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

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Breaking Down Barriers to Family History

A chance comment, made in a class I taught yesterday, stuck in my mind and as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot would say, "started the little grey cells" working away. At the time of the comment, I was discussing ways that tradition-bound genealogists erect substantial barriers to would-be family historians. In addition, an extensive comment made in response to a blog post I wrote yesterday gave me further food for thought.

The question I present is this: Are we as "genealogists" really interested in attracting new adherents to the area of family history or are we content to maintain our very evident exclusivity? Put another way, is genealogy an exclusive club that requires the payment of "one's dues" for entry or is it a popular, open-invitation community event with activities for all ages and all abilities?

Unfortunately, I seem to run into the exclusive club folks all the time. The two comments made me aware that they are alive and well and prickly in their exclusivity.

I see three major barriers to attracting new genealogists to the fold. Each of these barriers seem very innocent in themselves but they each rely on entrenched attitudes that have taken different forms at different times in the development of what we now call genealogy. For the first time I am beginning to understand more completely why there have been a number of statements made by various presentations associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that "You don't have to be a genealogist." You might also want to read a post written in 2011 by the Ancestry Insider. That post was written back when the program was being abandoned for the development of Family Tree, but expresses the goals of FamilySearch that still apply today. Quoting from the Ancestry Insider about some of the requirements of a program that would replace
FamilySearch has several goals.
  • Make it so you don’t have to be a genealogist to do genealogy.
  • Make it easy to receive (and give) assistance.
  • Make the site genealogically sound so that even advanced genealogists will want to use it
 What are the three barriers?

  1. That you need to "do something" before you begin recording your family history. 
  2. Maintaining that recording information about your family requires the use of a particular software program "that runs on your computer" or a particular format. 
  3. That genealogy consists of searching for names and dates either online or in repositories.

To understand what I mean by these three barriers, I will propose a hypothetical situation. Let's suppose that we have someone who decides to "do their genealogy or family history." This person comes into a family history center or talks to an "experienced" genealogist about getting started. What are they told" What I have observed over and over again is that the person is told to fill out a "pedigree chart" (usually on paper) so that we can "organize" the genealogy. Then the person is usually put in front of a computer and shown various programs where the "helper" finds a census record or something about the family. They are then sent home to "do their genealogy" with a photocopy of the census record. Oh, I almost forgot, in the course of helping the person with their "genealogy" the helper tells them that they "need a program on their computer to organize and work on their family history."

When the newly interested person goes home, they promptly lose the paper copies or throw them away and decide that genealogy is too complicated. They are especially puzzled by the suggestion that they need to buy a genealogy program to record their family history. Does this scenario sound familiar? This reaction is especially true of younger, device savvy, computer literate individuals.

In fact, one of the most common ways we tell people to do their genealogy is to gather all their records together in their home. See Gather Family Information. All of these suggestions seem rational and fairly innocuous. But in fact, they are substantial barriers to beginning a family history. What is needed is a clear path to beginning recording family history in a way that allows the new person to progress and not have to start over and over.

We are rapidly developing that entry path. In fact, it is already substantially available. It is called Family Tree. Believe me, it has taken me some time to work through my 32+ years of experience and realize the baggage I have accumulated. Using Family Tree as the basis for introducing people to family history is a giant step towards making family history or genealogy more accessible to more people.

Here is how that hypothetical would change. The new person would come into the family history center and would be given several options, including recording a personal oral history. But rather than giving the person a paper pedigree chart or the equivalent, they would be introduced to Family Tree and record what they presently know about their family. By doing this right at the beginning, they will not "lose ground." What they enter into the program with the assistance of the experienced genealogist, will be preserved and available either to the person at home or on any other network connected device. The next step is to show them how Family Tree will search for more information about their family. They are not told that they need "their own program" or anything else. They can add stories. They can add photos. They can add copies of documents, if they are inclined to do so, but all that is really necessary is to start adding in their own family information. If they continue with more interest, then there is a lot more to learn. But the key is, they do not need all of my our your years of genealogical baggage to get started. I think I am beginning to see why some would say "you don't need to be a genealogist to do genealogy."

I will talk about some of the other issues raised by my list of barriers in subsequent posts.

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