Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Path of a Beginner Genealogist

pathLast week, I read Amy Coffin's post Time to Pop a Cap in the Term 'Drive-by Genealogist," which discussed her opinion about an article written by Sharon Tate Moody.  Apparently Amy wasn't the only one with an opinion, as I later saw several messages on the Transitional Genealogists mailing list while catching up over the weekend.  On Sunday, I began to draft my own post, but I had so many thoughts swirling through my brain, I couldn't figure out how to present it in a manner that wasn't offensive or emotional.  So I've sat on it until now and split my original draft into two parts, this one being the less offensive and emotional.

Before I get into this post, I want to mention that by Monday, Randy Seaver had also posted a response and included links to some other blog posts.  The two below are ones I had not seen because I was unaware of their blogs, but they both illustrate some good points so I'd like to share them.

Now that I got all that out of the way, here is my 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.  While I certainly agree there is a bunch of garbage out there, I don't really agree that it's perpetuated by these so-called drive-by genealogists.  I think it happens at a different phase of the beginners' path, as I will demonstrate.

People dip their toe into the genealogy pool for many reasons.

  • To fulfill a desire to learn where they came from.
  • To record their family's health history.
  • To preserve their memories.
  • To learn more about their ancestor's and share the stories with their family.
  • To explore their curiosity after stumbling upon family papers.
  • To discover whether a family legend is true.
  • To join a lineage society.
  • To find birth parents or a child given up for adoption.
  • To see if it is really as simple as clicking on a little leaf.
  • Just for the heck of it!

These, and other reasons, are completely valid in my opinion.  Those of us who have been around for awhile (yes, that includes me and my whole five years!) and are passionate about genealogy love to hear that other people are starting to explore their own families, no matter the reason.  The fact that they're interested makes us smile.

We've all been there.  We likely started out for one of the reasons above.  So in other words, we were all beginners at some point.  We started for different reasons, had different goals, and our paths took different forks in the road.  Here's how I see The Path of a Beginner Genealogist.

Phase 1

The quest is on.  Whether there is a specific goal in mind or not, these beginners start to explore their family history.  Chances are, they've heard of or stumbled upon that big genealogy website and signed up for the free trial.  If they had a specific goal in mind, they may have even sought out some guidance from a book or a local society.

It is during this phase that they are either bitten by the Genealogy Bug or not.  I suspect that many times, the aforementioned free trial and the vast array of information on said website becomes too overwhelming for most people; they don't know where to start, let alone how to proceed, and give up quickly.  These people may also quit because they lose interest, don't have any time, have no clue what they're doing, realize it's too expensive, or find that it's not as easy is clicking on the little leafs.

Others stick it out, usually because they have some sort of goal in mind.  If their goal was relatively simple, and they are able to achieve it quickly, they may quit when finished.  Some may have achieved their goal, but found an interest in learning more about their family and proceed to Phase 2.  Sometimes their goal is more challenging; some will give up while others will realize they need some help and proceed to Phase 2.  In some cases, those that didn't start with a specific goal have enjoyed the thrill of the hunt and proceed to Phase 2.


I believe that people in Phase 1 are less likely to publish any information, probably because they give up too quickly (I'm willing to bet that at least half of the beginners fall into this scenario).  For those that achieved a simple goal, say, learning more about a few ancestors, likely in their first few generations, publishing anything, especially outside the family, is probably scarce.  Now, for those who are inclined to proceed to Phase 2, they might have posted a tree somewhere or started a blog or website in Phase 1, but this might be pretty rare—during Phase 1, that is.

If the Genealogy Bug has taken a bite of these Phase 1 folks, they proceed to Phase 2.  Otherwise, they quit.

Phase 2

For those who enter Phase 2, they continue their pursuit, but are less likely to follow genealogy research standards.  I believe the reason for this has to do with a lack of knowledge that standards exist, or, for those who are aware, they feel it takes the fun out of their newfound hobby.

In some cases, it's probably okay that standards are not being followed—and yes, this is coming from a methodical researcher (including research outside of genealogy), who also has a background in policy and procedure development, and an affinity for education and training.  But here's why I say it's okay in some cases.  When someone is taking the initiative to preserve their memories and the memories of family members, they don't want to be bothered by having to back up the claims.  Right or wrong, this is what was passed down or how someone remembers it, and that's all they're concerned with.  There may come a time when they want to "publish" something, but it's likely that it would be something kept within the family.  I don't see anything wrong with this approach.

Using the same scenario, some people will become interested in substantiating the claims and uncovering the truth and may decide to do more thorough research.  Some of these people will learn about standards by virtue of their research, while others will seek out the information on their own.  Either way, some will begin to see the reasoning behind the standards and will want to incorporate them into their research process, thus proceeding onto Phase 3.  Others will remain in Phase 2 with complete disregard of the standards of genealogy research, again because they are unaware or they simply don't care.  And this is where it gets messy.

As I said early, there are some cases where it's okay not to follow the standards.  But I feel like there are other times when we should follow them (to an extent) or perhaps we shouldn't be plastering our "research" where the rest of the world can see it.  There, I said it.  Now is that realistic?  Of course not.  People publish erroneous and unsubstantiated information all the time, both on and offline.  Case in point, I'll admit that I've done it.  A few years ago, I thought I found that I was the descendant of Mayflower passenger Stephen Hopkins and in the haste of my excitement, I posted such a claim on Facebook.  Turns out, my Stephen Hopkins is not the Stephen Hopkins and there appears to be much debate over whether my Stephen is the grandson of the Stephen or not.  I later posted about my error on this blog.  So yes, mistakes can, do, and will continue to happen, and, might I add, the "professionals" are not immune.

The people that remain in Phase 2 indefinitely, are a combination of people who can research and do it well, but aren't concerned with the integrity of their research, and people who aren't really cut out for research but are giving it the old college try.  Both of these groups are the ones who will likely publish erroneous information (unintentionally) or may not provide a solid foundation for their research.  Does that mean they shouldn't be allowed to publish their information in a public manner?  No; remember, everyone makes mistakes.  We should give them credit for trying (while secretly gritting our teeth in frustration). 

Some of these "indefinites" will eventually quit, leaving a trail of garbage behind them, while others will learn the errs of their ways, proceed to Phase 3, and begin to clean up their mess.  The rest?  Well, they just stay in Phase 2 and continue to clutter the universe with misinformation. 

Phase 3

The last stop on the path of beginners, if they make it this far, is Phase 3.  It is during Phase 2, whether early on or much later, that these people realize the importance of genealogy research standards and want to improve their methods by applying these standards to their research. 

The people who make it to this phase are in it for the long-haul.  They enter Phase 3, still a beginner, but with a desire to learn more and perfect their craft.  Once they begin to learn these methods, standards, how to use advanced record types, etc. and learn to apply these concepts to their research, they lose the title of beginner and move onto the intermediate stage and beyond, continuing to learn along the way.  Some of these people will go on to become professionals, with or without "credentials."

It is the people in this phase and beyond who are the most likely to publish their work, whether online, in print, or both.  Their materials are typically well-presented, substantiated by solid research, and properly cited.  Could their information be erroneous?  Absolutely!  Did I forget to mention that everyone makes mistakes?


Again, I agree with Sharon that there is a lot of crap out there.  I even started a blog post on the topic about a year ago and I may be revisiting that draft in the near future.  But, based on my vision of the beginners' path, I feel that the drive-by genealogist would fall into Phase 1, and I believe that the culprits of erroneous information are more likely to be found in Phase 2, made up of those who are more serious, yet completely ignore genealogy research standards.

And while that may strike a chord with some people, before you send me that hate mail, let me tell you how may path played out.

I started on my genealogy journey over five years ago, for a combination of reasons that include finding a family tree narrative for my dad's family (which had been in my possession since I was a kid) and a desire to know if the family lore was true, that we were related to Noah Webster (yes, the dictionary guy).

At the beginning, I had no idea what to do or where to start.  I knew Noah wasn't mentioned anywhere in this narrative, but soon realized that it appeared to only show our direct ancestors.  I then Googled "genealogy," which I probably spelled wrong (admit it, you have too!) and was introduced to Ancestry (a.k.a., the aforementioned big genealogy website).  Oddly enough, when I went to sign up for the free trial, I had apparently already created an account since my email address was "already in use."  I barely recalled this short-lived adventure that I had taken a few years prior.

Anyway, I was completely overwhelmed, had no idea what I was doing or what I should be doing, where to start, etc., and keep in mind I was a researcher and analyst by profession!  Eventually I found several member trees and following the trail I could see that I was indeed somehow related to Noah Webster, I just wasn't sure how (yes, I took these member tree as Gospel).  Somewhere along the line, I downloaded PAF to put the pieces together so I could figure out the exact relationship.  It was the visual that PAF provided me that helped me make sense of everything.  (Sidenote:  Although my sources were primarily these member trees, after I learned the errs of my ways, and did the proper research, yes, I confirmed I really am related to Noah Webster.)  Then I started to wonder about who these other people were as well as my mom's side of the family.

After talking to my mom one day, she informed me that I had all of the family paperwork in my possession.  It was in a box she had sent me nearly six years earlier, that I never opened…I had forgotten all about it.  It was a treasure trove of information for both sides of my family.  I started going through all the papers (vital records, newspaper clippings, funeral cards, etc.) and entered the information into my PAF database.  Did I cite any of my sources?  Heck no, I barely knew what I was doing at the time and I really didn't think I would get hooked the way I did.  I really just wanted to see how all these people fit together…some of them I knew, others had long since passed and I never knew them…half of them I had never even heard of.

Eventually, I got genealogy fever.  In my day job, I belonged to two professional organizations and wondered if anything similar existed for the genealogy world.  Googling once again, I found several societies and joined a few.  I then sought out reference material, purchasing several books on Amazon and reading up on genealogy research.  That, coupled with the society publications I started to receive, were enough to steer me on the right course.

By 2008, I decided to start a blog about my genealogical journey and encountered the GeneaBloggers, which also helped to put me on the right track.  Not too long after finding the GeneaBloggers, I purchased Legacy Family Tree and started my database over, this time citing my sources, albeit perhaps not in the best manner at first. 

Somewhere along the line I became a name collector and am now stuck with a database full of people I don't know, nor am I sure I care to know (but I just hate to remove them).  In 2009, I decided to post my tree to Ancestry, but I kept it private because I knew it wasn't up to par (not very well sourced, not to mention all the unsubstantiated crap I collected along the way).  But I felt that something needed to be out there and it did lead to new cousins (as has my blog).  So yes, I'm one of those Phase 2 people who posted a tree, but in my defense, I did make it private. 

Eventually, I learned the right way to cite my sources (I found that "US Census" as a master source with no detail wasn't really helpful) and to this day I am STILL cleaning up my mess.  But, as much as it sucks (and it really is a serious pain in the butt), it's made me a better researcher.  It was a hard lesson to learn, but I was fortunate to have learned it sooner than many others I've talked with.  I only had a few years of research to clean up, while many others have decades to clean up!

In just a few short years, I'm doing client work, I've found the birth mother of an adopted friend (which resulted in a VERY successful reunion), have written educational materials on genealogy subjects, and I continue to explore my own family history…more importantly, I continue to learn new things everyday.  I went through all the phases, and this is where my path led me.

This journey is also why I am passionate about genealogy education.  I've learned a lot from my mistakes and I want to help steer people in the right direction from the very beginning so they don't have to go through what I (and many others before me) went through.  And if it helps keep the universe free from junk information, well that's just a bonus.



Lori E said...

Wow. What a great post. You certainly didn't just "drive by" the subject.
And a flow chart too. Love it.
At my work there are flow charts for everything and we joke about them.
I think the feeling of being overwhelmed really does cover it and also the lack of education on the subject. Many people believe what they see on the internet and never question the source. Just look at Wikipedia.
Anyway, like I said....great post.

Debbie said...

Very nicely said. I love the phases and the chart.

Jana Iverson Last said...

Great post Julie! Hmm, I think you and I could be distant cousins because I also am a distant cousin to Noah Webster of dictionary fame.

Julie said...

Jana, we are definitely cousins! We talked about this via email a few months ago :)

Jana Iverson Last said...

Oh ya, we did verify our "cousinship" via email. Silly me!

Julie said...

Not silly! It's hard to keep all that straight. I had to check my email first to make sure it was you!

Unknown said...


Great personal take on the original article - like others I love the flow chart.

Thanks for linking to my article. I sure appreciate it. I, too, had to sit on this topic a little while before posting.

I've come to decide that the Phases you describe are necessary. Rights of passage really. Many folks will never move out of your Phase 2. We cannot make them and should not try. Even those of us that want to take our research to the next level have no business telling others that they *must* join us or be quite. It is our job, as researchers, to filter out the noise. Thanks for a wonderful read.

the honeymoontrail.blogspot.com said...

Love the chart. Yes, I've been bitten by the genealogy chart.

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