Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Genealogy: Is segregation okay, or should we all play in the same sandbox?

First off, why yes, the title does have strong language. I have to admit, I get pretty riled up at some of the topics going around the genealogy community as of late. See Tammy Hepps' "Is Genealogy a Hobby?" and James Tanner's "Is Genealogy a Hobby?" and several posts on Drew Smith's blog. I apologize in advance, this may get a little long.

The latest is "Hobbyists vs. Professionals". If you don't do your genealogy to at least the GPS you're not a genealogist and you're not doing genealogy. (With "Professional" standing in for anyone who does give a whit about sourcing and has some idea of attribution, copyright, and publishing, and "Hobbyist" standing in for the folks who have more fun making discoveries than documenting them).

To all the people that say they are on either side of this - I want you to go volunteer for a month to help people do their genealogy at their FHC, on GenWeb, etc. and then come back to this issue.

As someone who strongly believes in education and in the value of having a floor of knowledge, I think that we need to work harder as genealogists to bring the two camps together. On the other hand, there are always going to be some people who do not care about sourcing nor do they care about genealogy in general. They are there to do their genealogy because it was put on their list of things to do before they die. They're not doing it for the love of the puzzle, for the love of finding out the truth about their ancestry, or the joy of finding a long forgotten ancestor in a book from the 1700s.

In the above diagram, we see the three groups - the genealogy, the professionals, and the hobbyists.

A lot of folks seem to be arguing that the way things "should" work is that professionals have an exclusive hold on the genealogy world. The "hobbyists" get to dabble and should be dismissed. 

The problem with this? The cart and the horse have already left. The train's out of the station. The car is done and left the house. 

The Internet's democratizing effect happened in genealogy just like every other hobby and industry. I think some people are STILL bitter over that, and it happened 20 years ago now. So it made genealogy something that everyone can do. And now Ancestry has capitalized on this, telling everyone it is fun and easy (one of the words that should be banned from any hobby) to do genealogy:

No, I do not believe that you can point and click to your genealogy. But I do think we can help the folks who DO think this without having to get into the finer details of APA formatting and perfect citations. 

If you ask me, this is what the world of genealogy really looks like. Genealogy has equal interaction with both hobbyists and professionals. We play in the same sandbox. We NEED the professionals in order to set the bar of what the mid-ground folks aspire to. They inspire the people that grow out of being a hobbyist (perhaps, as a child) and into the professional category through education.

I wrote this on Tammy's blog, but I believe it needs saying again. We need to do three things:

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, FamilySearch, 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.).

By pointing folks strongly at simple, easy to understand education in every form from emails to message boards to videos and articles, we can make a floor for folks to understand that at a minimum, their tree needs to say where they got their information and from whom. It may be just "Mom downloaded this" but that helps ALL of the folks in all of the camps figure out how to judge the evidence in front of them. What we could strive for is "US Census, 1880, Port Sanilac, Sanilac, Michigan" and then we can applaud them for when they make a full citation and include a link or image. 

From there, you can progressively raise the floor until it starts to get closer and closer to the ceiling of what we want to see. Folks will always be out in the fringe of that hobbyist category, but their data will start falling further and further into the fringe, and the good stuff will start to come closer to what we want to see. Folks will always be on the upper fringe of the Professional category as well, and that's okay. We need idols like them to help all of us in the middle to understand the how and the what of what we are doing. 

But we cannot help people if we are arguing constantly of what camp people are in, and how we can exclude everyone else. Multiple examples of segregation over the years have proved the system doesn't work. Education has time and time again proven that it can raise people off the floor and towards the ceiling. We need to focus everyone's efforts on making the floor, then starting to raise it so that the overall quality of genealogy in general will be as high as we want to see when the innovations of the common family tree and the common DNA tree start to converge (a topic for another day).

I doubt many people will read this article all the way through (my genealogy articles always seem to lag far behind the crafting ones in terms of reader numbers), but I hope it inspires the folks who are in a position to help influence this silly segregation and bring our genealogy community together. 

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