Recent Family History survey results

On 12 March 2011, Myles Proudfoot invited genealogists to participate in a survey, through his blog “Family History 21ster.”  The survey was open until 5 April 2011, and on 12 April, Myles posted the results. Following his initial posting, he also offered the results cross-referenced by various factors. One of the most interesting was the “Amateur vs. Professional” breakdown. To view these results, read this entry.

The results may bear a slight margin of error due to the sampling size. Among survey respondents, 668 identified themselves as “Amateur genealogists,” while 54 identified themselves as “Academic genealogists” (no definition was offered), 113 identified themselves as “Professional genealogists,” and 60 identified themselves as “Not a professional genealogist but I do genealogy as a part of my job.” These three categories combine for a total of just 217, less than 1/3 of the number of amateurs. For the purposes of this overview, however, only the two categories “Amateur genealogist” and “Professional genealogist” will be compared, unless otherwise noted.

The first marked difference between amateurs and professional are revealed by two questions regarding experience. When asked, “For how many years have you been actively engaged in genealogy in total?” amateur genealogists responded with an average of 16.9 years, while professional genealogists responded with an average of 23.1 years. This by itself does not show a particularly significant difference, especially considering that the large sample of amateur genealogists certainly included a number of beginners. However, the subsequent question asked, “At what age did you start doing your genealogical research?” For amateur genealogists, the average age was 37.8 years. For professional genealogists, however, the average age was over ten years lower, at 26.1 years.

There are a number of ways one might interpret this data. My own reading is that those who begin at a younger age therefore become proficient at a younger age. Not necessarily already dedicated to a life-long career at this younger age, these younger starters would have a greater tendency to pursue genealogy as a viable career. This was certainly the case in my own personal experience.

The next insightful difference in responses comes as a result of the question, “Choose the description that best describes your approach to genealogical sources.” Five choices were provided:

  • I typically rely on already compiled genealogies.
  • I mostly rely on already compiled genealogies and online sources.
  • I use a limited number of record types and repositories. I mostly rely on online and microfilmed sources.
  • I use a wide variety of record types. I often contact record custodians to obtain copies of high-quality sources.
  • I insightfully pursue research at multiple, targeted repositories, making use of a very wide variety of records and record types.

Those who had identified themselves as amateur genealogists answered most often “I use a limited number of record types and repositories. I mostly rely on online and microfilmed sources,” with a 38.6% share responding in this way. Second most often, amateurs responded “I use a wide variety of record types. I often contact record custodians to obtain copies of high-quality sources,” with 35.0% selecting this option. This was followed by “I insightfully pursue research at multiple, targeted repositories, making use of a very wide variety of records and record types,” with 19.5% of amateur genealogists providing this response.

Professional genealogists provided significantly different responses to this question. The first two options were not selected by a single respondent identifying themselves in this way. The most-selected option by amateur genealogists, a mere 4.5% of professional genealogists selected “I use a limited number of record types and repositories. I mostly rely on online and microfilmed sources.”  The second most-selected option of amateur genealogists, only 18.8% of professional genealogists responded, “I use a wide variety of record types. I often contact record custodians to obtain copies of high-quality sources.” However, an overwhelming majority of professionals selected, “I insightfully pursue research at multiple, targeted repositories, making use of a very wide variety of records and record types,” an answer selected by 76.8% of the professional respondents!

The difference in these two responses is both surprising and incredibly meaningful. The response to this question may, in fact, be one of the qualifying factors between that which makes one an amateur genealogist and that which makes one a professional genealogist. One will recall that there was no significant difference in the years of experience between these two groups. However, those who become professional genealogists appear to research to a much greater depth than do amateurs.

The first factor in determining whether any genealogical conclusion meets the Genealogical Proof Standard is that the researcher must have completed “a reasonably exhaustive search” for all relevant records relating to their research problem. According to the results of this survey, over 3/4ths of the professional genealogists who responded abide by this requirement or a similar burden of proof. In contrast, less than 1/5th of the amateur genealogists who responded abide by this or a similar burden of proof.

The exploration of the results of this survey will continue in future posts…

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7 responses to this post.

  1. While most of the questions seemed fairly balanced, the survey’s wording sometimes skews the results. When one of the choice’s is, “I INSIGHTFULLY pursue research at multiple, targeted repositories, making use of a very wide variety of records and record types,” the implication is that this is the superior answer. There is also the problem of interpreting what a question really is. The answer that refers to the limited use of repositories is one of these. If you throw the use of microfilm in, how does this significantly limit the repositories? How many repositories are reflected in the film holdings of the FHL. Market research surveys reflect real data, however, if the questions are not presented in a clean manner and the questions have to be interpreted by the participant, than the numbers are not going to reflect reality.

    Reply

    • This is a great point, Rondina.

      Of course, the word “insightfully” is leading and subjective. However, I believe that the key phrases are “multiple, targeted repositories” and “wide variety of records and record types.” You ask “how many repositores are reflected in the film holdings of the FHL.” My answer would be: just one.

      The reason for this opinion is because, while the FHL does have a lot of microfilm, the collections do not reflect the full collections of any of the repositories holding the original records that were microfilmed. And the organizations that did the microfilming for the FHL had very targeted record groups that they used. The various state archives, historical societies, and local courthouses hold so many records not deemed important in those initial surveys that may indeed hold the keys to breaking down many long-standing brickwalls. Professional genealogists (both you and I) recognize the importance of these non-microfilmed records, and make efforts to obtain these other records.

      I also consider “research by proxy” at distant repositories to meet the terms of this option. I may not be able to go in person to every repository that I would like to, however, I can hire someone local to do so for me. Obtaining the records, after all, is only a small part (though vital) of the full research process. Once the relevant records are obtained, we still have to correlate all of the evidence, including those hints to other records, and account for any contradictory evidence.

      -Michael

      Reply

  2. Thanks for this survey analysis. Although it was rudimentary, it is also quite telling.

    Reply

  3. Thanks for this survey analysis. Although it was rudimentary, it is also quite telling.
    Kathleen Brandt
    a3Genealogy

    Reply

  4. [...] started reviewing the recent family history survey conducted by Myles Proudfoot in an earlier post. This post continues the comparison of results among respondents identifying themselves as amateur [...]

    Reply

  5. With respect to years of experience, I recall someone recently noting the distinction between having 20 years of experience or having 1 year of experience 20 times.

    Reply

    • That is absolutely a very important distinction. Twenty years of experience without growth through education and continuously pushing to learn and explore more, is exactly like you say, “1 year of experience 20 times.”

      Reply

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