What Kind of Genealogist Are You? by Paul J. Lareau

Paul J. Lareau, "What Kind of Genealogist are You? (http://www.lareau.org/genealtp.html : posted 10 June 2000) viewed on 10 April 2003.

Not all genealogists are pursuing the same hobby. I classify genealogists into 4 general categories, with what I estimate are the percentages of genealogist who fall in each group:

COLLECTORS OF DEAD RELATIVES (25%) — These folks happily collect whatever information they find. They seldom if ever take the trouble to confirm anything from original records. They seek quantity rather than quality, are generally interested in all their ancestral lines, and as many of their lines of cousins, no matter how distant, as they can find. The Internet and the GEDCOM file have put them in hog heaven, and you can hear them enthusiastically talking about the 2,500 new cousins they added last week. They are probably the most enthusiastic genealogists, are the most willing to share their information with others and are most likely to have their whole line available on the Internet. They are the biggest offenders when it comes to passing along errors, but collectors are also very easy to identify, and can be avoided by those who take the hobby more seriously. They have more fun trading ancestors with other "Collectors" anyway, and think the others take it all too seriously.

HOBBYISTS (40%) — These folks often learned about genealogy from a book or a class. They keep good records, tend to limit their research to their direct ancestors, a few surname lines, and / or cousins closer than 5th or at most 6th. They tend to put a great deal more emphasis on biographical information, photographs, and copies of certificates and documents (not because they're sources, but because they're historical mementos.) Lists of names and dates with no "meat" tend to bore them, and they're more likely, if they get such lists, to start digging into the libraries and local records to see if they can give the name a personality. For them, the family genealogy is a continuing saga of people's lives, and their pride is in piecing together the story. They record sources, sometimes, but they aren't necessarily all that conscientious about it. They are not nearly as turned on by Internet web sites, but ohhh, do they love email! For them, genealogy is a social experience and email connects them with more interesting people with more interesting stories. They're also the most likely to be seen at family reunions, notebook or tape recorder in hand.

PROFESSIONALS (25%) — Most of these folks don't do this for a living, but they have a lot in common with the folks that do. For them, documentation is the key. Quality is all important, quantity is immaterial. Unlike the hobbyists, they feel genealogy is far less social, as they're not all that impressed with oral history, in that they suspect that many of the cute and interesting stories are exaggerated and even fictional. Most of the people documented in their records have primary or at least very dependable derivative sources, or they are marked clearly as "unproven" or even "questionable." They tend to spend lots of time scouring census records, church registers, and public record offices. Like the Collectors, they are very turned on by the Internet, but unlike them, they are using it to locate new record sources in distant places where they can finally get what they need to prove that elusive connection. These folks tend to happily fit the stereotype of the genealogist at the microfilm reader in the deepest, darkest basement room in the library.

SKEPTICS (10%) — These folks aren't as visible as the other three categories. They are not all that interested in genealogy, per se, but for other reasons, are involved in genealogy research. They might be found among adoptees or persons assisting them; members of patriotic groups like the DAR; lawyers looking for heirs or other missing folks; or historians researching events or localities. Because their quests involve things more important than just curiosity about family or the fun of a hobby, they require a much greater level of proof than even the professionals and reject many connections that even the most diligent hobby genealogists would quickly accept. There is also a class of skeptic into which a few ex-genealogists fall ... persons who decided that most of the information available is likely to be bad, if not because of transcription errors and premature jumping to conclusions, but because of intentional hiding of the truth by the ancestors and cousins themselves, trying to cleanse history in their favor. They often quit the hobby in frustration.

While most genealogists clearly fall in one of these categories, some do fall on the borderlines between them. The librarian who is really a hobbyist but has the skill to document like a professional. The collectors who spend more time and effort documenting their direct ancestry, but lets the cousins fall where they may. The historian who gets involved in the story of a family of folks from his / her town and end up researching and documenting them as a separate project. Whatever type of genealogist you are, my guess is that you could place yourself accurately on this continuum, and with a little thought, you could place everyone else you deal with somewhere on it, too.

PROFESSIONALS often have a very negative attitude toward COLLECTORS. These folks are usually at odds with each other and have caused a very large number of the arguments that have broken out in genealogical societies and genealogical discussion forums on the Internet. This is understandable, because they are truly pursuing different hobbies. The HOBBYISTS tend to be the folks who referee these debates, because they are thankful that the professionals are there to document the records, and spend the time proving facts, while the hobbyist would rather be out socializing with great aunt Martha. On the other hand, the hobbyists are also thankful to the collectors who give the hobby the enthusiasm that brings more and more people into genealogy, and they also provide many, many leads that the hobbyists can use to make contacts they never would have made otherwise.

The answer to the problem is that each genealogist should use the tools with which they are most comfortable, accept or reject information from others as they see fit, and pursue genealogy in whatever way they most enjoy it. Don't criticize or try to stop other people who view the hobby differently from enjoying it, though by all means, don't accept information that doesn't satisfy you. Censorship or the imposition of higher standards than everyone is willing to accept is not the answer ... it is just a way to start the kind of wrangling that will make the hobby less fun for others. And that's the real key. Genealogy is supposed to be FUN!! Take care not to spoil it for yourself or for anyone else.