Family History Work is Work

Though genealogy is challenging, it is rewarding as well

I often hear broad statements about the existence of a general interest in family history. Many such statements made both in person and in print talk about how a large percentage of the population is interested in family history and that vague interest is extrapolated into an interest in doing family history. The idea is that if we can just arrive at the right combination of incentives a much greater portion of the population would become actively involved in researching their families.

Compare the following statements and reflect on what you think the average response would be:

  1. Are you interested in learning about the history of your family?
  2. Are you interested in sitting all day in a library staring at microfilm rolls?
  3. Are you interested in learning about the sacrifices of your ancestors and their stories?
  4. Would you like to spend years looking for one of your ancestors without success?

You can probably see where I am going with this. The reality of actually doing historical research is far different than the common depictions of the subject. If you go to the larger family history-oriented websites, you will see photos of smiling people gathered around the computer apparently enthralled in family history, that is, unless the photos show people having fun outdoors or in some other situation. Yes, family history is about families, but it is only rarely a family activity. I do have members of my immediate family (meaning my children) who are interested in and participate in family history research but almost all of the communication about this research is done online.

I have been doing family history for over thirty years without the help and cooperation of my extended family and as long as they don't actively interfere or prevent me from doing the research, it really doesn't make a lot of difference. I would guess that over my lifetime my family (excluding my wife and children) has not been much involved in very many of my optional activities. Some families are entirely different. One of my good friends attributes her interest in family history to her involvement with her grandmother. My motivation came from outside my family.

I think that family history is mostly a very personal activity. Early on, I would have benefited from having a mentor or even from taking a few classes had I known of their existence. But I don't think that the lack of interest on the part of my extended family has anything to do with why I began doing my family history or kept doing it for over thirty years. I certainly did not begin doing family history because it was fun or even enjoyable. It was mostly a lot of work.

That is the key. Family history is work. In our society, we do things to avoid work. There is only a small percentage of the population who think that doing work in their leisure time is rewarding. Most people who work very hard at their job or profession think that they should do something else to get away from work. Sitting at a computer or doing research in a library are not high on the list of things to do. That is likely one of the reasons family history is seen as a retirement activity when many people are no longer actively working at a job.

Why then do I do family history? I do what I do precisely for the reasons that it is hard work and very challenging. If it were merely fun or easy I would not be much interested. I also like to work. I would rather be doing something productive than taking time off for unproductive activities. So how do you convince people that come home from a long day at the office or other workplace or spend the day caring for a family of young children that they should spend their free time doing repetitious, sometimes difficult, exacting, and very challenging family history work?

The larger question is how many people do you think you can convince that doing this family history work (work, work, work) is worth spending their precious free time doing?

Perhaps we would have more success in involving people in family history if we took a more realistic approach to the subject. Maybe we need to start with the idea that family history is challenging, rewarding and fulfilling but involves a lot of really hard work and quite a few very difficult skills. I am reminded of some of the recruitment campaigns for the U.S. Marines. How about The Few, The Proud, The Genealogists or something like that?

Written by James L. Tanner. Used with permission.

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