Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Are Bloggers Really the New Experts Part 2

In part one on this topic I responded to Michael Hait's post "The Genealogy Paradigm Shift: Are bloggers the new experts" by touching on the topics of the old and new paradigms in the genealogical community.  Here in part two, I will respond the second half of his post where he discusses whether it is a good thing or not.

Part 2 - Is the Genealogy Paradigm Shift a Good Thing or Bad Thing?

 As Michael continues in his post he says "Almost single-handedly Thomas [MacEntee] has led the charge in gaining respectability for genealogy bloggers"  I can't agree with this more.  Whether people like it or not Thomas has revolutionized communication within the genealogical community and has lead the community into bold new territory. What Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.com have done for digitizing records, Thomas has done for individual genealogists by giving them a voice and the tools to express it.  Thomas couldn't have done it without a great support team, but the truth is it's unlikely any of us would have done it so dramatically and rapidly without his indefatiguable energy.

Michael touches on the what genealogists of the future will be like when he says,

"A new generation of genealogists has already started to be born. They are not genealogists first and online genealogists second. They will be raised under the new paradigm, and may start by thinking that “everything is online.” Even once we dispel this notion, we will have to deal with another issue that is far more frightening."

Yes, genealogists of the future are going to be different. Let's embrace it.  Two visionary leaders in our community, D. Joshua Taylor and Dick Eastman have both spoken about what the future of genealogy looks like. Dick most recently presented his views in his talk "The Family History World in 10 Years Time."  I would highly recommend every listen to it (I will check to see if the online version is available to everyone). Josh and Dick both caution that the face of genealogists will look very different in a few years time, from their desire to use the internet to their varied backgrounds in non-traditional regions of the world such as China, South America and India.  Will the genealogical community step up to meet the needs of these new genealogists?

Michael regrets the decline of genealogical societies across America.  He questions whether bloggers can replace the support and expertise that genealogical societies provide and rallies his readers to create a resurgence to support societies.

I have two thoughts on this: 1) Bloggers are not replacing societies, the greater overall paradigm shift is making them redundant and 2) Genealogical societies need to change to meet the changing needs of the community.

Bloggers versus Societies

"GeneaBloggers do not generally scour every cemetery in a specific county and publish full listings of the gravestones. Genealogical societies do."

Actually it's genealogists who scour cemeteries not societies.  At times they implement and publish their work through societies and sometimes they do it on their own.  The paradigm shift has seen a move to Findagrave.com and BillionGraves.com not bloggers.  Bloggers do some transcriptions but nearly enough to impact or threaten societies.  Thus it is the large data collection websites who are a challenge to societies in this regard. Has Findagrave.com been a bad innovation? I don't think so.  The fact that we are moving from published transcriptions by genealogical societies is an example of how the exchange of information has changed not only within the genealogical community but also in the world at large.  Let's also keep in mind that quality among transcriptions vary whether they are done by individuals or societies.  Some transcriptions are nearly perfect and some are riddled through and through with errors.  Just like any document used in research, each transcription regardless of who created it needs to be evaluated for its own merit.

"GeneaBloggers do not abstract all of the obituaries of some small county newspaper from the mid-19th century and publish them. Genealogical societies do."

Again, the paradigm has shifted from genealogical societies to large information providers such as Genealogybank.com and NewsBank.com's "America's Obituaries and Death Notices."  Bloggers are not threatening societies, the information paradigm shift is.  In fact, bloggers are providing a better, though limited service, by compiling obituaries and other information within the context of families and localities rather than strictly as an out of context individual record.

"GeneaBloggers do not maintain genealogical libraries containing decades of work on local families. Genealogical societies do."

The introduction of this issue again shows lack of recognition of the changes that are happening in the greater world.  All libraries are under threat not just genealogical libraries.  Only major archives and large state or regional society libraries have financial viability.  Most people who belong to larger societies like the New England Historic Genealogical Society or  the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society do not even live within a reasonable distance to use the libraries regularly, if at all.  The members instead derive their benefit from online database and superb publications.  These societies are not under as great a threat as are the smaller town, county, regional or even state societies.

Michael concludes this portion of his blog post by stating "These resources can only remain available as long as we continue to support the societies that provide them."  I completely disagree (for some of the reasons stated above).

Societies have a lot to offer but they need to change with the times. They can not continue to offer services in an outdated manner when change is happening all around them.  I am not going to give my money to a society who provides me with nothing.  A society needs to provide value to me, their member, in order for me to continue to support it.  I belong to a number of societies and will continue to do so. But I have also lapsed my membership in many other societies.  Societies need to change to meet the needs of their members and have a forward vision if they want to continue to exist.  Supporting outdated models is not a viable option.

However, I do agree that genealogists can support societies by becoming active members of them.  Their energy, passion and leadership involvement can help transform smaller societies so that they can remain viable for the future.  Simply sending money to a society is not enough. Active participation and transformation is the answer.

Are Bloggers the New Experts?

Michael is concerned about the varied quality of bloggers and the visibility they have within the genealogical community.  Of course, this begs the question, who is the genealogical community?  Are the folks watching Who Do You Think You Are? and dabbling in family history part of the genealogical community? Is it inclusive of everyone or a smaller subset of actively engaged individuals?

There are two main issues (amongst a myriad of others) that need to be discussed. The first is the paradigm shift of information in the world at large.  No longer do people watch the three network stations for their news.  People now watch the news that suits their needs and opinions whether it is accurate or not.  Bloggers have entered the arena as an alternative news source for the genealogical community.  The quality of that news or information is just as varied as the news you can get from the mainstream media.  This is the way society has evolved whether we like it or not.  People have choice and they will decide which outlet suits them best.

The second issue is autonomy. Yes, bloggers are operating in a public forum but no longer is information controlled strictly by the entities that have the means to finance television and radio stations and printed publications.  Now everyone has the opportunity to have a voice.  Blogs are autonomous and we are free to disseminate whatever we like as long as we don't break any laws.

Would I like genealogy bloggers to provide quality content? Absolutely.  But bad content in genealogy has existed since the beginning of the field right alongside good content.  I would love for it to go away, especially in regards to erroneous family trees spread across the internet.  I agree with Michael when he says " Put your best face forward. You don’t have to change your voice to sound professional."  The fact is bloggers are autonomous and can choose what to publish on their blogs.  The best we can do is to lead by example. And that's where we should focus our energy as role models. And as members of the existing establishment embrace blogging, we will start to see a demise of the fringe bloggers and the rise of a more mature blogging community.


Are bloggers leading the genealogical community?  Are they guiding the future of where the discipline is headed?  Let's not get confused here about leadership versus advancement. The positions of leadership within the community are held by the editors of publications, the officers in state-wide and national genealogical societies and professional organizations, and by the directors of institutes and certificate programs.  How many bloggers are in those positions? If they are, then you could make an argument that one or two bloggers are leading the community. In reality, bloggers are a vocal and visible segment of one aspect in the advancement of genealogy.

I could be wrong here but I think Michael is defining leadership in the development of genealogy by the strict discipline of rigorous research. I would say that leadership is the ability to move a community forward while adhering to its principles.

The principles of genealogy have already been defined by the creation of the reasonably exhaustive search and the BCG Standards Manual.  True vision takes place when we harness these already existing tools and combine them with future needs to move the community forward.

Technology will be a big part of that as we have seen with the creation of RootsTech.  The changing demographic of future genealogists will also be a big part of that.  Will bloggers be a part of that as well? Certainly. Will we choose to meet the needs of future genealogists or will we further pigeon-hole genealogy into a restricted field because the new entrants don't meet our view of what genealogists are?

Michael Hait has started a great dialog about genealogy as a whole by planting seeds of thought about bloggers and their role within the genealogical community.  Michael is a brilliant thinker and voice within the genealogical community.  We are typically in agreement on most topics.  Over the course of this two-part series I have chosen to nit-pick based on some of the examples he has used to express his ideas.  But ultimately we want to the same thing - to move the field of genealogy forward in the best way possible.


  1. Bravo! I would comment further but I really feel you have written a very professional and eloquent reply that I couldn't agree with more. Well done Marian!

  2. As a blogging genealogist though certainly not a professional one, I think you are spot on with your response. I look back at the work my great uncle did as a professional genealogist that took him a lifetime to complete. I surpassed his work within a couple years due to the paradigm shift. I can't wait to see how far this paradigm shift will take genealogists (amateurs and professionals alike) before it is replaced by the next one.

  3. Brilliant discussion - the key is "to lead by example." I think most new genealogists and not so new genealogists want to get it right. Witness the numbers who attend webinars, seminars, and conferences. Also there are numerous online discussions on forums regarding research issues and source citations.

    Genealogy appears easy (kind of like the tip of the iceberg) when you start with yourself and add parents and grandparents. For most of us it becomes progressively more difficult when we go farther back and oftentimes the research is at a distance (the internet has been a huge help to open up records online for many of us). However, we are not helped when a major player in the game tells us "you don't have to know what you are looking for, you just have to start looking." We are also not helped when people don't take the time to check their work, do simple math or think critically - with the introduction of potential problems in most software programs and/or AI in the form of a program like GenSmarts - there really is no excuse for not checking work before posting/publishing.

    We need to make the best use of our time and dollars as it relates to books, subscriptions, software, travel, etc. Organizations that can adapt and provide value for the genealogist will survive. Organizations that refuse to adapt will not make it. I have seen both types. We need to be part of the change as appropriate and have high standards - but make sure those standards are for a reason not just because that is the way it has always been done.

    It is indeed one of the best times to be a genealogist because the technology and many resources are becoming more widely available (whether at home or at a library or archive).

    However, bottom line - it is still the people who make the difference. The issue is how to be inclusive and welcoming - whether online, at a society meeting, at a genealogy conference, on a blog, or on the various social media sites - and this is up to each of us individually. Another issue is how not to spread yourself too thin, how to combine research with social media activities, and how best to increase the knowledge base of genealogists.

    Leadership (and a bit more democracy in some organizations) is important and a willingness to be open to new ideas. So how do we get there?

  4. Another great post, Marian. Now my turn to nitpick. ;)

    "Societies have a lot to offer but they need to change with the times. They can not continue to offer services in an outdated manner when change is happening all around them. I am not going to give my money to a society who provides me with nothing."

    This is a perfect example of the problem with the paradigm shift. A genealogical society should not be "they"--it should be "us," genealogists. The society cannot provide more than its members can. If the only *active* members a society are older women who may not be able to physically do what they did 20 years ago, and simply don't have the knowledge to make a website or a blog or an online database, then should it die? No, *we* have the responsibility to be sure that the society survives and continues to produce and provide the resources it did 20 years ago, under the old paradigm.

  5. as Bob Dylan put it "The times, they are a'changin'" How exciting to see them changing so rapidly in our lifetimes, and see ourselves and others scrambling to catch up and see ahead as well. A time for leadership and vision, regardless of the method(s) chosen. When I teach a genealogy beginners class, the first thing I do is remind them to not re-invent the wheel - i.e., go join the local genealogical society or historical society, or join one in the arena of one's ancestors' lives. Bloggers are another source... I give them several names of thoughtful insightful practical bloggers - and strongly suggest they start in on the lifetime learning process in genealogy. Your post is excellent in pinpointing the need for an inclusive new paradigm that meets the future challenge. Kudos!

  6. Ah, Michael, did you not see this paragaph?

    "However, I do agree that genealogists can support societies by becoming active members of them. Their energy, passion and leadership involvement can help transform smaller societies so that they can remain viable for the future. Simply sending money to a society is not enough. Active participation and transformation is the answer."

    Sometimes my volunteer work has totalled up to nearly full time hours. I think I've earned my cred volunteering in New England. That's more than enough considering the large family I am simulataneously taking care of at home.

    I think when speaking we need to differentiate between those who are actively engaged in the genealogical community (yes, I mean offline!) and those who are considering joining just one local society.

  7. Neither you nor Michael address the poll in a recent NEHGS newsletter that most of its members do not follow blogs at all. Randy Seaver at Geneamusings wrote a post on it. It is an unscientific poll, but it was interesting that members who subscribe to an online newsletter were not reading blogs at all. What does that say?

    I might hypothesize that bloggers are insular. They read each other, but the average genealogist does not. In that case, how can they lead the field as a whole?

    Michael also did not address the fact that the ASG is still not counting Internet published genealogy towards its membership requirements.

    I've been down this road before and had a blog before Michael, you, and Thom, and asked for bloggers to cite their sources in their postings. Precious few do today. Even the eponymous FootnoteMaven won't do it.

    The paradigm shift is merely in the minds of bloggers who would like to think they are more important genealogically speaking than they may well be.

  8. Specifically see my last post:; http://mhollick.typepad.com/slovakyankee/2010/12/internet-genealogy-is-still-not-scholarly.html

  9. Martin,
    You say that "I've been down this road before and had a blog before Michael, you, and Thom, and asked for bloggers to cite their sources in their postings. Precious few do today. Even the eponymous FootnoteMaven won't do it. "

    Most blogs state that if you ask for a source, we will supply it.

  10. In response to: "but it was interesting that members who subscribe to an online newsletter were not reading blogs at all. What does that say?"

    It may not even say what it sounds like it says. I send out an online newsletter each week that links to posts in my blog. Many people choose to read the blog that way rather than subscribe via RSS. Does that mean they aren't reading the blog? No. Do they always know they are reading a blog? Again, no. Some readers never even get to the point of understanding that my site isn't the newsletter :) Some of this is all in the terminology, and the reader's understanding of said terminology. There really are a lot of people out there who read blogs who don't realize they are doing so.

  11. Martin,

    I originally wrote this post before the NEHGS poll results had been released. When I sat down to add the second half, I admit that I neglected to discuss the results through oversight. The poll states that 40% of the respondents read at least one blog. I imagine that if the same poll had been conducted even as recently as 2-3 years ago, it would have shown less than 20% read a single blog. And just 5 years ago, it would have probably been in the single digits. To me this is a trend that will continue.

    I obviously cannot speak for ASG, but I imagine that the reason that the Society does not consider Internet-published research is the lack of editorial and peer review. This is a very important aspect of the "old paradigm"--the process of having one's research reviewed and evaluated by other skilled genealogists.

    We are in total agreement, however, regarding the use of source citations in blogs. If you read my blog or my two online Examiner columns, you will note that I cite all of my sources in each post, and even include a template for citing most of the posts themselves at the end.

    Geneabloggers are certainly not an insular community. Many people read blogs who do not also write their own. Many readers, if I could venture to guess, are beginning genealogists who stumble across blogs in their Google searches. These beginners may not belong to the NEHGS mailing list, and so did not respond to the poll. They may not read any blog regularly. Yet to these readers, bloggers may be viewed as somewhat authoritative, the "new experts."

  12. Marian,

    You hit the nail on the head! There is a big difference, in my opinion, between those who are active in the "at-large" genealogy community and also write a blog, and those genealogists for whom the online community is the be-all and end-all. Right now, I would even argue that the former group far outnumbers the latter. But I also think that the scales are tipping in the other direction. This is a shift that is in progress. Those of us in the former group must spend as much time stressing the value and importance of offline community as we do the online community.

  13. I blog, I read blogs, and I belong to 5 societies: my local society, the largest local society in my state (NOT the local one), my state society, and two societies in areas my ancestors were active in. I am active in the local society. I am also active in an on-line genealogical community.
    I am not an expert, I do try to be as accurate as I can be.
    My blog is usually personal, discussing my learning process. I am not sure what citations should appear in a blog like that. For instance, when I posted the memoirs of my grandmother's first cousin, I did provide a citation for the papers. I did not provide any information as to whom this person was, where she fits on my family tree and so on (other than the relationship mentioned above). Would anyone wish to know that?
    Actually, I started my blog as a way to discipline my studies. I hope my experiences may be of help to others, but my purpose was to help myself, by forcing myself to clarify my thinking by my writing.
    I think I'm really trying to say that genealogy blogs, like genealogists, come in all the ranges of experience, and cover all the ranges of following that exist.

  14. Brava, Marian! This may be your best post yet. You've given me much to think on.

  15. In the 1990s, when the internet was just becoming popular, genealogical societies did try to put information online. Many volunteer hours were put into making all kinds of indexes. I think the site was called GenWeb? One of its goals was to keep genealogy free for the community. Then that site was swallowed up by RootsWeb/Ancestry. A lot of the information is still there somewhere and scattered, but many were discouraged by the changes and stopped contributing or moved their information elsewhere.

    We need another GenWeb type of site. Something easy for societies and their members to contribute information. I have inherited a few
    documents relevant to a certain community's history, but not enough to want to join the society. I would like to have a way to submit this information to their database even though I am not a member. A place to ask questions and have discussions about research findings. A place to get opinions about all the information you have compiled about a subject in that location, but are not sure it all goes together. Something societies can charge their membership to see their database. Also a place that a commercial company cannot take over. Maybe a site supported by many genealogical societies, so that there has to be a vote by many before the site is sold to a commercial company. But that is probably too much to ask.

  16. Good post, Marian, and good food for thought! Also wanted to comment on Anonymous' post - good ideas, maybe it's too much to ask, but is it too much to do? Think about how you can work to make it happen...

  17. To the anonymous poster who mentioned "GenWeb":

    The USGenWeb project is still active and still not commercial. It has never been "swallowed up" by Ancestry or any other corporation, though many of its sites are hosted at no cost by Rootsweb, which is owned by Ancestry. Many of its sites are not hosted by Rootsweb.

    Use of the USGenWeb sites remains 100% free for genealogists.

  18. Thank you, Michael, for clarifying that USGenWeb is still active. I just wanted to add that the volunteers who maintain the USGenWeb sites are almost always looking for new material to include, and gladly welcome anything that is submitted by researchers. I volunteer to manage one of the county sites and I am in a constant state of searching for contributors. So please conduct a google search for the location in which your contributions would best apply and contact the coordinator for the relevant site.

    Once you do find the site, browse around, since most of them offer links to discussion forums and mailing lists in which genealogists can share information and ask questions.

  19. An excellent article accompanied by thought provoking comments. I also noticed I have been called out in one of those comments.

    To Martin - If it is a scholarly article it is cited. Not that I won't cite. Shades is my scholarly work. I write on fM for the sheer joy of it.

    You and I have been down this road before in more blog posts than I care to remember. I generally handle you with humor, however, I am short on it this year.

    Merry Christmas! The eponymous FootnoteMaven

    Sorry for the interruption Marian.