AUTHOR’S NOTE: I started this blog post back in November, but put it on the shelf. Thomas MacEntee’s recent post (see below) has inspired me to post it, with some small changes.
This past spring the world discovered that, at some point in the past two or three years, there had been a significant change in the way news is delivered and spread. Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan, and the United States learned of his death–not through television news or CNN or a Presidential press conference–but through Twitter. The microblogging “social” website had scooped all of the traditional news outlets.
This is not the only evidence that Web 2.0 (as it has traditionally been called), the “social web,” has caused an incredible paradigm shift in many areas of life. Even my grandmother is on Facebook!
A similar paradigm shift seems to have occurred within the past two years in the world of genealogy.
Signs of the New Paradigm
The first mention of this change was in a post by Joan Miller written this past spring, shortly after the first RootsTech conference. On 15 April 2011 Joan posted “Genea-Bodies: The New Somebodies” in her LuxeGen blog. In this post, Joan wrote:
We are the New Somebodies. Yes, in our industry we Genea-Bodies are the New Somebodies. Why? Because a Nobody could become Some Project’s biggest cheerleader. Just look at the royal treatment the Official Bloggers received at Rootstech. (I was one). Jay Verkler, Anne Roach, Paul Nuata et al knew what they were doing when they engaged the Genea-Bodies. We Genea-Bodies have a voice. A collective voice. A passionate voice. And we talk about our passion. We blogged and tweeted and Facebooked our little hearts out about Rootstech. Because we wanted to; because we felt the cause was warranted. And in part, because we had been noticed. We had a job to do. We were reporting on Rootstech! And not just the official bloggers, but all of us Genea-Bodies. We became Rootstech’s biggest cheerleaders because we cared and we were engaged.
At the time, this blog post, and a comment on it by professional genealogist Marian Pierre-Louis, inspired a long discussion about professional genealogy and its place within the larger genealogy community, among other topics. This discussion also directly inspired me to resurrect my long-neglected blog (formerly called “Tricks of the Tree”) as this current blog.
Yet it took several months for me to realize the full impact of what Joan was saying.
On 15 October 2011 the genealogy website 1000memories.com announced that it had commissioned a duplication of a seminal 2007 survey conducted by Ancestry.com. The site then invited five genealogists to comment on the survey results: David E. Rencher, of FamilySearch; Randy Whited, a member of the Board of Directors of the Federation of Genealogical Societies; Amy Johnson Crow, CG, a professional genealogist and genealogy blogger (formerly Amy’s Genealogy, etc.); Thomas MacEntee, of Geneabloggers; and Caroline Pointer, author of the For Your Family Story blog. In all of their announcements about the survey and the accompanying “Genealogy Roundtable” of blog posts, 1000memories.com described these five as “five of the genealogy community’s top thinkers.”
I doubt it is coincidental that three of the five genealogists chosen write popular genealogy blogs. This is a perfect example of the paradigm shift in genealogy.
The Old Paradigm
If you are not familiar with the American Society of Genealogists, here is a little background:
The American Society of Genealogists (ASG) was founded in 1940 by three distinguished academicians—Arthur Adams, John Insley Coddington, and Meredith Colket …. An honorary society, ASG is limited to fifty life-time members designated as Fellows (identified by the initials fasg). At the time of its founding, nothing existed to certify competent genealogists nor was there a method to honor significant achievement in the genealogical field.
Election to the ASG is based on a candidate’s published genealogical scholarship. Emphasis is upon compiled genealogies and published works that demonstrate an ability to use primary source material; to evaluate and analyze data; to properly document evidence; and to reach sound, logical conclusions presented in a clear and proper manner.
Among other accomplishments, the American Society of Genealogists founded the National Institute for Genealogical Research (NIGR) held annually at the National Archives in Washington, D. C., in 1950, and the Board for the Certification of Genealogists (BCG) in 1964. They also publish two prestigious genealogical journals, The American Genealogist and The Genealogist. Past Fellows of the Society include such legends of genealogy as Donald Lines Jacobus, Milton Rubincam, Harry Wright Newman, Dr. Gaius M. Brumbaugh, Walter Lee Sheppard, Jr., Noel C. Stevenson, Richard Stephen Lackey, and Marsha Hoffman Rising.
As noted above, there are always fifty Fellows of the American Society of Genealogists. Some of these names are instantly recognizable by most genealogists: Elizabeth Shown Mills, Christine Rose, Helen F. M. Leary, Melinde Lutz Sanborn, Thomas W. Jones. These and the other Fellows, both past and present, are the most influential genealogists in United States genealogy history.
The rise of a genealogist’s career to become a Fellow often involved writing and publishing extensively, a long career in client research, frequent lecturing, and, in more than a few cases, revolutionizing some aspect of research methodology. Since 1964, this also usually entailed achieving the status of Certified Genealogist. Unlike most societies, ASG is not an organization that anyone can join. To become a Fellow, one must be nominated by a current member and then accepted by at least 80% of the voting members at the annual meeting. In other words, these are the genealogists that “the genealogy community’s top thinkers” consider “the genealogy community’s top thinkers.”
Do you cite the sources that you use? Thank members of the ASG.
Do you research the neighbors and associates of your ancestors, using cluster genealogy? Thank members of the ASG.
Aside from the five highly-visible Fellows named above, though, how many of the fifty current Fellows can you name? Do you recognize the work and accomplishments of John Frederick Dorman, Peter Wilson Coldham, George Ely Russell, or Henry Z. Jones, Jr.? [HINT: They are all currently-living FASGs.]
How about the names DearMYRTLE, Thomas MacEntee, Dick Eastman, or Randy Seaver? [HINT: They are not FASG, CG, or AG.]
The paradigm shift has occurred based on the exponential growth of the online genealogy community. Many new genealogists are learning to research by reading blogs.
Geneabloggers have become viewed as “experts,” without following the traditional path followed by earlier generations of genealogists: submitting a case study to a peer-reviewed journal like the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, or The American Genealogist, or getting certified through BCG or accredited through ICAPGen. (In other words, prove your expertise by allowing your research to be judged by other experts.)
The new paradigm is that the most influential genealogists are those that are most skilled with social media, not necessarily those that are most skilled at research. This is not to say that any specific GeneaBloggers or Bloggers-in-general are not good researchers. From what I have read on their blogs, the skill level of bloggers runs the gamut. Among the geneablogging community are the greenest of newbies and the most experienced of professionals. Quite a few professional genealogists (myself included) and Certified Genealogists (myself included) also blog.
I am proud to call myself a “GeneaBlogger.” The geneablogging community is a perfect representation of the genealogy community as a whole.
But is this really what we as a community need?
Do we need experts that represent us, or experts that are more skilled than us? Experts that we can learn from?
Is the Genealogy Paradigm Shift a good thing or a bad thing?
On 14 December 2011 Thomas MacEntee of the Geneabloggers blog and online radio show wrote, “Open Thread Thursday: Do We Eat Our Own In The Genealogy Industry?” In this post Thomas writes,
When I first got started in the online genealogy community, I was too concerned with how bloggers and others appeared to vendors as well as other entities. I’m sure they thought we were rambunctious, sometimes out of control, and sought to destroy rather than build alliances. I sometimes focused too much on how we looked to outsiders.
Almost single-handedly Thomas has led the charge in gaining respectability for genealogy bloggers. To be sure, there were blogs and bloggers around before he got started in his quest–folks like DearMYRTLE, Dick Eastman, and others. But Thomas has been a true geneablogging evangelist, and not only raised the visibility of smaller bloggers but also brought bloggers together as a community.
From where I stand, the Genealogy Paradigm Shift has both positive and negative aspects.
As noted by Joan and Thomas, the online genealogy community–Geneabloggers, and the denizens of Facebook, Twitter, and Second Life, as well as other sites–have a voice that is being heard.
The community has been mobilized to promote genealogy conferences and websites and software programs. The community also works to inform each other about issues like records access, especially the recent changes to the Social Security Death Index.
Genealogy blogs can also be used to educate about research techniques, experiences, etc. This is the main goal of the blog you are currently reading, as well as many others.
Thomas Macentee and many of the other bloggers are also active in the offline genealogy community, in organizations like the Federation of Genealogical Societies, the National Genealogical Society, and the Association of Professional Genealogists, as well as hundreds of smaller historical and genealogical societies worldwide. Many of us started as genealogists, before we were “online genealogists” or, as Thomas phrases it “hi-def genealogists.”
A new generation of genealogists has already started to be born. They are not genealogists first and online genealogists second. They will be raised under the new paradigm, and may start by thinking that “everything is online.” Even once we dispel this notion, we will have to deal with another issue that is far more frightening.
The “online genealogy community” that everyone is so fond of is replacing the traditional local genealogy community. While the GeneaBloggers website lists a few thousand genealogy blogs, with about a dozen or so new ones every few weeks, genealogical societies across the country are literally dying from a lack of new members.
You might ask, so what if those old local societies disappear? We have the GeneaBlogger community or that Facebook group to support us.
Moral support, yes–definitely. Research support, far less:
- GeneaBloggers do not generally scour every cemetery in a specific county and publish full listings of the gravestones. Genealogical societies do.
- GeneaBloggers do not abstract all of the obituaries of some small county newspaper from the mid-19th century and publish them. Genealogical societies do.
- GeneaBloggers do not maintain genealogical libraries containing decades of work on local families. Genealogical societies do.
- GeneaBloggers cannot go back to 1965 and reproduce the resources that were transcribed by the local genealogical society before that big hurricane or tornado hit and destroyed everything.
These resources can only remain available as long as we continue to support the societies that provide them.
Every single one of us, as genealogists, lives somewhere. Are you a member of your local genealogical society and/or your ancestral genealogical society?
I would like to ask–even plead–with other geneabloggers to devote at least one post to a local genealogical society. Not the big ones like the National Genealogical Society or the New England Historic Genealogical Society, but a county genealogical society. Describe the society–its meetings, its accomplishments, its publications. If you are a member of more than one local society, write a separate post about each one.
And if you are not a member of a local genealogical or historical society, please join one. It can be the one where you live, or one on the other side of the country, where your ancestors lived 200 years ago. But pay your dues, write for the newsletter, and help these societies stay alive.
Many bloggers might think to themselves, “I’m no expert. I never claimed to be one.” But to a new genealogist who stumbles onto your blog because it came up in their Google search, you may be viewed as one. Though writing a blog feels like writing in a private journal, this is not the case. Blogs are public. Geneabloggers are quickly becoming the public face of genealogy.
The online genealogy community needs to recognize this. We need to join the genealogy community as a whole. This must necessarily move beyond simply joining your local society. Treat your blog the way you would treat anything else done publicly. Put your best face forward. You don’t have to change your voice to sound professional, or anything like that. But at least cite the sources that you discuss in your blog post. Try to learn new techniques and apply them to your research, then write about what you learned. Not only will your ancestors thank you for that, but so will those new genealogists who look to your blog for guidance.
 Michael Katchen, “Survey shows family history knowledge declining despite growing interest,” 1000memories.com blog, posted 15 October 2011 (http://1000memories.com/blog : accessed 1 November 2011).
 “The Society,” American Society of Genealogists (http://www.fasg.org/ : accessed 1 November 2011).
 Thomas Macentee, “Open Thread Thursday: Do We Eat Our Own In The Genealogy Industry?,” Geneabloggers blog, posted 15 December 2011 (http://www.geneabloggers.com/eat-our-own-genealogy-industry/ : accessed 16 December 2011).
If you would like to cite this post:
Michael Hait, CG, “The Genealogy Paradigm Shift: Are bloggers the new ‘experts’?,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 16 Dec 2011 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]