Thursday, November 29, 2012

Some People Just Aren’t Cut Out for Genealogy Research

Well if the last post didn't get me into trouble, I'm sure this one will (if you haven’t read it, you probably should do so before reading this one).  It’s sort of a continuation of the conversation, but I will discuss what I think the bigger issue really is, in my opinion.  While most of the offensive and emotional material was stripped from my last post, the same cannot be said for this post, but I'm prepared for the "hate mail," so bring it on!

Here is part of what I said in my last post:

The gist of Sharon's article was the there is too much misinformation published by "drive-by genealogists," who "believe the television ads about how easy it is to click on a few links and find your entire family."  In other words, the newbies don't know what they're doing and publish a bunch of junk.

thinkAnd I agree that there is a bunch of crap out there, both on and offline.  While Sharon and I disagree about when this occurs during the course of a beginner’s journey, I really believe there is a bigger issue in play than just “drive-by genealogists” or beginners.  If you read the title of this post, then you probably know where I’m going with this—some people just aren’t cut out for genealogy research.

What I'm getting at here is that there are too many people out there that really have no clue what they're doing when it comes to genealogical research. Yep, I said it!  But, I'll admit, I was one of them years ago. However, I had enough common sense to realize this and I sought out learning opportunities to understand genealogy research practices, standards, methodology; how to use certain records; where to find said records; etc.  I am a researcher and analyst by trade and knew that I just needed a little help to get me going in this new land of unfamiliar territory.

Researchers by trade or not, genealogists typically are good at critical thinking and therefore can figure out how to research either by stumbling along or seeking out some help or a combination of both approached.  They are problem-solvers, love the challenge of a puzzle, and are good at collecting and, more importantly, analyzingnoose information.  Most can recognize when there is a gap in their knowledge and they look for ways to bridge that gap.

Unfortunately, there are people that simply do not have the aptitude for research of any kind, not just genealogy. (Yes, I feel the noose tightening.)  And I hate to sound even more negative, but I don’t think analytical skills can be learned—your brain either functions that way, or it doesn’t. 

I'm a believer in the concept of left-brain versus right-brain. In theory, good researchers are those who are "left-brained." They are more methodical, logical, and analytical, as opposed to those considered "right-brained," which are typically the creative, artistic, and intuitive types.  In other words, left-brainers and right-brainers think differently, learn differently, and generally see the world differently. 

But, just because someone is predominantly right-brained, doesn’t mean they lack analytical skills altogether.  It could however mean that those skills are basic and that advanced research and methodology will be a struggle for them.

Okay, so now that I have alienated the entire right-brained population, let me just state:  this is not to say that right-brainers can't pursue genealogy.  They just need to understand that they have a skillset that usually doesn’t include much in the way of analytical skills. They have a creative mind, so they need to use that creativity to figure out how to make genealogy work for them.  Maybe they're good at finding information but not analyzing it or putting it together with other information to draw a conclusion. They need to find someone with the analytical gene to help them out, perhaps a family member, a friend, a volunteer at the local genealogical/historical society, a librarian, or a professional genealogist.

Now, don’t go thinking that I’m saying that right-brainers can’t be genealogists and have to find someone else to do the work for them.  I’m also not saying that left-brainers are superior in the field.  In defense of right-brainers, they are the ones who can see the bigger picture.  Even though they may struggle with analyzing individual pieces of information and putting it together themselves, they are usually well-suited for finding holes in the conclusion.  They may not be able to say what’s missing or how to fix it, but they just intuitively know something’s awry and the conclusion is not making total sense.   And let’s face it, the creative types do have a huge advantage when it comes to genealogy—they're the one's that can help tell the family story in an engaging way, as opposed to the left-brainers and their “just the facts” approach.

This is why I think collaboration in genealogy is so important.  It’s sometimes the best only way to approach problem-solving on difficult research projects.  And a small team made up of both types of thinkers can really work wonders.  Everyone can pitch in and find things.  The left-brainers analyze the information and draw conclusions.  The right-brainers see something off with a conclusion.  They all discuss and brainstorm and perhaps it’s back to searching for more records.  The left-brainers re-correlate and reanalyze the information, redraw the conclusion and now everyone’s happy.  The conclusion is usually a fact-based proof argument of some sort, that isn’t really how a story should be presented outside of the scholarly area, so the right-brainers take over and create a wonderful story that is ready for public consumption.  At least this is how it would work in my fantasyland and that’s how my dream-team would function.

In other words, it takes both kinds to make the genealogy world go ‘round, at least in a perfect world, contributing in different ways.  But, I’ll say it again, some people just aren’t cut out for genealogy research.  I’m sorry, but if you are a right-brainer working in a bubble, with no analytical skills whatsoever, jumping from tree to tree without shockunderstanding what you're copying, never looking at actual records and documents (and questioning why you should) then genealogy is probably not the right fit for you.  I'm sorry, but it's these people who are perpetuating the problem of recycling bad information.  And it's likely that no amount of education in genealogy standards and methodology is going to help them.  Yes, I know, jaw on floor.  (Being an advocate for genealogy education, my head’s constantly banging against the wall, so your jaw being on the floor is a better scenario by comparison!)

And as I make such a bold statement, I'm reminded of some cousins I’ve found (through those really bad trees) that fall into this category of people who should not be doing genealogy research.  While there's no helping them with the concept of genealogy research, there have been times when they’ve held a key piece of information that I’ve needed to further my research.  I of course took the time to substantiate the information and build upon it, but without the clue I don’t know if i would have ever found it on my own...at least not as quickly. 

So even though there’s a bunch of crap out there, there could be a diamond in the rough.  And don’t forget about those cousins that led you to the diamond…they may be sitting on a diamond mine of even more information, they just don’t have the skills to know what to do with it.  But you wouldn’t know it if they didn’t make themselves known, garbage and all, through those poorly-done public trees.  Now pick your jaw up off the floor.



Kenneth R Marks said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kenneth R Marks said...

(reposted - bad link)

I have just read and re-read your post 3 times, just to make sure I understood what you are saying. Although I disagree with your reasoning and won't "go there" - here's my issue and it is summed up by an article that I wrote this morning STOP Labeling People - NOW, before I read your post.

As researchers with experience, we need to recognize that the newer researchers are intimidated as all get out by these type of articles, and many over the past year that pass judgment on them. Whether one thinks so or not, they feel bashed, stupid, and not worthy to be involved in this very rewarding endeavor.

Therefore, in my opinion, even though it might make one feel good about stating what one thinks about the capabilities of new researchers, it is dangerous.

What gives one the right to criticize these folks in what is taken as a harsh way?

What benefit is it to express these views other than to take advantage of free speech?

Is it our right to turn off a new researcher so that they stop researching because they feel that the "experts" are saying that they are doing it wrong?

In my view - this has to stop - Now.

Has anyone who reads this had a loud argument with their spouse and scared the hell out of their kids with that argument?

Well - the kids are listening and they aren't feelin too good and don't know what to do about it.

Again - this criticism has got to stop. NOW. Its serves no useful purpose.


Julie Cahill Tarr said...


I removed the comment that had the incorrect link...not sure what that was going to. Thanks for reposting the entire comment with the correct link. I will respond to you comment shortly.


Julie Cahill Tarr said...


I appreciate your comment and you make some great points...I will be sure to check out your post during my blog reading time later tonight.

You're right, it sounded harsh. I took a tongue-in-cheek approach hoping to lighten a cruddy situation, and perhaps this was not the right approach. I was just trying to make the point that not everyone can do research (any kind) it's just not their thing. Just like I can't be a mathematician, a classical pianist, or a football coach. Try as I might, I may pick up a few things, but I will never be good at any of those things because I don't have the aptitude for them.

And you're also right that my approach may be discouraging. I just felt like people needed to be aware that the research part is not as easy as some people make it seem (I'm not talking about the people who are simply collecting and preserving memories, photographs, and artifacts or those working on a health history or some other small project that doesn't require actual research). And that if they're struggling, it could be because the research part is not their forte--I also said this was OK and gave suggestions for how they can make it work and the other great ways they CAN contribute.

And perhaps I wasn't clear in my intent for writing what I wrote...I guess I never put it in context. I get very frustrated in the world of genealogy for two reasons (neither of which have to do with my brick walls). First, I get frustrated at the people who claim to be genealogists and their only contribution is a messed up tree put together by other messed up trees...and mind you some of these people offer "professional" services to others! In the former, yes, it's a matter of exploration and education and some move out of that stage...but in the latter case, yikes...that can make everyone look bad.

But the biggest frustration I have is when you see first-hand people struggling. When you are trying to help someone and they themselves are frustrated because they can't even grasp seemingly simple concepts. It's sad...they just don't get it, and no one seems to be able to help them. You try different learning methods, and nothing...they simply just don't have the aptitude for the research part. But heck, they can tell one hell of a story! Sometimes I see them get the storytelling epiphany and they switch gears to focus on that. Other times, I see them so passionate about the research part and the yearning to know more but they just can't do it and they ultimately quit. That's sad to see and it frustrates me. What's worse is they want the help (a good thing) so they can do it themselves, but when they pass their line of frustration, they up and quit. I wish they'd allow other people to help by actually doing some of the work for them, and letting the focus on the things they're good at and make it a collaborative effort instead of walking away.

Finally (and this is not directed at you, Kenneth--but I am tired of trying to get my response across in 140
characters so I'm posting it here), I NEVER said that people shouldn't do genealogy, I only said that some people aren't cut out for genealogy research (research being the operative word) and I hope that this response helps to reenforce that.


Peanut Butter said...

Hard truths are necessary. I think the post author is talking about people who simply and truly have no aptitude for critical thinking whatsoever, rather than apt folks who are pursuing genealogy without formal edu (you don't need formal edu to master some things).

The genealogy junk info issue is alive and well. My husband's grandmother asked if I could research her dead husband's ancestors, since I work for one of the larger genealogy depositories & am known as a sleuth.

I wasted 2 weeks following incorrect leads before finding a correct ancestor, and am still searching for evidence and truths after hitting a brick wall. Even though my evidence stops cold, I've seen dozens of genealogists online who have published continuations of the same tree with NO evidence AT ALL. Often, I've thought to myself: "this is very obviously not a connection...How could this person not only think this were legitimate, but have published this online?"

For years my in-laws perpetuated a fable that they were descended from Robert E. Lee. After many incorrect leads and wasted hours, I discovered they are not of the Virginia Lees (but of some other obscure line). There are hundreds of other neo-genealogists who go through the same muck I just went through, due to dozens of genealogists posting false info with no sources or evidence.

I presented this info to my in laws with scientific method style, no-question proof and sources for every single step and connection. Most were ambivalent, but my SIL was offended because she'd encouraged her 10-yr-old to brag about the false ancestry at school.

After I showed her the censuses, vital records, cemetery records, photographs, and LEE DNA bank, she still asked "then why would my grandmother tell me this?" Evidence means nothing to some people; they simple don't understand its purpose or value.

Now my SIL is planning on doing genealogy research on her grandmother's lines (the one who asked me to research her dead husband).

This woman is one of the dullest people I've ever met. She repeated 10th grade 3 times then dropped out of high school. When she found out her grandmother's mother was from Germany, she thought she was related to Hitler. When her phone broke, she thought it was the government spying on her. She has the comprehension and reading level of an 8th grader, cannot write proper English grammar and cannot follow a simple recipe in a cookbook. She was born to wealthy parents and accorded privileges the majority never experience; not even poverty can account for her deficiencies. Intelligence IS genetic.

The idea of the possible info atrocities she might add to the already murky online genealogy info pool is frightening. I hope (and expect) she'll give up after trying interpreting her first census document.

This post is not labeling anyone or judging anyone, IMO. People who are not sharp are not cut out for rigorous investigation and research. Some people can't figure out things that may seem very basic, no matter how slow you speak or how many ways you try to illustrate a basic concept.

Those with low critical thinking and comprehension skills should not attempt this sort of undertaking, which, professional or not, involves a considerable level of analytical ability, just as those without the aptitude could not hope to succeed in math or the sciences.

Julie Cahill Tarr said...

@Peanut Butter - Thanks for your comment and understanding.

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