Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Genealogical Paradox

How can genealogy be fun and easy, when at the same time, it is one of the most difficult and challenging areas of research? How can genealogy be simple and complex at the same time? During the past week or so, I have been receiving questions about some of the most challenging genealogical problems imaginable. During that same time period, I have seen several blog posts claiming that new developments are making family history easier than ever, as if it were ever easy. Why is genealogy being portrayed as fun and easy?

I have written about this general subject before and gotten a number of comments about how fun genealogy can be. I have come to the conclusion that both "fun" and "easy" are so vague as to be almost useless. I took a huge number of my grandchildren to a local exploration-type museum. I think some of them considered this visit to be fun. I would not have characterized my activities there as fun. It was interesting, but I am afraid that since most of the activities were aimed at children about 8 years old or younger, I felt somewhat left out of the fun. Of course, I wasn't there because of the attraction, I was there because of the grandchildren.

I guess my basic question is why does genealogy have to be both fun and easy? Are we really trying to make family history or genealogy into the equivalent of a local amusement activity with activities that attract a lot of young children running and screaming at the top of their voices? Some of the museum activities were supposed to be "educational," But with all the noise and confusion, I suspect that any educational content was lost. When I am doing genealogical research, I need huge blocks of time with almost no distractions. I need to be able to think and feel the spirit of what I am looking for. It seems to me that this is the antithesis of fun and easy. I have said it before, I would not keep doing genealogy if it were not one of the most challenging activities I have ever found, including law and graduate studies.

Are we really accomplishing what we want to accomplish by selling genealogy and family history as fun and easy? Is there really some level where people can participate without an expenditure of time and a great deal of effort? I think I would rather like to use the words "gratifying," "fulfilling," "soul-expanding," "fascinating," and other similar terms. These terms may not attract the 8-year-old level of fun and easy, but they do convey a better idea of the motivations we have for becoming involved in doing, what can be tedious and time-consuming, research.

I don't think there is a real paradox in family history and genealogy. I think there is only an apparent one generated by those who most obviously do not spend much of their time doing family history research. I think adding to the ranks of the genealogists is more like recruiting graduate students for a position at a university than attracting a bunch of children to a local amusement activity. Producing valid genealogical research requires a number of highly developed skills and some innate talent. Overall, it requires a valid interest in the subject matter.

Over the past few years, I have seen a slow increase in interest in family history among my own, now fully grown, children. Over time, I see them begin research activities on their own and start making visits to family history centers and libraries. Each of them has the potential of making a huge contribution to our family history. Their motivation comes through a spiritual realization of the importance of the history of our family and based, in part, on strong religious beliefs. They are all very busy with family and work, but they now spend time occupied with regular family history activities. I might also mention that they are entirely unaware of the fun and easy promotions going on about involving younger people with genealogy.

Wouldn't it be a good idea to attract highly educated and capable people to genealogy and family history. Perhaps we should begin emphasizing the more motivational aspects of our work rather than competing with amusement parks and superficial educational activities.


  1. "Fun and Easy!" I am not sure the two go together. I agree that we seem to make great efforts to "sell" the product rather than "do" the product. Like the doctor that gets a radio or tv program. Suddenly he becomes more interested in ratings than health. I used to dairy farm in Illinois and Wisconsin. My wife misses it, that is the nice weather, new calves, the smell of freshly cut alfalfa. She misses it until I remind her of dead calves, frozen water pipes, vet bills, flooded cornfields.... Maybe I should write a book, "Farming, Fun and Easy"

    1. I totally agree. Thanks for the analogy.

  2. It seems FamilySearch is now focused almost entirely on increasing the percentage of people in the Church who submit names for temple work. We get updates on the statistics for our ward regularly in priesthood meeting. Their approach seems to be to make Family Tree like a "Facebook" experience where you can easily capture a photo or audio clip with your smart phone and upload it to the Tree. That is all fine, but we also need the capable, dedicated, and committed serious genealogists to do the massive clean-up that is required in Family Tree and to do the hard research that is required when you get back into the earlier time periods. The records I have encountered in Family Tree, particularly from the Scandinavian countries, are a real disaster. It can take hours to try and fix a single improperly combined record. Unfortunately, FamilySearch's current approach seems to, at best, ignore the massive clean-up effort that is required, and, at worst, to alienate the serious genealogists who are needed to perform this work. Serious shortcomings in Family Tree, such as the inability to deal with IOS records and improperly combined records, seem to be ignored in favor of rolling out the latest glitzy enhancement. Hopefully, at some point, FamilySearch will find a balance and embrace the serious genealogists who are really trying to get Family Tree cleaned up and perform the "hard" research.

    1. Well said, but I think FamilySearch is doing both. The problems with Family Tree are being resolved, slowly, but surely. I think that they will accomplish both goals. Eventually.