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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Redefining genealogy in the 21st century

Recently I was directed to a post by Kenneth R. Marks titled “I Don’t Wanna be a Genealogist.”   To be honest I was not sure what to expect.  I had read the review on Jenny Davis’s site Attracting 21ster Genealogists and had to read it for myself.  Briefly, in the article Mr. Marks tells his personal research story into genealogy and why the institution that is in place needs to change. 

First off, and this shows just how un-hip I am, I had never heard of the term 21ster.  Sad, but true.  It also appears to be a term only found in genealogy circles as my friends who aren’t into my addiction looked at me like I had grown two heads when I asked them if they had heard of a 21ster.  All the Google searches I did on the term only pulled up genealogy blogs too, that was a clue.  Ms. Davis defines a 21ster as:
Undefined by age, a 21ster has embraced technology and expects to use all sorts of technological tools in their family history research.
My wonderful husband told me that they have a similar concept in the IT world but have not labeled it with such a swanky name.  The world at-large does acknowledge that there are a group of people out there, usually in the 15-35 age range, that are driven by their use of technology.  They are the ones that will whip out the smart phone and do searches, purchases, and correspondences right there.  They are plugged-in and know how to use the tech out there.

In his post, Mr. Marks’s characterization of how to define the current generation of genealogists and family historians struck me.  He stated:
It is my view that neither term fits the current state of ancestor research. In fact, the “new” type of researcher is interested in discovering kinships, relationships, and stories, with an ever increasing interest in old photos, old documents, letters and other artifacts. In other words, both “genealogy” and “family history” apply but neither term satisfies.
I would define myself similarly.  I do enjoy collecting all the ephemera as well as the cold hard facts about people and making connections with others who are researching the same families.  The ability to share and collaborate with others makes you a stronger researcher since you have to be critical of your findings and others as well.  Also, I feel you can’t have a good story with just the raw data.  You need historical, social, and personal stories to really fill out your family saga.  On the flip side I don’t agree that a new term needs to be created.  Why can’t the words genealogy or family history still be used to define what I, and others, do?  We are still tracing our ancestors; just because we are doing it in a high-tech way doesn’t make it any different than those who do it with pencil and paper. 

Mr. Marks experiment intrigued me; however, I am not sure I agree with all of his conclusions.  I know, from first hand-experience, that you cannot do EVERYTHING online in any subject.  Sometimes, you have to go to a museum, archive, specialized library, or even a castle to understand the project you are trying to learn about.  Yes, I have done the castle thing for a project.  Relying on only on-line sources for any research endeavor is tantamount to hamstringing yourself at the beginning of a race.  You will never be completely successful in your research by limiting the types of information gathering opportunities you have.

That being said, do I think that there are places for improvement?  Yes.  Would I like a better online presence from societies, archives, libraries, and the like?  Yes.  Do I expect them to put their entire collection online?  No.  That costs money and resources that many places just don’t have and it is unrealistic to think that everyone can digitize all their images at this point in time.  It would be fantastic if someday in the future we could have everything in the world online, if not for research for pure preservation of the materials, but this is a gargantuan task that I know possibly not be accomplished in my lifetime.  Right now I would be satisfied with an online presence which makes browsing their titles, contacting the correct staff, or how to take advantage of their institution.  All too often I search sites unable to find this information.  In particular my frustration is with many genealogy societies.  It is my opinion that societies have no excuse not to have an online presence with all the free or low cost resources out there to get you started. 

As for the claim that 21sters don't want to be lectured at but worked with... I am not too sure how I feel about that statement. If the presentation is exciting, intriguing, and thought provoking I will be more than happy sit through it. Having someone work with you, in my opinion, is only good in small groups, and rarely online. If you want someone to work with you, you are going to have to get out of your house, off the computer, and meet them somewhere, most likely an archive. How else will you learn? Of course, I do love the smell of musty, dusty old books and the feel of that rag paper in my hands. You won't get that from the computer.

For his conclusions on what it takes to be a certified genealogist, well, it’s not for everyone.  I too have looked at what it takes to get certified and/or accredited.  It is intimidating, but very looks similar to the types of programs for advanced degrees and certifications in other fields.  There has to be a standardization that researchers go through to get that alphabet soup after their name, or else everyone could claim that because they have taken a few free online webinars they are now a professional.  Nothing like that should ever be taken lightly, and just like other areas of study, not everyone needs their Masters or Doctorate to be successful in their chosen fields.  Kudos to those who strive for that, they deserve the perks (what few there are) that come with their hard work and dedication to the field.

Now… off to do some online research.
photo credit: via photo pin cc and Klara Kim

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