Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Pro Versus Hobbyist Genealogist Debate

When I was a kid, growing up in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, my life revolved around hockey. I played day and night, year round. In the summer, my friends and I would dabble in baseball but hockey was our passion. We dreamed of improving our skill levels so that one day we could be pros and play for our beloved Maple Leafs. Signing a contract to play in an elite developmental league was a step closer to that dream and a moment that I won't forget.

Lately, genealogy blogs have been filled with opinions on how the community of genealogists, particularly the genealogy blogging community, can see itself. Essentially the question seems to be (and I admit I may be missing the point of the conversation) whether it's okay to generate money through blogs and professional work as a genealogist versus being a hobbyist. The conversation was initiated by Joan Miller at her Luxegen Genealogy Blog in a post Genea-Bodies: The New Somebodies. To give Joan credit, she started a lively discussion with 72 comments added to her post at the time of this writing. I think it took this blog about 200 posts before I had received 72 comments in total for all the posts combined.

Joan notes that the recent highly successful Rootstech conference recognized and elevated the status of the genealogy blogging community who tremendously aided the conference through their blogging and tweeting in social media and as such the "Genea-bodies" became the "new Somebodies" as conference cheerleaders. The engagement of the genealogy blogging community at the conference helped to unleash their passion.

Some great opinions have been added to the conversation at several different blogs and I would encourage you to read them all. Thomas MacEntee at Geneabloggers has started a series of posts on the issues surrounding fun or profit and opportunities for professional genealogists. Michael Hait also offers some interesting insights in the Tricks of the Tree blog. And IllyaD'Addezio shares his perspective quite well at his Genealogy Today blog. Finally for some good insights from a very popular and well respected blogger check out Randy Seaver's Genea-Musings opinions.

So where am I in the discussion? Well, I take a centrist view, not to be mistaken for 'sitting on the fence.' Just as I experienced in hockey, some want to be professional and hone their skills to a level that supports that experience. Some don't want to push that hard for that goal - and that's absolutely fine. I agree that almost everyone starts with a hobbyist interest and some pursue that interest and then are able to make a living with it. It really is to each their own!

There is nothing wrong with making money especially if you can do that while pursuing your passion for family history. I personally don't make any money from my genealogy pursuits. In fact, the opposite is true - I spend lots of money through society memberships, family history related trips and excursions, on-line subscriptions and document searches, conference attendance, and the list goes on. This blog has no ads which I recognize was and still is my choice for the moment. I have never received any 'freebies' and I have no affiliations with any vendors of genealogy services or products (not that I wouldn't mind receiving something for free but if I do, I recognize my need to be transparent and to disclose that fact).

It is great to see as Joan Miller indicates that the geneablogging community is being recognized but there is also a danger in the discussion. The danger in my view is that there can creep into the community an elitism that somehow the professional knows far more and is automatically more competent than all hobbyists. This has led sadly to some self-proclaimed genea-cops patrolling blogs and trying to belittle some bloggers. I know first hand as I have experienced it.

A well respected genealogist and blogger named 'Apple' who writes the Apple's Tree blog has recently announced that she won't be continuing because of the 'geneabullies' as she described them. This simply must stop. We must play nice together in the sandbox!

I have been researching my family, through one brickwall after another, for more than 30 years. Next year I plan on retiring from my 'day' job and will clearly have more time to devote to my favourite passion but I must admit I have little tolerance for someone trying to bully me or smugly suggesting that my research or it's presentation in this blog is less than the pure academia they feel is fitting based on a self-proclaimed area of expertise.

I'm happy having fun with my research. I'm happy sharing my trials and tribulations while hopefully adding to and benefiting from the support of the international community of genealogists. As Curt Witcher stated at the Rootstech conference,this is "the best of times" for genealogists. I say we should enjoy it - professional and hobbyist alike.


  1. Well said. I have asperations to go proffessional and even have a few customers, but the more read on this the more I really don't want to pursue my certifications. My customers are happy when I help them discover things that they may not have found on their own, and I guess that's all that matters.

    Unfortunately there will be bullies in any hobby or proffesssion. It's likely that they don't measure up either and they have to point out other people's faults. ;-)

    I was so disappointed though that it has force Apple Tree into hiding. I don't have a lot of time to read, but I do like to drop in on her blog from time to time and now I can't.

    Shame on the bullies@!@#@#@

  2. Great post Ian.

    On the topic of GeneaBullies, and this is my view: they do exist and I have had to deal with them first hand. I think we need to call out this behavior when it happens. I know some very capable hobbyist genealogists who could put some so-called professionals to shame. For some reason, I feel another post coming on . . .

  3. I have been a 'paid researcher' since 1986, but I am very aware of the fact that I can learn a lot from 'personal researchers' (a.k.a. 'hobbyists'). Every one of them has experience with a source or a geographical area about which I know nothing. My point of view is on Genealogy Leftovers.

    Thinking about genea-bullies... I am now tempted to set Comment Moderation to 'Always' so I can block nasty comments. If comments are not published, the bullies won't receive that gratification.

  4. Interesting post Ian and thanks for the mention.

    Although I wrote the original Genea-Bodies post (80 comments now and counting!), the credit for the active discussion goes in part to Marion Pierre-Louis of the Roots and Rambles Blog. She brought up the Genea-Money topic.

    I wonder how many new Genea-Words we can coin? :)

  5. Thanks to all for the great comments and discussion.

    Judy - my experience with the 'bullying' type behaviour has been through email not just comments. I think it's great that the behaviour has been spoken about and has had some light shining on it. That alone may help alleviate the problem.

  6. Ian - Thank you for this thoughtful, insightful, well articulated post.