Thursday, April 28, 2016
I've heard it said more than once that attendance at local genealogical societies dropped off at just about the same time as online organizations such as Ancestry.com gained ascendancy. Sometimes, I've taken comments like that as sour grapes: groups sorely in need of a clue about how to join the twenty-first century bemoaning their condition instead of doing something about it.
Now that I've taken a few days to wander down the memory lane of archived emails exchanged with researchers back one and two decades ago, I'm wondering whether there might be something to that old harangue. It seems as if the people who were smitten with the genealogy bug back then—the very folks most likely to attend society meetings of those past years—were a different breed than those in our ranks today. The tenacity of the chase, the attention to detail, the consideration of multiple variables in a search for just one missing ancestor would be resplendent in not just one letter, but in a series of follow-up communications with other genealogy enthusiast I have met over the years. Looking back at these two way conversations, it was evident that what was unfolding was a sense of teamwork combined with the wonder and enthusiasm over the process of genealogical research.
It was a conversation—a volley between two equally-engaged parties, both fully absorbed by the goal of solving a mystery. There were notes to be shared, copies of documents to exchange, critique of the possibilities—both pro and con—regarding the hypothesis under consideration at the moment. And once that puzzle was solved, you know there would be another one to capture the attention with the next note.
Fast forward a decade or two. Now, I hear people complain that they can't even get someone to answer an email about being a possible match on their DNA testing results. Nobody seems to talk with each other—at least via email or other message systems. To listen to the few complaints I hear, you'd think nobody reaches out and connects with other researchers, at all.
Have we made a shift from a participatory endeavor to a one-way, spoon-fed level of communication? The highlights of the genealogical pursuit—and note here, I'm referring to genealogy as an avocation, not a profession—seem to be online suppliers of digitized material, combined with a consumer-focused supply of one-way lectures delivered (thankfully, at least face to face) at conferences or via webinars. We have shifted from participants to consumers in this brave new world of genealogical pursuit. The two-way street of sharing resources and information in a participatory model has collapsed into an expert-driven, uni-directional information flow.
In puzzling over what might have been behind this shift, I wondered if the change in demographics might play a large part in this. After all, the very thing that prompted my foray back into an old computer's email archives—the likely death of a researcher with whom I had previously enjoyed a lively researching teamwork—shouted that possibility.
I'm not an avid number cruncher, so don't look to see hard numbers here. But it certainly makes sense that, in the near-twenty years since I first started dabbling online with genealogical resources, some researchers will have passed off the scene and some will have grown up, realized they loved this stuff, and jumped in wholeheartedly.
Another possibility emerges: with the giant participants now dwarfing the rest of us in this playing field—and I refer here to commercial entities such as Ancestry.com and Find My Past—they bring with them the marketing expertise and the financial backing to interject changes into the genealogical research game. Those participating twenty years ago might have done so for the sheer love of what they were doing—because they loved watching an older relative make family history discoveries, or did it because their church urged them to participate, or (like me) because they just felt drawn to the subject for inexplicable reasons. Now? It's just as likely that someone entered the fray only because they were touched by a commercial.
And there's nothing wrong with that. We need to welcome all newcomers. In fact, I thrive on working with genealogical "seekers"—those newbies who want to know how to get started. For me, there's nothing more rewarding than teaching some of the beginners' classes I've been privileged to present.
But people always come with baggage—the expectations, customs, habits, tendencies they've carried through life. Genealogists who grew up connecting with far-away friends and family by writing letters because they were horrified at the exorbitant cost of a long distance telephone call will approach teamwork on their research projects much differently than would someone facile with social media and technology-driven resources.
I still can't help wondering, though: why the shift? Is it just because one group has aged off the scene, only to be replaced with another demographic grown up in a different context? Or has the population itself undergone other changes, regardless of age?
What is the possibility that the companies which have become our champions of genealogical resources have fostered a different research paradigm—and more to the point, a different set of behavioral expectations for those who wish to participate in this research endeavor? Have the very resources we've welcomed turned us into passive, point-and-click consumers of genealogical material served up by experts, rather than past decades' active pursuers of genealogical answers?