No “genealogical community”?

My recent article “The Genealogy Paradigm Shift: Are bloggers the new ‘experts’?” was apparently not the only response to Thomas Macentee’s Geneabloggers post entitled, “Open Thread Thursday: Do We Eat Our Own In The Genealogy Industry?

James Tanner posted the article, “Well Said Tom, Here’s My Response,” on his Genealogy’s Star blog. In this article, James writes,

I don’t think that historically there has been a “genealogical community.” I believe that the bloggers are in the process of creating such a community. Before there was the “professional, journal writing” genealogical group but I don’t think you could view them as a “community.”[1]

I hope that James will further explain this statement. No genealogical community?

How about the National Genealogical Society? It has been around since 1903! Or any of these societies:

  • The New England Historic Genealogical Society (est. 1845)
  • The New York Genealogical & Biographical Society (est. 1869)
  • The American Society of Genealogists (est. 1940)
  • The Board for the Certification of Genealogists (est. 1964)
  • The Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (est. 1977)
  • The Association of Professional Genealogists (est. 1979)

Or any of the hundreds of local, county, state, or regional historical and genealogical societies throughout the world?

When I was corresponding with distant historical societies and genealogical societies or other researchers working on the same families, on paper with envelopes and stamps, I felt like part of a community.

Certainly, this was a small community, especially if compared with the thousands of GeneaBloggers and members of the “online genealogy community.”

But it was a community.

To me, a community is a group of people with common interests and common goals, working together, offering each other support. How can anyone look at the accomplishments of genealogists of the past, including the organizations that they formed and progress that they made together and claim that “historically there has [not] been a ‘genealogy community'”?

Without the genealogy community of the past, we would not have the online genealogy community.


[1] James Tanner, “Well Said Tom, Here’s My Response,” Genealogy’s Star blog, posted 14 Dec 2011 ( : accessed 18 Dec 2011).

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “No ‘genealogical community’?,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 18 Dec 2011 ( : 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.]

12 thoughts on “No “genealogical community”?

  1. What an intersting statement – no genealogical community befoefore the net? Really? I concur with your assessment Michael – it was a community with a different sent of interactions that did involve stamps, phone calls, and longer waits for things. Magazines, journals, “query posts”, “interest groups,” and microfilm were the mode of operation. I think I can say that I got to experience the transition from that century old practice to today’s filled with on-line imaging, e-mails, paypal transfers, podcasts, etc. The community, like society, has evolved. However, I think Mr. Tanner’s assertion is just wrong and I would suspect that he may be relatively newer to genealogy.

    • The sad thing is, I don’t believe that Mr. Tanner is new to genealogy at all. I just do not know at all what he meant by that statement. I hope that he comments either here or in his own blog, to clarify this statement.

  2. I, too, have been active in both worlds, about ten years in each, actually. I’ll continue the discussion by asking – what comes next? I’ve gotten the ‘inkling’ a few times lately, that we have ‘already peaked’ in the online genealogy blogging ‘community.’ I also hope, and believe, that the ‘community’ Michael describes above, from the past, continues today, at least for many of us. I assume both will continue, but I suspect we are near the ‘next wave’ – we just don’t yet know what it is? What do you think?

  3. My view is that there are many genealogical communities and there always have been. The biggest are the large regional and national societies – NGS and NEHGS for instance, but are they “leaders” trying to bring everyone together?

    On the other end of the spectrum are small, local genealogical societies that meet once a month in a local library or someone’s home. We’ve had those around for many years. Many seem almost immune to what’s happening in genealogy news and technology. In two of my local societies, I’ll bet no more than 20% are technologically hip. 80% have email, but 20% don’t. 20% do something with genealogy at least once a week, but few do something nearly every day. I suspect that is the norm rather than the exception.

    There are many other “island” communities – like the professionals that write and edit for magazines, that speak at conferences and seminars, that run the institutes. How many are in that community? Maybe 2,000? If that. APG, BCG, ASG, GSG, IBFWSE, etc.

    Geneabloggers are another “island” community – with maybe 2,000 having a blog, but only 20% actively writing. The blog reading community is larger – those that are tuned in to technology and social networks.

    Eastman has the most blog readers – perhaps 50,000 or more each month. NGS and NEHGS and Family Tree Magazine have the memberships – maybe up to 50,000 persons, probably the same ones who read Eastman. Those are small pieces of the millions of persons interested in genealogy and family history.

    For most self-professed genealogists, this is a hobby to be done in spare time or once in awhile after the initial excitement wears off. It may always be so.

  4. Michael,

    I’ve read your recent posts with great interest and concerns. You are raising some good issues and I’m trying to figure where this is all going. I’ll take it a chunk at a time.

    You challenge James Tanner’s assertion that historically there hasn’t been a ‘genealogy community’ [see and . You counter him with a listing of seven well known genealogy societies; the earliest founded in 1845 and the most recent in 1979. Communities may be thought of as different from societies, but are they?

    One society, from your list, that stood out for me was the ‘The Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (est. 1977)’. Was this a society addressing the needs of a ‘community’ that was denied access to those listed ‘societies’ for over 132 years?

    My concerns also extend to the ‘hundreds of local, county, state, or regional historical and genealogical societies throughout the world’ that you mention. Are they all welcoming the burgeoning genealogy community with its persons of color, new immigrants, gays, lesbians, trans-gendered, alternative life-styled, and blended families? Are their doors opened to these relatively new communities? For the record, since 1977, I have personally been welcomed and rebuffed by many a genealogy society. For the record, if my people were welcomed into the societies there wouldn’t necessarily be a need for the creation of any of the many ethnic-specific genealogy societies, forums, exhibitions, and organizations. If those early societies all were open to everyone, can you imagine how awesome the genealogy community would be? And that’s the offline or real world.

    Now, to the online genealogy community. Thanks to the internet, the genealogy communities are, as you suggest, much larger in terms of participants. Perhaps a little more democratic and open, but early on it was still necessary for the creation of a and other ethnic-specific genealogy societies, forums, exhibitions, and organizations. How different are the the online genealogy societies and communities from the offline ones? Are all communities being acknowledged?

    Michael, you say “Without the genealogy community of the past, we would not have the online genealogy community.” My concern is that the gatekeepers of the genealogy community of the past are the gatekeepers of the online genealogy community today. Meet the new boss – same as the old boss type jam.

    I don’t know if James Tanner was trying to call out the gatekeepers, or if he was even thinking that deeply about it. We can thank RootsTech for getting us rapping though. Mr. MacEntee, who got the party started [see , ain’t no gatekeeper, but he is a keen observer of the human (genealogy) condition and got Rootstech to listen to reason. We have to thank Thomas for getting us rappin’.

    Michael, thank you for pushing the conversation to another level. We need to go there. On your blog, at , you have a post titled “The Genealogy Paradigm Shift: Are bloggers the new “experts”. This begs the question; are bloggers the new gatekeepers? As an African ancestored genealogist, I’m going going to watch this conversation closely. There are considerably talented ethnic-specific genealogists and historians that need to be included in this elite group. As new folks get bitten by the genealogy and family history bug, they need to be, at the minimum, informed that there are experts from their culture that they can connect with and are part of the genealogy consortium.

    So, it is vitally important to know who the gatekeepers are. Rootstech, for one, cannot be a gatekeeper. They don’t have folks’ interest at heart. They showed their hand. Others, I’m sure, will show their hands. What’s important now is that bloggers call out and include everyone in this fantastic time for genealogy and family research – and make the gatekeepers accountable for their actions.

    In the words of Zora Neale Hurston; “Speak, So You Can Speak Again”.

    [Michael, I’m posting this on your site, on Google+ (comment to your post and in my stream) and as a twitter post.]

    Peace & Blessings,
    “Guided by the Ancestors”

    • Thank you, George. Your response has raised a few issues that I had not considered.

      When I initially wrote this post, I admit that I was thinking of societies in and of themselves as communities. But your post made me realize, consciously, that it was and remains the PEOPLE that belonged to these societies who were themselves the communities.

      Whether we are discussing the historic offline genealogy community or the “new paradigm” of the online genealogy community, we cannot discuss them as a homogeneous unit. You used the example of the African American genealogy community, which might be defined online as those who frequent certain blogs, certain websites, certain Facebook forums. The same model would apply to, say, German American genealogists, who themselves have their own “community” of frequented websites, blogs, mailing lists, forums. Or say the community of genealogists researching ancestors in Maryland, California, or any other location.

      Certainly the online genealogy community is much larger and inclusive than many of the older societies may have been. I believe that this is an aspect of the means of communication, though, and not a sign that older communities did not exist.

  5. I posted at Google+ but also wanted to make sure to enter the conversation here for those who are not on Google+ because I think this conversation is so important. I am 5 years into being a genealogy addict and I travel some and have been to genealogy society meetings, seminars and a few conferences as a relative newbie and outsider. That said here are my thoughts.

    What do you think of when you hear the term “gatekeeper?” We need to make sure that genealogy “gatekeepers” are people who are opening the door and welcoming you in rather than locking the door and pretending they can’t hear you knocking. “Gatekeepers” by definition implies exclusivity and has the effect of saying “you can’t join our club.” As we try to get more people interested in genealogy and family history, we need to think about how we welcome newbies into the community.

    There have been several discussions in the past few months about the interaction at society or association meetings, specifically how welcoming members are to newcomers, how volunteer opportunities are posted and followed up on (both by members and volunteers), and how willing these groups are to move into the higher tech age (with webinars or hangouts, etc.). I also acknowledge that to a society membership that has done the heavy lifting for years, hearing about ways to improve your society or association could be a bit insulting, depending on how the comments are made. The underlying requirements for community within a society or association are respect, thoughtful discourse, and a willing and open mind to listen and learn from others.

    I am sure for every bad experience I have had, there have been 2 or 3 good ones. You are right though that the feeling of not fitting in exists many times when you attend your first few meetings (and for some, one “not fitting in” or “made welcome” meeting is enough to sour you on going back a second time).

    This “gatekeeper” issue exists at schools, churches, professional organizations, and charitable groups – so I do not think it is a society or association phenomenon BUT we genealogists could be the ones to make a difference by being aware of our behavior and making a conscious effort to change it (for ourselves and for other members of our community).

    Perhaps every genealogist should put the following goals and tasks at the top of their 2012 Genealogy To Do List:
    Be a respectful, thoughtful, inclusive society/association member or guest.
    Be willing to listen and learn from others.
    Be open to new ideas and ways of doing things.
    Learn about or index records for a group that I am not personally affiliated with to increase my knowledge and the record base for the next group of genealogists – pay it forward.
    Do all of the above with a smile on my face, a welcome in my voice and joy in my heart.

    To those of you already out there doing the above thank you so much. You make my genealogy quest interesting, fun and educational. A shout out to the Minnesota Genealogical and Historical Society – Irish, Swedish and Norwegian specialty groups; Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy presenters for teaching me the basics and then some; to Thomas MacEntee, Randy Seaver, Geoff Rasmussen, Kerry Scott, and Lisa Louise Cooke, all of whom I have found along the way online and who have done an excellent job of sharing, teaching and opening those gates; and special thanks to George Geder and Toni Carrier who with their truly thoughtful writings have made me more aware of other cultures and races in our genealogy community.

    This is an important conversation – thanks to James Tanner and Michael Hait for starting it. And I think perhaps Thomas MacEntee might have started with a post something to effect of Are Genealogists Eating Their Own? What are your thoughts?

  6. Regarding your comment Michael on the “new paradigm of the online genealogy community,” I would say that even the online genealogy community isn’t as new as many people express. While genealogy bloggers have recently achieved a huge new following, due in large part to the work of Thomas MacEntee, genealogists have been utilizing blogging software since at least 2003 (my own blog dates back to June 2003), and prolific writers like Dick Eastman and Pat Richley (Dear Myrtle) were essentially “blogging” well before that. There were genealogists connecting “online” prior to the WWW as well – I still fondly remember connecting and learning from the “genealogy community” via ARPANET back when I was an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon in the late 1980s.

    Of course, as you stated, the genealogical community was in existence well before computers came along to help facilitate communication. Sure it is now easier to connect with fellow genealogists, but for those who took the time to reach out, the “genealogy community” has always been there.

    • Of course the online community has been around. Though I was not actively reading blogs, I was using the old Rootsweb mailing lists (pre-Ancestry) and connecting with other researchers via the old Gendex sites back in the mid- to late-1990s. And this is just when I got started online — before this I simply had little access.

      But this was a much different phenomenon than what we have today, due almost solely to its newfound visibility and organization. As seen recently, the online community can be mobilized for various purposes. There is even an online APG chapter based exclusively in the SecondLife platform! This is far beyond those old days when the online world was a supplement to the offline world.

      The new paradigm is not the existence of the online genealogy community alone, but the supplanting of the offline community by the online community, and the replacement of the authority of the old community (focused on research skills) by the authority of the new community (focused on social media skills).

  7. Michael,

    You bring out some good points as have others in their comments. I initially started my research in the mid to late 80s / early 90s. While I joined NGS at that time and had friends, who were part of the Morman church and helped me, I never felt like I was part of any type of community.

    Fast forward to 2009. After taking about a 10 year break away from the genealogy, I really do feel part of a genealogy community and for the most part, it’s strictly based on-line. Compared to when I first began my research, overall, the online community has been far more welcoming and helpful. I also feel like I’ve learned a lot more, too.

    Granted in many ways I’m glad I got my start prior to the computer age but am more grateful for the online community.

  8. I’m late coming to this blog entry. I have to say the statement “no genealogical community” could only come from a person with absolutely no connection to genealogical research. Or is a statement made by an intentional troll. In either case, that person should not be writing for a living until learning a bit about research and writing based on that. I mean research in general.

    Has this person never belonged to a local genealogy society? Like say on a county level, like the Westchester County Genealogical Society with a monthly newsletter, and meetings? Never joined an email mailing list? The Internet just makes it easier to have a community. I get hundreds of emails a day from various lists and have helped out countless people and been helped by countless people in all things genealogical.

    I have made contacts with long lost cousins halfway around the world, because of the Internet community, and shared information and sources and gotten new sources, stories, and leads as a result.

    Just yesterday as a result of a query on a local mailing list I got information on an online digitized collection of newspapers, loaded with records of my family, at a small hole-in-the-wall town library, 1500 miles away!

    No community? HA! More like no research on the writer’s part.

    Granted now with the Internet in full, visible sight to the World, and instant access everywhere, it’s much, more visible, and much larger and more connected. But there were genealogy BBSes long before most people even knew what a modem or an Internet was. Yes, I’m dating myself. Remember Compuserve (are any of you even old enough to remember)? They had an Internet community practically from day one.

    Puh-leeease. Send that blogger back to school.

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