Genealogy and Elitism: It Isn’t What You Say, It’s How You Say It

Imagine that you’re in a painting class. You’ve only dabbled in painting — bought a small paint set when it went on sale, watched a video or two on YouTube. But you want to get better, so you sign up for a class at the local rec center. After a few sessions, you’re feeling pretty good about what you’re creating. You show your handiwork to the instructor… who rips it apart.

You don’t have enough contrast.

There’s no clear focal point.

The technique is sloppy.

Now stop and imagine how that would make you feel. You’d probably feel deflated, dejected. You probably wouldn’t feel inspired to keep trying, and you certainly wouldn’t feel encouraged to do so.

university-206683_1280It Happens in Genealogy

Michael John Neill recently republished his post “The Genealogy Elite and the Genealogy Police.” He defines the elite as inhabitants of ivory towers, passing judgment on all things genealogical. The genealogy police “protect the genealogy elite and dispense genealogy justice.” He goes on to say, “I don’t believe in the existence of the genealogical elite and I don’t believe in the existence of the genealogy police.”

When defined that way, I have to say that I don’t believe in them either. However, to say that there isn’t at least the perception of judgment misses the issue.

Most of the “top” names in genealogy are incredibly giving with their time, talent, and expertise. But that isn’t who or what people are referring to when they say they’ve experienced the genealogy elite (or the police).

“Elite” isn’t a person. It’s an attitude. It’s a perception.

Misplaced Passion

Genealogy is inherently personal. When people start digging deeper into their family’s history, it’s easy to become passionate about it — both what is found and the process for finding it. That passion is a good thing. It keeps driving us to find more and to become better researchers.

The problem is when the passion is misplaced. The problem is when we allow our passion for doing genealogy correctly to overshadow our passion for doing genealogy.

Consider that art instructor at the rec center. She is passionate about painting. She wants everyone to experience what she does when she paints. But she allowed her passion for doing it correctly to be louder than her passion for painting. So instead of inspiring you as a novice painter to keep trying, she ended up frustrating you and making you reconsider your desire to pick up a brush.

It Isn’t What You Say. It’s How You Say It

I was researching at the library one day when a person came in and asked for help at the volunteer desk. He had recently started climbing his family tree. As he talked to the volunteer, he pulled out notes and photos and documents and scribbles and everything else he had collected about his family. He had amassed quite a pile of “stuff.” There was a ton of information, but it was a jumbled mess. So what did the volunteer say to him?

“I don’t know how you expect to do anything without filling out a family group sheet.”

Really? This was a person just starting on the journey of discovering his ancestors and you’re going to scold him about not filling out a form that he’s probably never heard of?

Yes, he needs to organize what he’s found. No, he’s not going to be able to make much progress without doing that. But scolding him isn’t the way to do it.

Scolding can work for employees and children. It doesn’t work to scold someone who is doing an activity that they don’t have to do. After all, they can simply stop doing the activity and move on to something more enjoyable.

What that volunteer could have said was “You have a lot of information here. There’s going to come a point where you’re not going to be able to keep track of it all without some help. Have you ever used a family group sheet?”

Same message, but without the scolding.

The Elephant in the Room: Source Citations

When you hear discussions about “elitism” in genealogy, the topic eventually hits on source citations. Here’s the thing about source citations. Nobody started doing genealogy because they were looking for a hobby where they needed to create great footnotes.

Citations are incredibly important. There will come a point when you will need to know where that particular piece of information came from. I can barely remember what I had for breakfast, let alone remember where great-great-grandpa Starkey’s death date came from.

But if you don’t have source citations, my scolding and shaming you about it likely isn’t going to convince you to add them. Instead, you’re going to feel like a grade school student who got a D- on her book report.

Stay Positive

Genealogy is supposed to be enjoyable. When someone asks us for help, we should always find a way to be positive first, before offering any constructive criticism.

On the flip side of that, we shouldn’t take it personally when we run across people like that volunteer at the library. As Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Try to pull out the “constructive” part of the criticism and see where you can improve. Don’t let that bad experience keep you from your journey.

What Do You Think?

What are your thoughts on this? I’d love to hear what you think about attitudes in genealogy. Feel free to leave a comment!

Scolding doesn't help anyone in genealogy.
Scolding doesn’t help anyone in genealogy.
Posted: June 11, 2015.

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  • This is a subject we wrangle over constantly on WikiTree. The forums there are a great way to collaborate, but boy sometimes you have to have a really thick skin and I know sometimes people just don’t.

    • Tone can be so hard to communicate online. As I just commented to a friend of mine, it’s hard enough to do with people you know in real life, let alone online with strangers.

      • I know I’m late coming to this conversation (sorry), and I’m sorry that I didn’t see it earlier. You are absolutely right about being unable to express or hear the tone of something written online. I know my sister loves me, but I would not send email to ask whether I can come to visit. She needs to hear in my voice that I’m not tearful and desperate, and I need to hear in her voice that I’m not putting her in a bind. That doesn’t happen with email. Maybe we shouldn’t engage in these online “conversations” so casually.

    • A 9th cousin runs two groups for my surname. In aided her but she got attacked many times to the point that she had to beg out for a few weeks.

    • You hit the nail directly on the head Kyle. We are supposedly all adults and should be able to take a simple question as it is meant, not a thrashing criticism. Unfortunately too many people today have the maturity of a 5 year old and start the name calling – bully etc. – just because someone who was trying to be helpful did pose a question. We cannot get the information that we need to help if we do not ask. It is not the people trying to help who are the “Genealogy Police”, it is those policing them! As for errors, my goodness we should be thrilled (I, for one, am and thank the person) when someone takes the time to look at our work, finds an error and points it out. When people do become abusive that is when we need to get that “thick skin” and just ignore them. Remember what Mother always said, “Just ignore them and they will go away”.

      • The difficulty (especially online) is that we don’t know how a “simple” question is meant. Often, all we can go by is what we see on the screen and compare it to what we’ve experienced in the past. Once burned, twice shy…

  • When I decided I wanted to go pro and needed help honing my skills, I was confronted with the “attitudes” described in this blog post. I have to assume the know all and be all pros weren’t doing much client research because they had plenty of time to hang out on a forum and rag on newbies.

    • It definitely isn’t the best method for management or parenting, but you can get some short-term gains with it. Best used in small doses 🙂

    • I agree totally Geoff. After 14 years teaching in Early Childhood settings teaching parenting skills and birth to 5yr olds, scolding gets you no where fast. You have to evaluate why they are behaving this way and ask yourself as a teacher/adult what are they lacking to make them react in an inappropriate way. (skill,, knowledge, emotional stability etc.) And so it is also with scolding an adult employee. A better method is to ask why, educate, and cooperate.

  • I started doing genealogy 35 years ago in the 1970s. I was only about 14 when I took my first family history class, and it was all adults who had been doing genealogy before. They were all very welcoming and patient with me. Back then I was a shy teen, and one little snide comment would have crushed me. I’m so glad that didn’t happen, and I try hard today to remember how they nurtured me along.

    • That’s great that you found a nurturing group, Heather! It’s hard to imagine you not in genealogy!

  • When genealogy first started in America, it was practiced by women in long dresses, white gloves, and broad-brimmed hats who spoke in elegant tones at their garden tea party about their membership in the DAR.

    Long dresses and snobbery are out of fashion and if we intend to attract the new generation to our genealogy society meetings, we need to soften our criticism of people who are “doing it wrong” and gently guide them to take things slower, be more complete in their research, and of course, cite their sources. The DAR has evolved and so should we.

    On the flip side, when you see a mistake in a public online family tree and write an extensive and courteous email detailing why so-and-so is the daughter of another man with a similar name, while providing all the appropriate documentation to back up your assertions, it is disconcerting to receive a curt reply telling you to mind your own damn business.

    Courtesy needs to be a two-way street.

    • Courtesy is definitely a two-way street. Having someone ask you where you found a piece of information or how you came to a certain conclusion shouldn’t be taken as criticism. It should be taken as the opening of a dialogue. I wonder how much of the defensiveness we see is the result of being “burned” by others.

      • Good point, Amy! We rarely know what the history is of someone’s interactions with other genealogists or even what kind of day they’re having. We all can be a little snide or short with someone at times.

  • I started 36 years ago and found a class right away. So I learned the proper forms from the beginning. I have often volunteered to help others. As a good teacher, I need to take people from where they are at to the next level. So I need patience and need to explain things to those who just haven’t learned yet. Eventually, I put it all in a book, which is now out of date and a website which is now defunct. But having something in writing to give to beginners is helpful. So I put some of my lessons on my wikitree profile.
    There is just so much to learn in genealogy and I am still learning. So I am grateful for the G2G (Geneaologist to Genealogist Forum) on Wikitree where I can ask my questions to thousands of genealogists at once, and sometimes answer someone else’s question. Collaboration is a great way to do genealogy!
    Sharon Troy Centanne
    Genealogy Research Instructor

    • You’ve hit on the key. “As a good teacher, I need to take people from where they are at to the next level.” First you need to see where they are. Your students are fortunate to have you as a teacher.

  • I’ve experienced the elite snub. I have documented my sources from the beginning (less than 2 years ago), but more to a college report or legal brief form because that’s what I’m used to. I take it that’s not equivalent to the genealogical form standard. I can find it again and so can other people based on my source notes (proven). I’ve also only started to figure out that there are paper forms people use – I use a software program, and record research notes my way, and do timelines to figure out what I don’t know and where I should be looking, and blogging about them helps with that too. But I’ve gotten some really cutting emails and messages about not doing it “right” and will never be a true genealogist, only a mere family historian.Fortunately I work in a field that encourages a thick skin, but it does hurt and causes stress. And it caused me to look at what I want out of my hobby and I decided I AM a family historian with no desire to create a second career out of this. Don’t want to be a genealogist and my way of doing sources and research is good enough. And my blog is good enough too.

    • Sound to me like you are doing a good deal right. You have recorded your sources in a way that helps you, and have tested that on someone else. There is no one correct way of citing sources, which depends on your audience and the point you are making much more than the format of a footnote.

      Those who shout loudest are often not very well informed and can’t explain themselves when challenged.

    • So interesting that is how I have done mine for years. Research is my educational background, so I also add family members etc. Yes I’ve had the ” you need to eliminate blah blah”. But it has worked for me as I can actually help others who have those family members. Plus I believe my sources are more indepth!!

  • Amen! We all have our own learning curve, and it is up to the individual how in depth, how detailed they want to be. I have been working on my tree for five years and have reached the point of wanting to find the best sources. But I will always want to help those who are starting this wonderful process because many, many gifted and knowledgeable people helped me. Pay it forward and enjoy your discoveries.

  • I agree! Was a lot of fun when I did my own research. Became an admin of one new Facebook group and then the catiness, backbiting and drama started. I ditched that group.

  • One of the best set of books I ever found was by a DAR lady who had wandered all over a county in Illinois, knocking on doors and asking people who their people were. She provided names, dates, and places without one bit of source info. Her books jump started my genealogy like nothing else has. Did they have errors? You bet. Did they provide invaluable leads? Many of them! Would this DAR lady take a big time hit from the elitists and police? No doubt.

    I’ve followed in her footsteps. I’ve produced a 200 page plus book that lists the people in my family. Four chapters (Migration Generation, First Cousins, Second Cousins, and Third/Fourth Cousins) of nothing but names, dates, and places. I’m going to follow up with books that do provide the evidence. However, in the meantime, if someone wants to know if they are related, I can send them a PDF with an electronic table of contents and a 20 plus page index that includes maiden and married names. They can search the PDF and get back with me if they find relatives and we can start talking about trading info.

    Would I take a big hit from the elitists and police? I’m sure…but it would be after I tell anyone who has the guts to tell me anything to stuff it. I don’t care what anybody thinks. It’s my hobby, my way, and this approach is working for me.

    I’ve seen so many people flee when encountering one of these types. Perhaps it’s time for amateurs to stand up to the bullies and put them in their place. Amateurs are the ones who hire the pros when we can’t make headway on our own. We’re their customers…and…wait for it…The customer is always right.

      • No seriously..I stopped for over 12 months after that and threw all my papers in a box…..I am still not organised but I enjoy doing what little I do. It gives a little colour to my world and maybe some day one sheet of my work may help or interest people that come after me 🙂

  • I’ve been hounded for not citing everything. Unfortunately, most of my sources are deceased and when this information was collected, we didn’t even think of things like citing sources, just collecting the information and who it involved. How about the ‘genealogy police’ (in whatever form) step back and ask – “have you thought about doing this?” instead of “why didn’t you.” It would make the task so much easier and more enjoyable and we might even ‘engage’ with other researchers.

  • I too have experience the “elite” and my comment is that they, the Elite, are trying to hard to prove they know everything (we don’t have snake oil). We need to be able to find the source of fact we disseminate. Some individuals really work hard helping and molding budding genealogist and that is what we need the most. I like the above quote by Amy Johnson Crow, “Nobody started doing genealogy because they were looking for a hobby where they needed to create great footnotes “

    • Agree.. I was admin for a genealogy FB group (ditched it after elites git nasty). Felt great to assist new members find ancestors.

  • I feel very lucky that my local society (Foothills G S in CO) consists of of very helpful and encouraging people who suggest methods or ask questions rather than criticize what I have. I too have many pieces of information that have no reliable, provable source – I now just label their source as “family lore” and hope to find facts eventually. I also have some sources that say “it just fits” which I also hope to prove or discard. Doing research this way is fun for me – haphazard, but great entertainment along the way!

  • I witnessed the “elite” at work one time. A woman who had been travelling to Canada from California for about 40 years collecting family genealogy using Family Group Sheets written in pencil made some scathing remarks about a woman who loved genealogy, never ventured more than 50 or 60 miles from home and used a small notebook to record names and dates with a pen. Funny that Mrs. Family Group Sheet went to Mrs. Notebook and “mined” all of her information first. Her intent was to publish a book. So, almost 60 years later, Mrs. Family Group Sheet’s decades worth (and thousands of dollars worth) of genealogy is barely legible and someone is now working on it to try to reconstruct the data that can’t be read. The book was never published because it was never “finished” and she didn’t want any help with it because someone might steal the info she gathered. Mrs. Notebook’s genealogy info and knowledge has been spread far and wide both verbally and via email. The outcome says it all.

    • There are so many things I could say about this, but for now I’ll leave it at: If you’re waiting for your family history to be “finished,” you’re going to be waiting for a long, long time.

    • True Pamela and Amy!

      Genealogy research can go on forever when you expand past your direct lineage.

      Also, when I was admin for a genealogy group I naively let in a data miner. It was a member’s sister. She let me know and I deleted the data miner.

      My major beef with on-line groups are the arrogant stick up the butt types who create unpleasantness. Had one of those types question a mutation on my DNA string and question whether I belonged in the group of my surname. That dropped after subsequent testees came in with same mutation.

      Obsessive footnotes and documented sources are good for those that get revved up over that and maybe for memberships in Mayflower Society (elite) or DAR, but I prefer to assist greenhorn genealogists with general direction. They are ecstatic when I find links and data that complete their lineages.

  • I’m a retired university prof & I understand “scholarship,” but I detest arrogance & the practice of ladders being kicked away by those who have already climbed them (which prevents others from ascending). This article is important! I’ve been the victim myself of snarky elitist behavior, when I posted a genealogical essay that I wrote in a deliberately “popular” style, unencumbered by fussy details and heavy footnoting. It’s disheartening & it’s unnecessary.

    • Wonderful! Snarky is an excellent word. I use popular style but was drummed out of one group when I was Co administrator for being “too chatty”. Too chatty was apparently defined as welcoming new members and also introducing humor. There was behind the scene complaining and then the complainers went to another admin. Then a number of members asked where I was and when I was returning. One admin has now sneaked me back into the group and said “You are where you need to be”.

  • I agree wholeheartedly that tact and kindness are important in our interactions, whether we’re the “expert” or the learner.

    I’m really glad also you mentioned also that no one can make us feel inferior without our consent. I was on a family history forum in which I gradually lost interest, because frequently if someone would make a comment that wasn’t sweetness and light, they’d get criticized or hand-slapped for being “negative.” It became difficult to have meaningful dialog.

    We really need to give each other the benefit of the doubt and not try to shame people who are trying with good intentions and a positive spirit to point out areas for improvement.

    • Good subject Pamela! Never actually seen the question asked before but has been an issue between genealogists that I have contact with. One DNA admin who was particularly rude got raked over the coals by a 50 year genealogist. He left and took on a smaller group.

  • I rarely see people being criticized for asking questions, even simple ones. What I see is people posting questionable statements getting defensive and crying bully when they are asked for clarification. Then a pack of people who can only be former pre-school teachers jump in to “protect” the OP.

    The pattern is usually along the lines of:

    “I just spent the weekend tracing my family back to Charlemagne. This is so easy.”

    “Really? What records did you use?”

    ” I used (fill in the most popular genealogy site). The leaves just kept popping up.”

    ” You can’t just click on the leaves, and you can’t trust other peoples trees. You have to do your own research.”

    ” I know what I’m doing. I’ve been doing genealogy for ( insert 1 – 4 decades )”

    ” Well then you should know that (the genealogy site) doesn’t have actual records that go back that far”

    Cue 20 people jumping in claiming the OP is being bullied. And eventually an admin who just says “Play nice” without specifying who they’re referring to.

    • An admin’s job on an online forum (like a Facebook group) is a thankless job. When situations like what you’ve described pop up, it’s hard to get people to back off without adding more fuel to the fire. Hence, the blanket reminder to “play nice.”

      Even in the cases like you describe, it pains me when people are so quick to criticize. Yes, those of use who have been doing genealogy for awhile know that you’re not going to get back to Charlemagne accurately in a weekend. But the person was excited. Let’s try to use language that encourages the excitement, yet gently guides them to dig a little deeper.

      (In the interest of full disclosure, I used to be an admin on the Ancestry Facebook group.)

      • Complaining about the thanklessness of being an admin is like a firefighter complaining about having to run into burning buildings.

        Trying to appease both sides in an argument is avoiding the job and results in each side thinking that they’ve been vindicated which is why the same arguments keep reappearing with the same people involved.

        • It wasn’t a complaint, just an observation. (See what I mean about how hard it can be to convey tone online?!) In larger groups, there is often a lot of communication from admins going on behind the scenes. Calling someone out publicly in the group usually just adds fuel to the fire; weird how that works. So when a thread starts spiraling out of control, there are often private messages sent to the most vocal parties. The “play nice” message is a public reminder to everyone, but seldom is it the only communication that happens.

      • Yes. We had a disclaimer about flame wars etc. Unfortunately it didn’t work. We blocked a few people. The group had over 1700 members. Always a few wanting to butt heads.

    • There are those too. We had one who got very angry when he said that he traced our lineage to Charlemagne. We also told him that the town in England quoted in reference material was discredited and no documentation before marriage records in England in 1593. He blew a gasket and left and started his own group.

  • Well said! The one thing I have a hard time with, when someone is replying to a FB post with a negative attitude that is filled with sarcasm or superiority. It can deflate a newcomer in Genealogy…there is an art in saying something with a positive reinforcement…no need to be rude.

  • This is great. I’m going to share with my volunteers–some could use the reminder. 🙂

    I’m a genealogy librarian and I hate seeing patrons in my classes or in my research room policing others’ practices. I know and have accepted that about half of the people I interact with will play with Ancestry and maybe FamilySearch for awhile and then get bored or realize that research is harder in real life than it appears on TV and give up. For most people, genealogy is a passing hobby or brief fascination. I don’t want to discourage them with too many rules too soon because hopefully, it will eventually become a passion–and then they’ll be frustrated that they didn’t keep good records from the start but we’ve all been there.

    I encourage everyone to use best practices but I accept that everyone has their own ways of doing things and genealogy means different things to different people. It’s a hobby! It’s fun! Unless you’re trying to publish your research, enjoy yourself and do what you want.

    The only thing that I “police” is people taking all of their research from others’ online family trees. But eventually, I smile and nod and say, “that’s great that this random tree you found online proves you’re related to Queen Victoria.”

    • Funny! When I was new I traced one of my lines on Family Search and it took me back to Elizabeth Shakespeare! Now it is a collaborative effort with more detailed genealogists than I ever will be. Now it is to the point where we are branching out reserving ancestors siblings and surname ancestors wives.

    • That’s a great point. Just because someone is just going through shaky leaves now doesn’t mean that at some point later they won’t dig deeper. My contention is that if we discourage them in the “shaky leaf phase,” the less likely it will be for them to come back later.

  • I love the analogy to painting. If I ever tried to paint, my painting would be lousy, but it would be MY painting, with my choice of subjects, colors, perspective, etc. Likewise, genealogy is MY genealogy. It’s done for my personal joy and interest, not to please anyone else. I don’t do footnotes or end notes, although in my blog I do try (if I remember) to at least mention where I found information that is not commonly available. I have to keep it simple or my family won’t read it, and I have to give a little less emphasis to the interests of my extended family of genealogy.

    I love to learn, and I love to share, but spending good research time writing up sources and citing them correctly for people who will likely be turned off by them is not high on my bucket list. Finding the missing people, and telling stories about those I’ve found, is important to me.

    I’m sure there are lots of other family historians who feel the same way I do. We are passionate about our families. Please don’t make us stand in the corner wearing a dunce cap!

    • I think that’s one of the beautiful things about genealogy. Everyone can approach it from where they are and take it in a direction that fits their needs and desires.

  • I recently did some volunteer research for someone who knows nothing about genealogy research. It was a refreshing reminder of how far I’ve come, and that I need to be mindful of that when helping those with little or no experience. Your article reinforces those thoughts for me. Thanks for writing it.

    • Thank you, Nancy. It’s easy to give someone so much information that they feel like they’re drinking from a firehose!

  • I am guilty of chastising those who neglect to write down/keep record/etc. of their sources. This reminds me to be friendlier about it. I don’t want to discourage those who are new (or others)– the beginners are who I really prefer to help more than any other patrons! Great blog post – I thank the NGS (e-newsletter) for including the link this week.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Tricia! I think we’ve all been a little too eager at times with our urging about citing sources. It’s good to take a step back and meet the person where they are.

  • Elitism is a symptom of something even more discouraging that can be found among the genealogical community: using genealogy to establish or prop up social hierarchies that often belie history. It is erasing the presence of ancestors who aren’t members of the sought-after group; it is about purity of culture and kind. There are surely some genealogist who are simply perfectionists who pounce on disorganization out of a desire to avoid mistakes. But sadly my own research and experience shows that there are also plenty who are intent on preserving a particular narrative to the detriment of culture and truth.

  • Excellent post, cousin Amy. And put so much more gently and civilly than others might have done.

    So often, the right question can be a much better teacher than a snooty declaration would be. The library patron you mentioned could have been prompted toward thinking about constructive organization if asked if he had in mind what he wanted to find out next. Or the library staffer could have learned how the person could be immediately helped. Sometimes folks lose track of what their mission is supposed to be.

    Thanks again 😀

    • Thanks for the kind words, Jade! You’re right about asking the right question. One of the first things they teach in library school is that the question that people ask usually isn’t the question they’re really trying to ask. Helping the person articulate what it is they’re really looking for goes a long way to helping them in their search.

  • My experience is that those with the “elite” — read “snobbish” — attitude are really anything but the elite. The ones I consider the truly elite in our field (and I won’t name names because there are far too many of them) are some of the most helpful, considerate, patient people I’ve ever met, even if just online. They wouldn’t be so popular if they weren’t!

    On the other hand, the “genealogy police” tend to me the small-timers with ego issues. Criticizing the work of others validates their positions, at the possible expense of turning someone off forever. I won’t name names here, either (praise in public, criticize in private), but I’m sure we’ve all met them in online forums and even our local genealogical societies. These are the people who give rise to the expression “the only thing worse than a know-it-all is a know-it-all who does!”

    As the title of this blog says, “it isn’t what you say, it’s how you say it.” I do a lot of teaching, myself, albeit in a different field, and learned long ago that this says it all.

  • As someone who has professionally taught adults how to use computers for over 30 years, I whole-heartedly believe in the words in this post for not only genealogists or artists, but for all adult learners. It takes bravery and courage to be an adult learner and is the responsibility of all involved to exercise patience. Thank you for your post and the education for everyone who is open-minded enough to try and practice it in their own lives.

    I have participated in family history gathering for decades but it wasn’t until my dad passed away that my mom would slowly let go of the records as I proved that I would take great care. This started about 18 months ago. It has been a fascinating journey diving into this new world of people. Most have been so extremely gracious, helpful, and fun. But, I want to share an experience that truly baffled me. I was visiting the Exhibitors’ Hall at the most recent NGS Conference in St Charles, MO. (btw, the conference was amazing!) and I stopped at the Board for Certification of Genealogists ( booth and said in a happy body language way, “Could you please tell me a brief overview of what it takes to become a certified genealogist?” I don’t know if it is answer that can’t be brief or I just looked like I could never do it or the people working the booth didn’t want to be there or any other myriad of things, but the response just floored me. One of the women looked at the other one, then the other one looked back, then they both looked at me with one saying, “You should check the website.” So, then I am not as happy and more seriously say, “Then what is this booth for if I can find everything you have to say on your website?” Now they are a little more put out and say, “Well, people can sit here and read the certification works of others.” Sure enough, there were a couple people sitting at a table reading some booklets. But, could they have not said that when I asked? Or, could they not had some sort of message to share that would encourage me? Or, could they just have pretended that they gave a care and that I wasn’t some sort of goof who could never be part of their ‘elitist’ group? I mean, really, it is an exhibit hall. I can’t believe I had the dumbest question of the day. These two ladies were representing an organization and then needed to step it up, be more than just themselves, and turn into a couple of leaders. That is what every person needs to do for their employer or the group they volunteer for or a representative of their family. Act like you own the place and put your best foot forward, no matter what it is but especially with the adult learner. If that learner is not there, your library, family history center, society, etc. goes away. Have patience.

  • Amy, thank you!. This post was so thought-provoking and has inspired great dialogue. The subject of attitude in teaching and in sharing knowledge and perpetuating a discipline is very important to discuss, I believe, and as a life lesson it is even more important. Attitude, tone of voice, intention, and motivation, are all so important in relationships and communication with other humans and non-human animals. I’ve experienced inappropriately-directed scolding and harshness and just plain rudeness at many points in my life, whether it was in my development as a musician, a computer tech and programmer, as a writer, as a genealogist and family historian, as a taphophile and person interested in the restoration of headstones and cemeteries, as a student of anthropology and history and martial arts, and as a cook. Sometimes I’ve been the person being scolded. Sometimes I’ve witness a person being scolded. Sometimes I’ve been the person scolding, not realizing what I was doing until I’d already done it. Your post, along with all of these great reader comments attached to it, helps teach valuable lessons about communication and human interaction that have the potential to change lives. I think it can be summed up in two words: Be Kind.

  • Just got.booted from a New England genealogy group for.posting a humorous recollection of my ancestral “history”.

  • Excellent!! Something we should all keep in mind. I don’t think I do it but after having read this I will keep it at the forefront of my mind when interacting with researchers.

  • Amy, once again you have written a very thought-provoking post. There are many of us who have been on both sides. My personal mantra: Every interaction I have is an opportunity to learn or to teach.

    I have had people who are so scared they are going to list a citation of their sources. This happens to all age groups, but particularly to those a bit older. Personally, I assure them that if they can at least leave a breadcrumb trail back to where their information was found, it will be just fine.

    If it becomes too overwhelming, people of any age will just throw up their hands and claim, “Forget it!” None of us want to see that happen.

    Everyone who is tracing their family tree is making an honest effort to preserve the history of their family as they try to connect to the past. I say encourage them every single step of the way. They’ll rise; and they’ll get better.

    Or maybe we are the one who gets better.

  • I have been on both sides of this – the student and the teacher. (Still am, quite often, on BOTH sides!) What gets to me is when family says “That’s not the story I heard…I heard (proceeds with story) and then adds “So you’re obviously wrong.”

    I end up having to do the “I heard that story too, but a little different – thanks for sharing your version. However, the census forms here, say X and the marriage records I had mailed to me from the town say X and so the story could not be wholly accurate.” I try to do the ‘calming down’ thing by saying something like “I know this doesn’t match what you grew up hearing – but it’s like that telephone game – everyone hears a different version as it is passed down. There is some truth and a lot of embellishment, so I go find the records to back up the truth.”

    So far, I have one aunt that won’t ever look at my genealogy writing again because I’ve ‘destroyed too many stories from her childhood’ and made ‘her family’ look like a bunch of jerks and losers.

    A lot of my early data is from word of mouth from great-grandparents and grandparents – and a good bit of it I have been able to prove or disprove based on more readily available records (and ways to find them these days!). But when it comes to changing history and stories, people get sensitive and upset. For me, finding the true stories is part of the addiction!

    • It is tough when you find evidence that disproves a favorite family story. Kudos to you for handling it gently.

  • You are completely right. It is much more important to ‘meet people where they are’ in terms of ability, passion, and resources – and what their goal is. I can trace my own fumbling efforts through the last 20 years of my fascination with genealogy. It’s one thing to be told something, and many people can learn from just hearing ideas or procedures, but oh how well do we learn when we experience the consequences of our accidental mis-adventures!

    I’m now part of a team that teaches and mentors our genealogy group’s annual beginner class. The class outlines an ideal, but I’ve tried to add the hard-learned lessons of my own in a way that makes it obvious *why* a better way will be more helpful in the long run. A recent monthly meeting focused on member gen. questions for a panel of many of our more experienced members to answer. As part of making it obvious that everyone has *those moments*, we asked each panel member to give an account of an ‘oops’ in his or her research. I hope that it was eye-opening for everyone.

    I think there’s a progression in genealogy abilities, and if one is interested in a long-term relationship with this field, eventually one will seek out better or faster or more efficient ways to get, keep, and organize their information.

    When our beginners come to their one-on-one session with their mentor, we ask that they have an idea of what question they would like to answer or what line they would like to follow. Most of the time, it’s just a few notes – or even nothing! So my job is to ask basic questions. More often than not, they will remember something that was heard, or that a sibling has information or a document. So we start a list that usually ends up with one or two easily done, but critical things that can be accomplished in the next week or so. If we overwhelm, it kills the project.

  • Thank you Amy for opening up this discussion. At the end of the day who are we researching for? For ourselves and our families. How we present or write up our research is as individual as they are. What is important is that we enjoy our research otherwise why bother? We should all encourage not proscribe.

    In the beginning we were all disorganised, didn’t know to write our sources etc so we should think back to those early days and that wonderful exciting feeling as we found those first ancestors and seek to foster it in others whilst helping them to avoid the mistakes we made back then.

    How and what we research is our decision as is what tools we choose to employ to do it.

  • I have to say, this is one of the best articles I’ve ever read about genealogical elitism, fully chiming with where I stand. Standards are of course important, and keeping useful notes on where information is found, etc – but there are some elitists who put themselves on a pedestal to look down on how people carry out what to them is essentially a hobby, and nothing more. Some people get so bogged down in citations and methodology, and preaching the universal armageddon that will follow if not adhered to on their terms, that they lose sight of what is actually important in family history – the actual STORY, and its power to enthuse, excite, shock and change. Spot on!

  • I have to say that I (sort of) agree with both sides in this discussion. As someone who regularly helps newcomers to family history (I volunteer at a major archive in London), I often come across people who have not recorded sources for the information they have. While I agree that it is their family history journey…they can travel it any way they choose…I also feel it is my duty to point out to them all the benefits of recording sources as acurately as possible. I spent 3 hours yesterday helping someone who had all their information neatly written out in a notebook, names, dates, places…all very organised…but NO sources! So, as they couldn’t remember where most of the information had come from and to find out how accurate the info was, I had to find the marriage record…AGAIN…the baptism record…AGAIN…etc. Obviously, as a volunteer, I can take all day to do this with no cost to the visitor. But imagine thier horror if they had approched a professional genealogist to help them progress thier family tree. They would happily charge to redo work that has already been done. I wouldn’t dream of berating this person for not recording their sources to the exacting levels of the Genealogical Proof Standard. However people should be encouraged to record basic source information, if only to save them time and possibly money in the future.

    • I’m not saying we shouldn’t encourage people to source. As you pointed out, your research is going to be less than effective if you can’t remember where things came from. We just need to be aware of *how* we are encouraging them to do so.

      • As the source miseries seem to cause a lot of the perceived “unfair” criticism, I suggest that we never again hand a blank family group sheet to a learner if it does not have blank lines that are clearly for recording sources.

        I can understand why it feels unfair to learners to be criticized about missing the sources — so many family group sheet blanks are on the web, and somewhat promoted by the rest of us, that don’t ask for sources.

  • Great article. As a historian, I know how important citation is. I had my MA when I started doing my own family’s history…but at first, I was so excited I didn’t think of inputting citations. Even now, I find the process way more time-consuming than the MLA method I used when at school. I save copies of supporting documents and will eventually go through and attach them all in my genealogy software. They’re definitely attached to my Ancestry tree. Had I read some of the things I’ve seen online about citing everything in precise detail when I was first starting, I would have been frustrated, but wouldn’t have given up, because I have pretty thick skin. But I can see how other people, especially those unfamiliar with academic citation, would throw up their hands and walk away…which would be a shame. Not everyone has to take genealogy seriously – if they just want to add people to a tree and not worry, then that’s their business.

    As a librarian, I help patrons learn how to use Ancestry LE and don’t make a big deal about citation. Again, I KNOW it’s important, but most people I see are just starting out and I don’t want to dampen their enthusiasm with a lecture about doing precise Shown Mills style citations. If they ask me about how to keep track of things, I’ll give them info. That said, I’m going to see if we can find the money to buy a copy of Evidence Explained for our collection.

    • As a librarian, I’m sure you’re familiar with meeting people where their information needs are. You can’t force someone into using a resource or a method that they aren’t ready and/or willing to use. And that’s ok. 🙂

  • Brilliant article. Citations are important but the story of family history is far more important. P.s. scolding doesn’t work for employees.

  • I’d like to know why in applying for a copy of a document in a particular state which I have to do online because I live in another country, that being the living grandchild of the somewhat recently deceased (less than 100 years) classifies me as ineligible. I was told I could only apply for a copy of a death certificate if I was a sibling of the deceased person, the spouse of the deceased person or the child of the deceased person. All of these people are dead I explained but was told that because I didn’t fit into the allowable categories, I could not apply. Being a living grandchild is not a good enough link to my grandmother apparently. I was also told that wanting the document for geneological purposes wasn’t a good enough reason to get one. They suggested I could try to obtain a copy if I went to the local city hall but there were no guarantees this would work … Which part about living in another country did they not understand? Ironically, the next state over was happy to send me what I needed.

    Asking as someone who is an amateur enthusiast, not expecting an answer, how does anyone get around this?

    • In the US, access to vital records is up to each state. As you’ve discovered, some states are more restrictive than others. It doesn’t matter that you live in another country. If the record in question is too “new” (anywhere from 25 to 100 years, depending on the state), a state could have restrictions on who can access it. The premise is to prevent identity theft. (The accuracy of those claims is debatable.)

    • To the question of how to get around it, ask yourself what is it your want to learn from that death certificate and then think of other records that could provide the same information.

  • When I began genealogy online, I was interested in finding sources for gaps and missing information. I had no idea of blocks having nothing to do with records. I have met some wonderful and helpful cousins. They have opened doors I thought would never be opened.

    Others, who for the most part, are not cousins, may paint themselves as benevolent and generous. I believe family researchers should be aware of them, and their various motivations before joining websites and contributing.

    Websites as an income: It doesn’t matter what the label, “non- not for profit”, “organizations”, if there is a person or group of people who make their living from a website, discussion or debate could be perceived as complaints and therefore, assaults on the company and treated as such. Some websites revolve around protecting the income, all else is secondary.

    Fame and Fortune: For most family researchers, it is about finding their story and history. Some however, find esteem in names of ancestors and block others right to “their” claim. When looking at a website, search for records, family trees or Gedcoms using a common name of different ethnicity. You will have to decide what those searches say, if anything, about the website. This means resources and support from trusted independent groups in other places are necessary touchstones.

    Concrete Thinkers: The mantra “genealogy without sources is mythology” is wielded against others to the extreme. The statement is in fact, concrete. If genealogy were an “exact” science, I can say as a person based in science, there are no absolutes in science. Science doesn’t use terminology of never, always, or variations of such. A source is a reference, subject to current knowledge, and to subsequent change when better information becomes available. A source is not a fact, but record of an event.

    A birth certificate is a record that a person was born on a date, in a place, to certain parents. Has a birth certificate ever been wrong? Certainly, many times, for many reasons. but a birth certificate is considered definitive as a stand alone evidence by a concrete thinker. Birth and death certificates are also the currency of fraud. Proof is a compendium of knowledge based on many sources, direct and indirect. Proof is always open to reinterpretation if evidence requires.

    Belief Systems. I will not criticize anyone’s beliefs just as no one has the right to criticize mine. But if we are not aware of this motivation, how it affects us and our search, as I was not, we stumble unaware, into problems of misunderstanding.

    I was naive when I first started using online genealogy websites. I no longer pay for what is public record. I use search features on free websites. I have posted here after reading comments that are civil and respectful. I would like for others to avoid bad experiences that may change their future decision to pursue their search.

    Online websites are useful, but don’t be tempted to jump in right away. Research websites as you would anyone allowed into your life. Who are they, what is their background, their goals. Look at best reviews and at worst reviews. Look at user reviews and at industry reviews if the site and software is secure. Don’t agree to their terms if you can’t even see the website before agreement or providing private information. Develop your own terms before deciding to agree to someone else’s. If they don’t meet your standards, look elsewhere. As your mother always said: If all your friends jumped off a cliff does that mean you would jump too?

    If you have a group of people who are supportive and accepting, hold onto them. If you suddenly find yourself on the defensive after joining a group, step away. Nothing in their terms of service requires you to hand over your peace of mind.

    Thanks Amy, good posts stay relevant over time.