Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hobbyists in Our Midst

I just returned last night from the Ohio Genealogical Society Conference. Of course, I had a great time. It was fun to reconnect with people I don’t see very often and talk to other people for the very first time. Another highlight for me – and this may sound strange if you are not a mom of little kids – was sleeping in a hotel room by myself. I always miss my kids and I’m relieved that I only have “local” speaking assignments for the next couple of months (including NERGC coming up this weekend!), but I cannot tell you how much I look forward to sleeping in a hotel room by myself. There is something incredibly luxurious about going to sleep at whatever time I want and waking up at whatever time I want. And my room at the Hyatt was absolutely fabulous…

Anyway, I am already digressing from the topic I mean to write on. While I was in Columbus, I began to reflect on the type of people who attend conferences like these. Now, I don’t mean age, gender, income levels, or even personalities. I mean what level of skills people who come to genealogical conferences have. Most of you probably know the answer to this question: they have all different levels of skills and backgrounds. I notice this so much as people come ask me questions after my lectures. Some of the questions begin like this, “I’m brand new to this and I just wanted to know….” This is followed by a very basic and general question such as, “I think my great-grandfather might have been born in Germany. What should I do?” On the other hand, I also have people who ask questions that begin like this, “I’ve been working on tracing my family for the past twenty years, but I’m a stuck on this one line.” The question that follows will show extensive efforts in searching a variety of documents and advanced skills in analyzing evidence.

Apart from this spectrum of skills, there is another important divide between people at conferences that we don’t talk about as much. Some are professional genealogists – or aspiring professional genealogists, while others are hobbyists. These hobbyists love doing genealogy (and may be new or may be experienced), but their only intention is to trace their own families.

These differences present unique challenges. When you are a speaking, you have to be aware that out there in your audience are hobbyists and professionals – sitting next to each other, each hoping to gain something from your lecture. And let me say - I think conferences generally do a good of job of meeting these diverse needs. My comments that follow are not a reaction or commentary on OGS at all – I just happened to be at the conference when some of my thoughts came together on this.

I feel like most of us recognize the difference in experience levels among people at conferences (or local genealogy meetings). But, sometimes I wonder if those of us who are “professionals,” sometimes forget that there are hobbyists in our midst. Not only are there hobbyists in our midst, but MOST of the people around us are hobbyists. It’s not a difference of skills necessarily; it’s a difference of goals. These hobbyists have no intention of taking on a client – ever, and have no desire to ever publish in a scholarly journal. And, that is just fine.

This should shape our approach. I especially think of this in regards to writing family histories – a topic I speak on frequently. In Ohio, I was thinking about what the main message I want to get across in my lecture is. It’s not “Make sure you use Evidence Explained – and follow it EXACTLY.” It’s not “There is only one way to number the generations in your family history that makes sense, so be sure you get it right.” I realized the main message I wanted to send was, “You can do it. You can write your family history.” I want people to leave my lecture with hope – not fear.

I am, of course, not saying we should promote sloppy research. But let’s face it: the great majority of people in my lecture have no interest in publishing in the NGSQ. They want to write a family history for their family. Lest you be alarmed, I talk about documentation in my lectures. I talk about Evidence Explained and the Chicago Manual of Style. I stress how important it is for others to be able to see where they got their information from.

I also talk about some writing techniques. I warn people about passive verbs, cheer for proofreading (despite the fact that I don’t proofread my blog much!), promote deleting adverbs in favor of using stronger verbs, etc. But, my deep thought after lying in my Hyatt room in wonderful solitude is that there is a more important message than verbs and footnotes.

I hope professional journals continue to hold their standards high. I hope those who publish in them meet these professional standards with their writing style and with thoroughness in documentation.

As for everyone else though, I want something a little different. I want people to write the best, most accurate, most well-researched family history they possibly can. But most of all, I want them to write their family history. Because a written family history – even if it doesn’t meet “professional” standards – is much better than no written family history at all. And you don’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize winning writer – or a certified genealogist – to write a family history that your family will treasure for generations to come.


  1. I think your distinction based on goals rather than skill levels is very perceptive - too many people tend to emphasize a difference in skills. By the way, there is absolutely nothing wrong with passive verbs. The "rule" about avoiding the passive voice, even more so than the one on not splitting infinitives, is actually an arbitrary preference, despite what generations of English teachers have preached. The passive voice, while a less common form than the active, is useful both for the function it performs (including following theme-rheme order in narration) and for the nuances in style and in point of view that it makes possible.

  2. I agree that there is certainly a place for passive voice. (Look - I just used it there:) It shouldn't be avoided, it should just not be overused. The point is to choose strong verbs that convey a person's meaning effectively.

  3. Hi Leslie ~
    Speaking as one of those "hobbyists" I believe this is an important distinction.

    I really enjoyed your presentation about writing family history - and the main thing that I took away from it, the part that I was sharing with someone when I got back home, was that family will appreciate the 20 less than perfect pages you DO write more than the 200 pages you MEANT to write. I need to put that on a plaque and hang it over my computer!!

    I find that many hobbyists in genealogy tend to understand the higher standards and strive to emulate them. Even people who never hope to have a client would hope to be "professional" in their own work on their own family. That's great but the down side, at least speaking for me, is that sometimes I don't do anything because I know if I had more time I could do it better.

    Thanks for an inspiring talk at OGS - you definitely gave me the feeling that we all can - and SHOULD - write :-)

  4. I love that you are looking forward to time alone in the hotel room. I'm looking forward to some time just resting. Dinner that late may kill me.

  5. I also attended the OGS Conference and attended two of your talks. I thought they were great! In reflecting on this post, I realize that I am definitely in the hobbyist category -- yet I am constantly trying to improve. I was inspired by a one-day workshop our chapter held two years ago to get something written. It inspired me to write a family history blog. Blogging has been far more rewarding than I anticipated. I hope you don't mind that I linked to your blog in my most recent post.


  6. Leslie, it was great meeting you at OGS! I found your lecture very inspiring, just like your blog. As someone who enjoys writing but often gets bogged down in the details, I appreciate the encouragement to just do it. I also got a lot of good information from your session on immigration records. And by the way, I love having a whole hotel room all to myself, too!

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  8. I agree with your basic premise and your messages to both groups. But I wish we could get away from labels like "professional" and "hobbyist." It seems to me that a dichotomous nomenclature contributes to the differences in quality of work, to a degree.

    Unfortunately,the terms come to genealogy with their own sets of baggage. Genealogy is one of a set of unique pursuits like astronomy or ornithology. In any of these fields, on any given day, the so-called hobbyist or "amateur" may be as likely as the "pro" make a significant discovery or contribution.

    Now have I a better idea for the terminology of practitioners in genealogy? Not yet, but I am working on it!

  9. Thank you, Craig. You essentially spoke to what I wanted to mention as I read through the neat post and the great comments. How nice to have a real discussion on this blog.
    I do not take outside clients, so I am not a professional. But, the 'hobbyist' is certainly not descriptive either. I hold a research Ph.D., I've studied and practiced genealogy research seriously for over 15 years. I submitted a portfolio for certification a few years ago, but was turned down because of lack of 'social involvement' not for an deficiency in all of my reports, citations, etc. I have published four family histories and two articles in a genealogy journal. I blog and write, continuously. I published a 900 plus page online family history compilation. That doesn't feel 'hobbyist' - sorry.
    Thanks, again Craig, for suggesting we develop some more descriptive 'titles.' Thanks for the opportunity to comment. ;-)

  10. Thanks for the comments. I certainly didn't mean "hobbyist" as an insult and I do see your point on moving away from simplistic terminology. I do not mean to label and divide people - but mean to argue for the exact opposite: that we be inclusive in our approach to genealogy and genealogical educational opportunities. I think it's helpful to remember that not only do we come from different research backgrounds, but we don't all have the same goals for the future either. And I think that's okay.

    And by the way, I do not take outside clients right now either (although I once did). I don't feel that means I am not a professional.