Monday, January 14, 2013

How to Make Genealogy a Respectable Branch of History

     James Tanner recently wrote a blog for Genealogy’s Star entitled “History vs. Genealogy?” In it he asks: “[A]ren't genealogy and history really the same thing simply with a different focus?”
     However, Mr. Tanner failed to address his thesis statement, focusing, instead, on a comparison of the requirements for degrees in history and genealogy at two universities.
     So let me reply to Mr. Tanner’s question. Are genealogy and history really the same thing? As a former college history professor and current family historian I can confidently reply: “Yes. Yes they are.” 
     Genealogy is simply subset of history, like Medieval history or Native American history or WWII history. When genealogical research and writing is done well it is an excellent example of history that is relevant to its readers in a way that most history can never be. A story about your family? How can you go wrong with that as your subject matter?
     In addition I can say that both professions – historian and genealogist - are honorable. Both professions require similar skill sets. Both professions involve researching, examining sources, recording and documenting facts, postulating cause and effect, verifying the connection, and most importantly, telling the story once it has been discovered. As you can see, the major difference is simply the area of specialization.
     Before I go further I want to say that there are many excellent family historians/genealogists out there. They take their craft seriously. They document every fact religiously. They prefer originals when they can get them, are happy when a digital copy is available, and will settle, grudgingly for a transcript – for now until they can get the real thing. They keep track of where they search. Their computer bookmarks for “Genealogy” are legion. They search high and low, write letters and emails, and cajole both kind-hearted and stony-hearted clerks of court to look for “just one more record.” They never, ever copy someone else’s tree.
     These people are the cream of the crop in the genealogical world. Some are professionals who help out folks for a living. Some are amateurs who are content to seriously and studiously craft their luxurious family tree. I salute these men and women for their dedication and professionalism.
     Sadly, these good people are not the majority, or if they are, they are the silent majority in the field of family history/genealogy. Too many of the people who plop their trees on various websites and online locations don’t have a clue what they are doing. And it appears that they really don’t care, either.
     In the genealogical world it is considered, well, not “perfectly acceptable” but “mostly okay” to lift entire twigs, branches, and limbs from someone else’s tree to attach to our own. Yes, there are some of us who cringe when we are presented with a tree which has for its only source “Ancestry Family Tree.” But by-and-large this wholesale thievery is simply shrugged off.
     It seems that the only time this form of plagiarism catches the attention of the average person is when it is discovered that the tree you blithely copied and pasted into you own was full of foolish errors and silly mistakes. Dad was born 15 years after Junior was born. Granny died at the ripe old age of 7, the mother of 16 children. Meanwhile gramps died in 1947, 157 years old to the day. People are born in Texas, marry in New York, have four children in South Carolina, China, Seattle, and Green Bay and they have the obituary to prove that Dad worked for 40 years at the same Ford factory in Wilmington, Delaware.
     If someone wrote that batch of nonsense,  slapped it on a website, and called it history the feeding frenzy would look like piranhas on a lame cow stuck in a mud hole. 
     Do you remember the enormous fuss when noted historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin were accused of plagiarism? They were immediately and publicly called on it. Folks wrote about it, talked about it, debated it, and vilified them for lifting from the work of others.
     Mr. Ambrose and Ms. Goodwin weren’t given a pass. No one said, “well, it’s still a good story” or “they know better than I do what is correct.” They were castigated on NPR, in the New Yorker, and on the evening. Historians everywhere, from tenured professors to middle school history teachers, demanded an apology, an explanation, and a correction. We jealously guard the reputation of historians and expect each person who practices history, no matter how grand their position, to adhere to the same strict standards that we all learned back in school.
     But if it’s a genealogical version of the same thing we just shrug and walk away. 
    It is because family history/genealogy refuses to take itself seriously and hold its practitioners to the same standards as the others historical fields that family history/genealogy is looked down on by the rest of the historical community. 
     So what do we do about it? How do we make the folks in their ivory towers of historical academia take us seriously? 

#1 We have to take ourselves seriously.
I am not a proponent of stacking a pile of letters after your name. It’s no different in genealogy than it is in academics – the guy with the most letters after his (or her) name is either unsure that they are competent to do the work therefore they attempt to shore up their confidence with the impressive rows on undecipherable letters after their name, or else they are so impressed with how well-edjumacated they are that they will probably be insufferable to work with. 
But while I don’t think it matters a hill of beans if you are “certified” or not, it does matter that you are taking courses and webinars to learn what it going on and what is out there in the vast continuum that is the internet. It also matters that you are reading up on your subject, whether via journals, blogs, books, or (ideally) all three.

Every day there are more resources, more documents, and more information available to us, thanks to the internet. But the more that is added the more we need to learn what is where and how to access it. There are new computer programs and technological gadgets to assist us in retrieving, storing, and using the information we acquire. There is always something new to be learned and we should take the time to learn something new. 
This is true whether you are a “professional” or an “amateur.” If you aren’t learning and growing you are stagnating and dying.[1]

#2 We need to hold ourselves, individually and as a group, to the highest standards.
No more copying the work of others. This is simple, but for some folks it will be like asking a crack addict to go cold turkey. The good news is that this kind of cold turkey won’t make you sweaty and nauseous. Well, maybe it will, if coming clean means you have to ditch half of your pseudo-research and start over. But as difficult as it may be to delete entire generations on your family tree, knowing with absolute confident certainty that each person belongs on your tree is extremely satisfying. 
Start reading each document fully and completely before you add it to your sources. What does this particular document tell you? Why senselessly add documents just because they are there? Add each fact to your tree as appropriate. There is nothing uglier than senseless hoarding.

Ask yourself “Could I defend this statement in court? Do I have the evidence to back up my assertion?” If not, keep looking for the proof you need. And, like a good detective, look at all of the evidence. No cherry-picking while you judiciously ignore the things that don’t add up or mess up your beautifully laid out genealogy. “Just the facts” should be your mantra. 
#3 We need to call people on it when they are doing silly genealogy. 

I have written about this before and I can’t stress it enough. You don’t have to appoint yourself the police-of-everything-you-see-wrong, but you should let folks who claim kinship with you know when they are out of line. 
Start out by asking them what sources they have for that fact. Who knows? They might have some documents you didn’t know existed. But if they tell you “I got it from a tree I found” and you have an actual document which proves you are right, do them and everyone else in your extended family tree a favor and share your info (and your document!) and explain how you know that your information is correct. 
#4 When you hire a professional make sure they actually know what they are doing. 

Anyone can call themselves a genealogist and hang out their shingle. That no more makes you a genealogist than changing my surname to “Middleton” makes me the Duchess of Cambridge.
Sadly, there are far too many genealogists out there who call themselves “professional” and yet believe every tree they find online is 100% accurate. I know this because they come to me to break down that brick wall they can’t work around. Of course not. You have the wrong name for the grandmother! And I don’t care if it did come from a tree you found at Ancestry or on FamilySearch. It still has no sources to verify anything on it. 
You wouldn’t hire a dentist who” just liked teeth” but had no experience or training in dentistry. Then why in the world would you consider hiring a family historian whose only credential is they “like genealogy”? Look for someone who has some background in both history and genealogy. Ask to see a sample of their work. Ask for a calendar of documents from that same example of their work. Do they know what they are doing?
#5 Share your knowledge with others. 

Back in the day we wrote books and journal articles. If we believed that we had some knowledge that could be useful to others, we wrote about it so that those “others” could learn. 
Today there are blogs and seminars and good old email. Use them. Share your knowledge and experience with those who are starting out, or those who want to learn. Write a blog. Teach a webinar. Send an email to someone whose tree has gone astray due to poor research or copying.

Offer to teach a class at your local community college or community center. Call it “Genealogy 101” and teach these new learners how to successfully do their own research and the rewarding feeling of knowing that every person on their tree is the right person.

     It isn’t difficult to make genealogy a legitimate historical field of study - it simply takes time, and we are past masters at working hard for a long time in order to gain a little more. But as long as we are willing to accept bad practices in ourselves and others, as long as we prefer to whine that people don’t take us seriously and then refuse to act like serious historians, we will remain relegated to the level of hobbyists and rank amateurs messing in things we don’t understand.
     What do you say? Are history and genealogy the same thing? Is there another way to make genealogy a more “respectable” branch of historical research? 

[1] Check out my website or Facebook page for a list of upcoming FREE webinars which History & Heritage will be offering in conjunction with our partner Rootsonomy.

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