to high quality research sites, helping them get to the right experts in a niche (i.e. Judy Russell for law research, Elizabeth Shown Mills work for sourcing help, Gene Williams for criminal research, Thomas MacEntee for technology, etc.).

    • Thanks for your response, Concetta! I love, love, love that you took the time to share some constructive ideas about how to get all kinds of genealogists working better together. I like your idea of having a minimum standard for simplified sourcing that fits the casual hobbyist, and I agree that working with the industry players to help advance this reasonable approach is likeliest to reach the biggest possible audience. You’ve given me a lot of food for thought — much appreciated!

  13. @Drew Smith, I think we broke the nesting. Somehow this reply didn’t get through last night.

    Re: the bucket list. These folks do it because they see it as something they have to do. They go onto Ancestry, they find the names they think are right, and then they’re done. They’re never going to be permanent members of our hobby, and they never care about the corrections. Most of them don’t even stop to think about if its the right person, or if 2 people with the same name could have lived in the same town. If you talk to them about citations and rules, and proofs, they look at you like a deer in the headlights. It doesn’t matter to them, so they don’t do it. Yet their “research” remains out in the public, via FSFT or Ancestry, and the mistakes that they make are virally reproduced.

  14. Tammy,
    I love your post. I think it is well articulated and on target. I’m also impressed with your kind responses to people with different opinions. Interestingly, though your sources are anonymous, nobody else has offered any sources to support counter arguments. So we seem to have anonymous source vs opinion. It is probably easier for me to accept your anonymous sources because I have worked for multiple companies that have conducted this type of research and the outcome has always substantiated your perspective. So are two anonymous sources (mine and yours) better than many opinions? 🙂

    • Thanks for your kind words, Dan! Truly appreciated.

      To your last question, as I wrote in another reply, there is definitely an echo-chamber effect going on. Many of the experts are just not talking to the kind of hobbyists you and I (and the data) know to be the vast majority. If one only meets the otherwise rare hobbyists who want to climb the ladder towards greater expertise, one might mistakenly assume that that all hobbyists strive for such rigor. If only, right?! 🙂

      A sort of corollary to the echo-chamber effect is the common issue of disbelieving surveys that don’t fit with one’s own observations, no matter how unbiased or statistically sound (i.e. the whole controversy over how Nate Silver modeled his predictions (accurately, it turned out) for the 2012 elections). You and I believe the Inflection data because our own observations fit its model. But I suspect for those who only know the 0.13% or the 2.7%, the Inflection results seem impossible. How can the genealogy world mostly run counter to one’s observations? Especially when one has met so many seemingly-different kinds of participants? &c. Alas, polls done correctly do not lie, however strange one may find their determinations…

      …though, to that point, a few of the replies above suggest that some folks want to evaluate the unattributed data for themselves to decide if my sources are credible and their conclusions soundly reasoned. I’m OK if they don’t take my word that my data meets both criteria. I’m just some random blogger! But as you said, you trust me because you’ve seen what I’ve seen and know it is legit.

      Thanks again for the support — and esp. for sharing it publicly. (That nearly everyone else who agreed with me said so privately certainly points to an extremely unhealthy dynamic in our community, alas.)

  15. I don’t normally respond to these types of conversations. Instead, I sit back and learn from the debate. However, in this instance, I can see both sides of this coin.
    I consider myself a hobbyist that has always had the desire to learn more and educate myself. I have always had the desire to do things “correctly” and that my work be as accurate as possible. Is my work correct and as accurate as possible? Sadly, no.
    Why? Because I have had to learn along the way. And you only get out of something the effort you put in. Because of this, I understand where Tammy is coming from with this article. At least, my take on it. There are many people that will just never put in that level of effort.
    Is is ever going to be acceptable to professionals or even hobbyists like myself and all those in that run the gamut in-between that do care about accuracy on any level for others to publish sub-par, non-sourced, copied from others material. NO.
    Can we change it? Yes and no.
    What can you do? What you are already doing. Striving to educate people. Putting educational information out there. Those that want to learn, will learn. Those that don’t, won’t. It’s really as simple as that.
    If the information is out there, people that don’t already have the knowledge that they are spreading inaccurate information will learn there are better ways. This is my own personal experience. I have realized things I have done wrong. Things I could have done better. Things I wish I had known from the beginning. Things that are flat out embarrassing (now) that I did or didn’t do in the first place. As I result, I cared enough to take my online trees down and work on correcting them privately. Will everyone care enough to do this? To go back and put in the effort to do this? Don’t count on it.
    To my mind, those are the hobbyists Tammy is referring to. You won’t change them. They don’t care on the level you want them to and never will. They have no desire to put in the effort you would like for them to, so leave them be.
    Instead, do what you can to educate all of those that will listen. That do care. That do want to learn. And hopefully, the minority will eventually become the majority.
    I also agree that the spread of inaccurate information is largely caused by the ease with which to publish online trees that companies like Ancestry promote.
    I always used my genealogy software as a placeholder for information I came across whether is was accurate and sourced or something I needed to look into further, mainly just to have easy access to it and keep track of relationships and possible relationships. Privately, that was fine. However, once I uploaded the tree online (in an effort to find others researching the same lines), all of the un-sourced, un-documented, un-researched information included in my database also became public that some took as “fact” and spread like wildfire. People couldn’t see my notes. Was that my intent? Certainly not. Now I know better. I wish I had known better before I did it. That tree was online for years before I know better. With education others will know better as well, hopefully before they make the same mistakes. Unfortunately, there will always be those that just won’t care.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, April. You said it very well — let’s acknowledge there will always be those who don’t care and focus on those who will listen. You sound like a wonderful example of someone who took all the learning opportunities to improve her work.

  16. Great discussion, however I have to say I’m unclear what the original message is?

    Is it that there are a lot of people — up to 350 million (since the entire US population right now is less than 318 million you must be including other countries in this “market size”?) casual users — who are interested in some “thing” having to do with family history.

    But 99.87% do not (currently) care about genealogy – defined as “a record or account of the ancestry and descent of a person, family, group, etc. ?”

    If so, that’s probably true. Will those 350 million people worldwide spend a lot of time and/or money on their “family history”? I would say, based on my experience with my friends and family, “doubtful.”

    Sure, many people are interested in family matters. Family history, and even “genealogy”, is a great conversation starter. A lot of people enjoyed “Who Do You Think You Are” and Henry Louis Gates’ PBS programs. Most people recognize learning and discovering family history is fun and meaningful, a universal human endeavor.

    Should the people we identify as our progenitors be accurate? Well, why not? Would the people who were profiled on “Who Do You Think You Are” have been satisfied as long as the stories were still interesting, even they weren’t really their family?

    I’m not so sure there is this chasm that I think your post implies. If only a very small percentage thinks that doing research and “proving” kinship — things that a genealogist would do — is meaningful, my take is why not just leave them (the genealogists) be? I can’t imagine the 350 million casual “users” really care that genealogists regard their public trees, un-sourced, as “clues” rather than facts?

    Again, it was an interesting discussion. And I’m personally very intrigued with your Timelines product…which I only found via a link for the Heartbleed security flaw post affecting “genealogy” sites.

    Guess that’s pretty effective marketing! Kudos.

    • Thanks for reading, Mary! The 350MM casual users are not the same as the 99.87% I refer to — that percentage includes both the “genealogist” and “hobbyist” slices of the pie chart in my post. Your point that the 350MM are unlikely to spend a lot of time or money on their hobby is very true, but I disagree that “doing research and ‘proving’ kinship” aren’t meaningful to them. As I’ve tried to argue in some of my previous replies, I believe that these genealogy-like activities are, just that they lack the knowledge and experience to know that their work falls short of the standards set by the experts.

      That said, I hesitate to point out our small point of disagreement, since you are one of the few who will publicly admit to agreeing with my argument that we should leave these folks alone! 🙂 (And yes, to your question, that is my message.)

      Thanks again for reading, and esp. for your interest in the larger Treelines product I’ve built! Very much appreciated!

  17. Actually, I meant let the “expert” genealogists be , not the hobbyist family historians.

    Our “experts” serve a very useful and valuable purpose, as I am now realize, after 12+years as a “hobbyist” doing many of the very enjoyable things that we 99.87% do.

    My personal experience with these experts is that they are most welcoming, and inspiring, of all in the entire pie chart. The most accomplished will all say they’ve made all the mistakes we make, so they are not some ivory towered academics.

    We owe them more than disdain for patiently helping us all be better in tracing our lines.

    • Ahh, important clarification! 🙂 I apologize if it seemed to you that I was showing any disdain (to use your word) for the experts. I respect their work and hoped only to make recommendations grounded in market research of how best to channel their work so users of all levels of interest/expertise can share the same sandbox. As you wrote, it is “doubtful” that “those 350 MM people worldwide [will] spend a lot of time and/or money on their ‘family history’.” So, all I’m saying is: let’s focus on areas where productive results are less in doubt! 🙂

  18. Pingback: The Purposes of the Family Tree | FFT Blog