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Sunday
Mar062011

* he said/she said- who's defining genealogy? 

Explaining “genealogy” and my research to those who have no background or experience with the subject has been a difficult task. How can I effectively communicate the impact of learning and preserving your ancestors legacies? There is no one global definition for "family", so how can we expect a common understanding of our researching it? 

In Genealogy, Ancestry, Heritage- What does it all mean? I suggested that the ambiguity surrounding the definition of genealogy has negatively impacted the assimilation and cohesive growth of the discipline. I am focusing more on the social and cultural understanding of genealogy, looking at the precense of genealogy in social media, TV, and the web. Where is the genealogy rule book?

A comment from Jean lead me to Tamura Jones’s Blog, thanks for the comment and link! In What is Genealogy (aug 2010) Tamura documents his web search for definitions of genealogy. He finds many definitions of genealogy exclusively related to blood-line relationships, with little to no inclusion of family history. He disagrees with this rigid depiction of genealogy, but does draw the fundamental differences between genealogy and family history. From the conclusion:

“Genealogy does not include family history. It is the other way round: a good family history includes a genealogy. Genealogy encompasses the study of blood lines, but is not limited to the study of bloodlines. Genealogy includes all family relationships, and there are many non-blood family relationships.”

Clearly there are many opinions of what genealogy and family history entail and this is what someone new to genealogy will see on the web. A confusing mix of professional frameworks and hobbyist websites. There are many different levels of interaction and expertise within this community and it has a very strong online precense. The resulting reality- a wide range of opinions and authorities attempting to define genealogy and it’s different applications. This leads people to be confused and frustrated. If you are a genealogist or family historian, step out of the inner circle of “know-how”, do you think there are enough resources out there to help a new family historian understand the boundaries and implications of their research? Is it the responsibility of the researcher or the community to ensure and promote proper research technique? I think if we are willing to spend the time discussing the issues we might as well try and come up with solutions while we do it.

thought provoking articles demonstrating the wide range of roles and expectations within genealogy: 

Genealogy vs Family History: Is There a Line in The Sand? -Lynn Palermo, The Armchair Genealogist

How Do We Make Genealogy Fun For Everyone -Kimberly Powell, About.com Genealogy

I also feel a comment on a recent episode of NBC’s show Who Do You Think You Are directly relates with this topic. The show chronicles the journey of a celebrity as they travel all over the world in search of their family's past. Episode 4 documented Kim Catrall’s journey (episode 4) and I thought it was the most authentic portrayal of family research we have seen so far. It wasn’t about finding famous people or watching a celebrity bounce from expert to expert. She had a puzzle that couldn’t be solved with records alone. She used new and old school ways of connecting the dots. I was surprised to read that some people were less than impressed with the episode and it’s lack of "documentation". I thought it was a great portrayal of how important oral history and family stories can be for reaching your genealogy goals.

Is the point to get more people interested in genealogy or to entertain the established community? Regardless of the goal an array of researching techniques and scenarios should be represented. It’s misleading to encourage new researchers to go on ancestry.com and build their family tree without doing any other investigative research. If the audience is being shown only to match names and dates on records and not the importance of consulting family members, wouldn’t that lead to even more mutations and copies of poorly documented trees? Let’s be honest- the show starts out with the celebrity spending what, 5-10 minutes actually talking to their family about their history? How did they get all this information to base their search? Why do we need to see the documents they find- we don't see any documents they used to start their search!

The viewer doesn’t get to see any scenarios or tips for starting their search. Here are some tips for starting your research. It really takes time and research to compile a family tree, especially tracing ggg grandparents! I would like to see more of this beginning research in the 3rd season. They could share the ways they have documented their ancestor ex: deeds, letters, military documents, pictures... items a family watching might have in their closet! It would also inspire people to save or scan important documents they thought were just junk.

With such a diverse opinion of genealogy, what steps can be taken to create a common understanding? What do you think about genealogy? Should vague definitions and rigid requirements dictate the future of this discipline? Maybe if there was a more professional term for a family historian the line could be more evenly drawn? Any common misconceptions you feel should be set right for the reputation of genealogy and it’s plight? Still have no idea what genealogy is? I wanna hear it all!

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