The Perils of Being a Young Genealogist

October 9, 2013 Josiah Schmidt Methodology Articles

Many people generally view genealogy as a retired person’s hobby–a pastime of sweet, old ladies nostalgically reminiscing about days gone by.  This is not entirely accurate.  One report from 2009 revealed that of the nine million Internet users who describe “genealogy” as a “core passion/hobby,” 7.5 million are 45 years or older.1  While this may seem to confirm the stereotype of family research as a retirement activity, it remains true that 1.5 million of these genealogy-minded Internet users range in age from high school aged to 44 years old.  That is 1 out of 6 genealogy hobbyists who are relatively quite young, many starting in their teen years.

We, of course, ought to celebrate this, and try to encourage people to get involved in genealogy earlier and younger.  (How many times have you banged your head against your fist, desperately wishing you had caught the genealogy bug years ago, when this and that ancestor were still alive?)  I am 27 years old–extremely young by the standards of the field of genealogy–and I started researching my family tree in earnest when I was 14 years old.  Years later, it would go from a hobby to an obsession, and a few years after that, it would go from an obsession to a profession.  I have several other friends who have been researching their roots since their teen years, as well.

Starting your genealogy research young presents its own issues, however.

1. Carefulness
Younger people have a lot more distractions in their lives than retired people do: school, jobs, and/or raising small children.  Thus, they may tend to be less diligent in their research.  They may be less careful in checking sources on information they receive from others, and they may be less diligent in collecting enough sources to build a convincing case for facts they state.  With term papers due, hot dates to prepare for, and jobs to go to, they can’t be bothered to spend all day at the courthouse collecting wills and probate records to establish that John is truly the brother of Peter.

Several years ago, even when I thought I was pretty good at genealogy, I had mistakenly traced my ancestry back to what I thought was a kinship with US President Andrew Jackson.  My error hinged on a single father-son relationship, which I had mistakenly connected, and which had been corroborated by another researcher whose skills I greatly respected.  The error was gently pointed out and corrected by one of my distant cousins–a sweet, old lady type of hobbyist, not a career genealogist.  Her care and diligence kept a minor flub from becoming a potentially big, tangled mess for future researchers.  Bad information gets copied and re-copied quickly and easily on Ancestry.com, as Ancestry.com displays your family tree information as “hints” to all the other users researching those individuals of interest, and users tend to assume that if you assert a relationship in your Ancestry tree, you have already done all the thorough research to make a watertight proof for it.

As I educated myself over the years on proper research techniques through countless books and courses, I became more and more embarrassed by the rookie mistakes I made a decade, even a few years, ago.  After continuing to find obscure corners of my family tree with outdated or otherwise false information on it, and struggling to correct these errors before they could proliferate further among other researchers’ family trees, I decided to switch my Ancestry.com tree settings to “Private”.  There are twigs on my tree that I researched over a decade ago, which very likely contain bad information due to my amateur research skills at the time.  They are twigs so distant that I might not think to investigate them now, but to other researchers, these twigs may be much more important, and this old and unreliable research from my youth could possibly mislead them.  I have found it better, now that I have made a career in genealogy, to be much more careful about what I lend my name to, and to only publicly release information that abides by modern genealogical proof standards.

2. Attribution
Many young people are not aware of the importance of recording and citing sources for information and media they use and display.  Those who haven’t gone through four years of writing classes at a university, or even more intensive writing assignments in grad school, may be quite unfamiliar with the process for citing sources.  I had a rather embarrassing slip-up just recently.  Another distant cousin of mine had published a book on one of the sides of my family while I was in high school.  As a young person, I had scanned copies of several photographs of my great great grandparents and my great great great grandparents from this book, without recording the source of the pictures.  Years later, when I decided to put all my research onto Ancestry.com, I found the photographs amongst my files.  Without thinking of remembering where the photos had come from and remembering to cite the source in the photo descriptions, I uploaded them to Ancestry.com barren of any attribution information.  Soon, other Ancestry users began to copy these photos onto their family trees, and credited me as the source.  My cousin, who had spent thousands of dollars and several years collecting these photographs and putting this book together, was understandably upset when he saw part of his hard work being credited to me.  I apologized profusely, went through and properly attributed the pictures to him, and he graciously allowed me to keep using them.

The importance of citing your sources is not merely related to the desire to avoid offending other researchers, but also because it is vital to proving the facts you are asserting, and because it saves us a lot of confusion further down the road.  A family tree without sources, as are so many of the trees on Ancestry and other family tree making websites, is meaningless.  Furthermore, how frustrating is it when you find new information that casts doubt on a portion of your family tree, and you go back to find out what information had originally caused you to make that potentially mistaken assertion, only to be unable to find any sources indicating your thought process?  You are now confronted with a dilemma: Do you completely revise your family tree based on this new evidence (since it is now the only hard evidence you have), or might there be a wealth of evidence confirming your initial assertion that you have simply failed to cite?  Save yourself the headache by citing your sources immediately.  Perhaps most ominous, however, is the possibility of legal action being taken against you for intellectual property theft.  The genealogy hobbyist community is a world of cardboard boxes filled haphazardly with unlabelled scraps from here and there, all “to be filed” at some later date.  When a hobbyist one day gets the desire to put all this information into a published book, or decides to transition to a professional, it can be an arduous task trying to remember where everything came from.  If you happen to accidentally publish part of someone else’s work under your name, you could risk irreparably tarnishing your professional reputation, or even be sued for copyright infringement.  Not every researcher or publisher whose toe you step on will be as friendly about it as my cousin was.

Conclusion

Genealogy researchers who started young often leave an embarrassing trail of rookie errors and unattributed borrowings behind them.  In the Internet age, this embarrassing trail can be permanent, and can be rapidly disseminated to other researchers, magnifying mistakes and confusion.  How can young genealogists avoid this problem, and how can older researchers who started young remedy these potentially shameful errors?

1. Keep it to Yourself
While the joy we feel at establishing a new connection in our family tree, or taking a branch back one more generation, is second only to the joy of proudly sharing that information with other researchers, we ought to consider being more private with our assertions.  Even for seasoned genealogists, the initial notes we write down on a branch of the family when we find our first batch of information on them is usually far from completely accurate.  The frontiers of family trees are constantly evolving and morphing, as more evidence fills in the blanks and refines our picture of these ancestors.  This is not to say that we should be information misers and hoard all the new sources we discover.  By all means, share the marriage licenses, wills, deeds, and other primary sources you find, but be much more careful about asserting that Susan was the daughter of Jane.  Set your public family tree settings to “Private” (you can always “share” your trees with other individual researchers if they ask to see them), and when others ask if you can tell them more about a certain branch of a family, send them copies of original sources rather than merely your unsourced family group sheets.

2. Document Sources Immediately
The moment you get a document or photograph into your possession, record in as much detail as possible exactly what it is, where it came from, when the record was created, and when you received it.  Purchase a copy of Elizabeth Shown Mills’s “Evidence!  Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian” (very cheap, used copies can be gotten from Amazon.com — I got mine for less than five dollars).  This book will inform you of how to document everything, from e-mail messages to oral interviews to portraits.  Get in the habit of citing your sources, and doing it according to professional standards (even if you don’t consider yourself a “professional” genealogist).  Practice your source citing skills with random information, just to stay up-to-date and sharp.

3. Educate Yourself on Genealogical Proof Standards
There are many free articles and presentations online2345, just a quick Google search away, that explain what the genealogical proof standards are, and how to use them to build your research upon a reliable foundation.  For serious researchers, there are essential books on the subject:

  1. Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc., 2007. Evidence Explained expands on and updates concepts presented by Ms. Mills in Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian, Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997.
  2. Rose, Christine. Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case. 3d edition. San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2009.
  3. Merriman, Brenda Dougall. Genealogical Standards of Evidence: A Guide for Family Historians. 3d edition. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2010.

While starting genealogy research at a young age presents its own set of issues, it should be encouraged and celebrated.  All family historians wish they had started earlier, and with good reason: genealogy is a race against time.  Records are decaying in courthouse basements, firsthand memories of people and events are disappearing along with the deaths of our oldest relatives, and changes in culture and language are making older records harder to understand.  We need young people to become more involved in investigating their roots.

Young researchers must be helped, with patience and gentleness, to be diligent in their research, to be cautious about what they disseminate to other researchers, and to be studious in citing their sources and respecting other researchers’ hard work.  Even older researchers will benefit from these practices.  No matter what age, and whether “hobbyist” or “professional”, we ought to all be ready to acknowledge our weaknesses and our areas in need of improvement, and we ought to all be eager to unceasingly educate and improve ourselves.


  1. Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst report, December 2009. Data from @Plan study conducted May 2009. 

  2. The Genealogical Proof Standard, Board for Certification of Genealogists, online <http://www.bcgcertification.org/resources/standard.html>, accessed 8 October 2013 

  3. Evidence or Proof?: How to Apply the Genealogical Proof Standard to Your Family Tree, Kimberly Powell, online <http://genealogy.about.com/cs/citing/a/proof.htm>, accessed 8 October 2013 

  4. Michael Hait, CG, “Genealogical fallacies in logic,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 19 December 2012 <http://michaelhait.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/fallacies/ : accessed 8 October 2013> 

  5. Navigating Research with the Genealogical Proof Standard, Mark Tucker, online <http://www.slideshare.net/marktucker/navigating-research-with-the-genealogical-proof-standard>, published 9 January 2009, accessed 8 October 2013 

ancestrycareercopyrightcousinselderlyevidencefamilygenealogistgenealogistsgenealogygrandparentshistorianhistorianshistoryInternetplagiarismprofessionalproofresearchrootsskepticismyoung


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