In Defense of Beginners

Filed in On The Hunt, Uncategorized by on 26 November 2012 17 Comments

An article was published last week setting the genealogy community on fire. The thrust of the article; without first obtaining a license, people shouldn’t be allowed to publish their genealogy. I have no problem discussing controversial subjects, but many readers felt the author’s tone was gratuitously condescending. I won’t link to it directly, however, if you’d like to see what all the fuss is about, the title is “Drive-by Genealogy”. Here was my initial reaction:

Rorey Cathcart's Twitter Feed

Responding to Drive-by Genealogy

Well, actually, that was not my ‘real’ initial reaction. I first typed out a scathing critique of the writer’s tone and her premise in the original article. Fortunately, my rational side grabbed the keyboard back from my emotional side prior to submission. When you get past the tone, the article addresses a real problem.

The Problem – Bad Information Abounds

Saying there is bad information on the Internet is like saying all genealogists will encounter a brick wall. It’s a fact. Every genealogist was once a beginner. Beginners make the mistake of taking someone else’s information as gospel. When I began using I freely connected to other family trees. I built my trees on family stories and grabbed the sources that confirmed predefined ‘facts’, contributing to misinformation. Those shaky leaves became my ‘fix’ and my tree quickly grew as a result. Great fun!

It didn’t take long before the problems and contradictions became obvious. Fortunately, I was hooked. My new mission became Better not More. But I had so much to share with my family and no meaningful way to do it. I began hosting my trees publicly on the Internet. And those public trees – knots and all – have led to many new research opportunities, corrections, cousin-connections and professional development. Opportunities and connections that could not have come any other way.

The Solution – More Speech not Less

The article’s solution, only professionals should be allowed to publish, ignores basic facts.

  1. Even professionals make mistakes.
  2. One cannot become a professional without publishing their work.
  3. Most families don’t have a professional genealogist.

So what might be a better solution? The answer to all controversial speech is more speech.  We debate and engage rather than stifle those we disagree with. In the case of genealogy, we engage those who publish incorrect information.

When I realized the poor quality of some Ancestry or self published genealogy, I assumed a drastic personal approach. I ignored it all. I was smug in the knowledge I was going to do it better. I ignored everyone else’s work. Then I began to think: “But these folks are working the same family I am”. I sent messages to other Ancestry members to inquire about our shared interests. I emailed owners of self published websites to see if we could prove a connection.

Low and behold, the much maligned beginners were a wealth of information. Yes some of the information was wrong. But some bad information came with pictures and documents that I could analyze myself. There was personal knowledge and recorded interviews that moved a brick wall back a little farther. There were stories and laughs and promises to stay in touch. And, there were opportunities for me to help them avoid some of the same pitfalls I suffered.

Some people will not respond to your outreach. Some people will not take the information given because they are still emotionally invested in their story. Mark these folks down in your research log as non-communicative and move on to the next potential cousin. You should not ignore those Ancestry Member Trees or self published genealogies, but you don’t have to link to them either.

Genealogy is about finding our place in this world and connecting families together. Banishing the beginner from the Internet takes away their opportunity to collaborate, learn and grow. And maybe, join the ranks of the professionals some day.

Rorey Cathcart
Copyright (c) 26 November 2012

About the Author ()

Professional genealogist and lecturer. Located in Charleston County, SC. Special research interests in South Carolina, Southern States, Irish Heritage and Migratory Patterns. Researcher for Genealogy Roadshow on PBS seasons two and three.

Comments (17)

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  1. Jana Last says:

    Great post! Love your solution!

  2. Edie Jarolim says:

    I was one of those who shot my mouth off sarcastically — and no doubt defensively– in response to the tone of the article. I have a very eclectic blog and worry that I don’t do “real” genealogy.

    I still believe that the author would have been better off trying to educate people rather than lambasting them. But this post is an example of the good things that result from thinking again and coming out with a thoughtful, well-reasoned post, one that explores the problem from a self-reflective perspective and teaches something useful about genealogy — and about life, i.e., that sometimes it’s good not to go with your first instincts! Thanks for this.

    • Edie,

      I read your blog. Its ecletic nature is the thing I love most about it. Well, that and your writing style which I admire. (Freud’s Butcher for those that haven’t stumbled upon Edie yet.)

      To the post though, there is a reason it took me so long to write and publish it. I was pretty hopping mad about the article. And it was so tough not to comment on blogs like yours that responded sooner. But I’ve learned that if something gets me that fired up I should probably spend a little time reflecting on why.

      Thanks so much for stopping by.

  3. Very wise. Very. Bad information and good information grow up together on family trees, Censoring public trees (or unlicensed genealogists) does not lead to either more or better knowledge. You describe so well your process of engaging the beginners and finding treasures there in the interaction. Truths don’t come in pure form!

    I could not agree more that “the answer to controversial speech is always more speech.” After all, “free speech” is exactly what has happened to the article on drive-by genealogy, and the debate has been enlightening for all.

    • Thank you so much Mariann,

      Without beginners our industry and community cannot grow. Without open communication our stories cannot be told.

      I don’t mind having the debate about bad information or those folks who are intentionally indifferent to publishing it beyond the beginners learning curve. I just wish the author had taken a friendlier and more contructive approach to her subject.

  4. Tara Cajacob says:

    I totally agree with you. The fact that you share your beliefs with compassion and forethought and an interest in enriching the genealogical community by sharing your knowledge puts you in an entirely different league from the author of the article you reference. I’m glad you posted this. I was totally flabberghasted when I read that article. I, too, struggled with how to respond…

    Edie, I hate that you have to feel like that as a beginner. I also really enjoy your blog. I think most of the community is very supportive of newbies. I just worry those who are unsupportive are sometimes much louder than the rest of us! Keep up the good work. And as someone who felt threatened by that article, I applaud you for standing your ground and speaking your mind instead of getting discouraged and backing down or quitting.

    • Tara,

      Thank you for the kind words and show of support.

      I think the genealogy community as a whole is going through some growing pains right now. National ad campaigns like and shows like “Who Do You Think You Are” have ignited the interests of many beginners and casual hobbyists. Blogging has given a new voice to people of all skill levels. That also means a whole lot of new content to sift through while researching, much of it poorly sourced.

      So be it. One of the ways we supposedly distinguish ourselves as professionals – and I am striving to be one – is that we can take that mountain of evidence and properly analyze its content and credibility. Would it be nice if there weren’t so much of it out there? Yes. Will it always be out there? Also, yes.

      We cannot grow and improve our community if we lock the gates and refuse to let people in.

  5. Edie Jarolim says:

    Rory and Tara, thank you both for your nice words. Most of the genealogical community has been very welcoming, and I would never stop blogging, but that criticism of newbies just hit a sore spot. It doesn’t help that I have a very critical family member who tells me my inaccuracies — getting a date slightly wrong — are embarrassing to her!

  6. Linda says:

    Perfect. Genealogists need to collaborate more. It’s not just new genealogists who mess up; the biggest mistakes are often made by people with years of experience. I’m sure my tree has mistakes on it that I’m trying to work through, and I consider myself meticulous! The point of publishing it is to get the help you might need (plus I don’t feel like keeping three versions of the same tree in various stages of completion!).We all need to help each other out instead of judging people.

    • Linda,

      Everybody, and I mean everybody, makes mistakes. We. Are. Human. Regardless of skill level, it will happen.

      I host my personal genealogy on two seperate websites. Those sites run the entire spectrum of my research learning curve. I’m working to improve the citations to current standards, but it is a process. I’m certain some folks will drop from my tree as I re-analyse old data to my skill level now.

      But I put those websites out there to draw family together. To discuss what we know and what we don’t. To BE challenged on my conclusions. To help those that are just starting find their spark of interest. And, to save them some of the heartache of going it alone.

      Thanks for being here.

  7. Wise words, Rorey! It’s definitely a large playing field. How can each of us learn if we don’t work the community together? I’ve known so called hobbyists that knew more than professionals but chose to keep the love of family history at a fun (vs occupation) level. I’ve known professionals who lend a hand to newbies to explain how the research can be done differently or more effectively. We’ve all made mistakes, and we all have something to contribute. 🙂


    • Thank you Stephanie. One of the things I think regularly gets lost in these beginner v. professional debates is the fact that Genealogy is a Continuing Education Endeavor. Even the highly skilled have topics or specialties on which they could improve. We can all learn and grow together if work to make our community as open and welcoming as possible. Most of use come to genealogy with backgrounds other than Library Science. Those unique backgrounds lead to fresh points of view on all things genealogy. We should do our best not stifle those just making their way into the fold.

  8. Devon Lee says:

    Thanks for defending beginner genealogist. I think I’ve moved out of the beginner stage but professional is not a term I would use to describe myself. I did become a little ‘drastic’ in my approach with Ancestry by ignoring trees that don’t like to sources. Perhaps I’ll revisit those trees and see if the trees of common ancestors have information even though they haven’t been linking to sources. Thanks for giving me something to think about.

    • Devon, you’re welcome and happy to do it. I encourage you to reach out to some of the folks with trees related to yours. Many will not respond, some will. When you’ve hit a brick wall, sometimes it’s the only option you have. I’ve learned the hard way not to take any reasonable option off the table. What can it hurt to send an email or two? It has proven helpful to me on a couple of occasions.

  9. While I no-longer consider myself a beginner, I’m nowhere near being an expert, either. I’m studying towards a certificate in genealogy and I try to be flawless when it comes to sources and citations.

    Like many, I use Ancestry, but I keep my tree private. Partially because the further back we move in time, the less accurate my information is; and partially because I feel that, with all the hard work I put into my research, I don’t want others just grabbing my data and taking it as their own research.

    When I come across new sources, I go an check their veracity, so you could say that this tree is a rough draft of sorts. My way of telling myself that the information on an ancestor is complete is by adding their profile photo. If I don’t have any pictures, I use a male of female silhouette image in its stead. So while *I* know which information I can consider to be sound and accurate, to anyone else, information I know might be incorrect may be taken as being truthful when it hasn’t been completely verified.

    I used to use Legacy for my research, but after getting tired of wasting my time copying census images, vital docs, etc over to the program manually, I switched over to Family Tree Maker as it automatically syncs this data over to its desktop counterpart, saving me lots of time.

    So is it better to make my tree public by exposing potential errors to unsuspecting genealogy newbies and “giving away” my hard work, or do I keep it private and lose the opportunity to chat to others about common branches? After all, anyone can make a request to access my tree if it turns up something interesting in the search results.

    • Laura,

      I am in the tedious process of bringing my Ancestry tree citations up to snuff. I’m using RootsMagic. I tried FTM2012 with sync and found it a good tool. Unfortunately, because I upload my database to my personal websites, I had to move to RM for technical reasons. Rather than download all the images I simply include the image link and make it hot for my website via html. That way I can always quickly get back to census images and the like. Once I finish this process I will re-import my trees back into Ancestry.

      I think where some of this ‘bad info’ debate gets sidetrack is that Ancestry and products like it are our working databases rather than a finished product. As intermediate to advanced researchers we should be capable of analyzing the work of others for veracity and soundness before we incorporate that information into our own database. Not everyone has made it to that level yet. My objection to the original article centered on the author’s willingness to exclude a whole class of researchers because their work didn’t meet her standard.

      I’ve had the “give away” debate with myself repeatedly over the years. Several of my lines have very few folks working on them. I simply cannot afford *not* to share. I’ve made some amazing connections. I’ve been assisted by others and have been able to return the favor. But I’ve also had folks misuse my work. With all that though, I’m trying to err on this side of share.

      I really appreciate the time you took to comment.

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