Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Genre and Genealogy

I have to admit that I am still mulling over Michael Hait's post "The Genealogy Paradigm Shift: Are bloggers the new experts?"

There's one last part I need to discuss and then I think I will be able to let it go.  In his final section he discusses what he'd like to see from bloggers in the future. He's hoping they'll give more consideration to the fact that their blogs are public and many people are reading them. 

This post does not directly address that issue but gives voice to my visceral reaction to the topic which is the matter of genre.

Within the field of genealogy there are many different types of genre that are played out in printed publication.  As we explore these types of genealogical genres we have to ask again, what is genealogy?  Is genealogy strictly when we are talking about discovered family connections and the citations we show to prove those connections?  Or does genealogy encompass everything from the materials that we create to teach others about genealogy, the journal-like stories we write to share our journey, the discussions of serendipity we have experienced along our way? Is that genealogy or do we need to come up with a sub-field to cover those topics?

Let's look at journals and magazines.  There are many different types.  There are the peer-reviewed journals such as The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, The National Genealogical Society Quarterly and The American Genealogist (TAG).  I could be wrong about this but when Michael gets talking about genealogy this is what I think he is talking about.  Not that that is bad thing.  These publications are amazing, the best of genealogy and what we strive for in our research.  They are the closest thing we have to academic journals.  They are written in a scholarly manner, peer-reviewed in a scholarly way and the citations alone are a lesson in good research.  They are not always to most riveting works to read but they push us to become better genealogists. Since we all agree on that, let's move on.

My question is, what about all those other genealogy publications?  Are they genealogy too or they something else?  There's American Ancestors, the NGS Magazine, The New York Researcher and numerous others created by societies and other groups. These magazines sometimes include scholarly work but they also include articles that teach about different issues confronted by genealogists such as DNA, technology, writing, new record groups, project management and much more.  Some of the materials are footnoted and some aren't based on whether it's appropriate.  Do we make a distinction between publishing genealogies and publishing topics within the field of genealogy?

And what about the pop genealogy magazines?  Can we consider those genealogy? There are a number of publications such as Family Tree Magazine, Internet Genealogy and Family Chronicle that specifically don't include footnotes in their articles.  These are perhaps considered as how-to genealogy magazines.  They discuss research and encourage genealogists to try new resources but they don't specifically print genealogies.

Each of these publications has their own voice. Each one has a specific target audience. Each one has specific guidelines for writers that need to be followed.  The guidelines spell out exactly what the mission of the magazine is and how they intend to communicate with their readers.  Some magazines, such as the last group, specifically don't use citations in their articles.  Are they not genealogical publications because of that?

That's how I feel when Michael is encouraging bloggers to be their best.  I feel like (and this could be misinterpretation on my part) that he wants us all to be in the first category.  The thing about genealogy blogs is that, just like magazines, there are many genres of genealogy blogs.  Some are scholarly work where genealogies are published, some are diary-like stories of a research journey, some are editorials, some are book and product reviews, some are satire, some are how-tos.  And some are people just getting their feet wet with research who are reaching out to the greater community through their blog.

What makes blogs even more complicated is that each post could be a specific genre with the overall blog not specifically adhering to any one type.  So we can't actually look to a blog to have a specific genre. We must consider each post separately.

So again, the question is what is genealogy? Who has the right to decide? Who has the right to publish it? Are their two distinctive elements to genealogy - the academic publication of "a genealogy" and all the other peripheral stuff which circles around, explores and supports the ultimate goal of a published genealogy?  Do we need to be more specific about these distinctions when talking about genealogy?

As far as bloggers are concerned, they are just like journals and magazines.  They determine what their voice is.  They decide who they want their audience to be and they decide how to represent that voice in writing. Just like genealogy publications they each serve a different purpose and express their views in different ways.

So instead of talking generally about genealogy and encouraging people to write in a better way, perhaps we need to more carefully voice our comments to specifically address which genre we are talking about and how they can specifically improve within their chosen genre.


  1. Excellent article. Michael really started something and I think that was a good thing! I also think that Michael's post hit a few nerves (perhaps many unintended) as some took his comments quite personally. While I don't know what he was thinking - I think he wanted to get us thinking.

    None of us wants to see or read "genealogy" that rests on folly and that type of "research" is disappearing where people spend time learning how to research, where to research, and how to cite their work. In this regard we can thank a variety of publications (which you mention Marian), societies, genealogy database programs, courses through various for profit and nonprofit organizations and online, as well as websites, blogs, and Rootsweb mailing lists.

    The wealth of information and our access to it has changed dramatically over the past five years that I have been researching. As we learn more we will be able to do more with it. I think this is where Michael and many others are gently pushing us.

    Blogs serve a variety of functions (personal sharing, research results, technical articles, opinion pieces) and the only overriding thread that they must share is that they try to engage the reader - to entertain, to learn, to think, to try something new, to be awed, to remember and to appreciate. I follow a variety of blogs for a variety of reasons and I certainly would not want every post to be "peer review quality" writing. Thankfully we mix it up and your comments in this regard are spot on.

    Just as I read a wide variety of books - biographies, novels, thrillers, histories, travelogues, genealogy how-tos, children’s literature, classics, and politics - I want that same variety in genealogy publishing.

    Simply put, tell me what you are doing, do it, and let me decide whether to read it or not. There is plenty of room for all types of writing. I like the "marketplace of ideas" approach. Put it out there and let the reader decide (but please proofread and spell-check first).

  2. Well-said. You have expressed thoughts running through my mind in a similar vein many times. The beauty of the blogosphere is that we can be in touch with people who cause us to think about such ideas.

  3. I so agree with Tessa's comment above: "Simply put, tell me what you are doing, do it, and let me decide whether to read it or not. There is plenty of room for all types of writing. I like the "marketplace of ideas" approach." I write my blog as a creative outlet for ME. I am so grateful to my ancestors who left a record. With a maiden name like "Jones" I would have been severly limited in my research without their record. I'm attempting to pay it forward to those who may follow in my family. I have detailed records and research in my possession, but no one in my family would be interested in them (at this point). I want to let them know that we have interesting ancestors they may someday want to know better. The blog may be the hook.

  4. Thanks again Marian, you've hit the nail on the head again. I have been thinking on this these last several days as well. I am really in sync with you on this. I have no intention of writing a blog with citations. Well, let me clarify,not my current blog, that's not to say I wouldn't use citations in a different style of blog. I admire Michael's blog because he does, but this is not the readership, feel, vibe, look or voice, call it what you want I am trying to achieve. We all bring our message in our own way and there should be no standards for how we present our genealogical blogs. I certainly support the "standard of proof" when it comes to researching your genealogy, but how you research, the tools you use, and how you convey your story is certainly open to interpretation. I personally admire blogs that are creative and think outside of the box...in fact I seek them out,... hmmm come to think of it, that's the same thing I admire in genealogists. This has been a great conversation.

  5. You have misunderstood my plea at the end of the post a little, and I now feel that many others did as well. I don't believe that any blogger, myself included, should write a NGSQ-worthy blog post. Blogs have a different audience and use a different voice.

    You mentioned the pop magazines. I have been writing for Family Chronicle and Internet Genealogy for almost 5 years, and had an article in Family Tree Magazine just a few months ago. I definitely feel that these magazines are as beneficial as the peer-reviewed journals. So are blogs. We are talking about different markets, audiences, and voices.

    My call for citing sources in blogs recognizes the following standards:

    National Genealogical Society, "Standards For Sharing Information With Others":
    "identify the sources for all ideas, information and data from others, and the form in which they were received, recognizing that the unattributed use of another's intellectual work is plagiarism."

    National Genealogical Society, "Guidelines For Publishing Web Pages On The Internet":
    "include unambiguous source citations for the research data provided on the site, and if not complete descriptions, offering full citations upon request."

    National Genealogical Society, "Standards For Sound Genealogical Research":
    "record the source for each item of information they collect."

    Association of Professional Genealogists, "Code of Ethics":
    "*Promote* a coherent, truthful approach to genealogy, family history and local history. [emphasis added]"
    "Present research results and opinions in a clear, well-organized manner; fully and accurately cite references; and refrain from withholding, suppressing, or knowingly misquoting or misinterpreting sources or data."

    Board for the Certified Genealogists, "The Genealogical Proof Standard":
    "Completely and accurately cite every source of information discovered in this search."

    Some may argue that the hobbyist genealogist should not be held to the APG Code of Ethics or the BCG standards. However, complete and accurate source citations and attribution are also recommended by the National Genealogical Society, an organization representing the interests of hobbyist genealogists more than professionals.

    As a member of APG, however, I am required to "promote" better genealogy research, the first point in APG's Code of Ethics as quoted above. The fact that some might not feel it necessary to do so--their own choice to be sure--does not relieve me of my own duty to promote it.

  6. Thank you Marian for this interesting and thought provoking post, and thank you Michael Hait for getting the conversation started. I agree genealogical research should be subject to the Genealogical Proof Standard, and it is with this in mind that I believe you should, upon request, be able to provide primary proof of a connection to every person to whom you lay claim on your family tree. In my case, it is the nature of the blog post which governs whether or not citations appear. As an academic I would never use the work of another individual without proper citation. As a historian, I only wish that some members of the genealogy community were as strict about citation and accuracy when it comes to the use of the history of a country and its citizenry. If I read even one more ‘professional’ claim that "ALL Irish were farmers", my head may very well explode.

  7. Great post. I think this is the best description of genealogy(ies) I've yet read. It ties into the entire James Tanner thread of not being a genealogical community but rather several genealogical communities.

  8. Marian,

    Another thought-provoking post! I agree with you that they are different genres and that different treatment may be called for in different circumstances. I also agree with Michael that we all should consider and strive for clarity, quality, accuracy, and standards (my characterization of his thoughts). You don't necessarily need footnotes on a blog post to achieve those things. But even in a casual "pop" genealogy magazine article, one should point out when the evidence for a proposition is disputed or unclear (that's just good journalism to me). Having said, last week I wrote blog post with footnotes, a departure from my usual practice. I did it because I was dealing with a family that I do not know and wanted readers (especially if some happen to be family members)how I reached the conclusions that I did.

    The answer to the question Are Bloggers the New Experts? is--some are, and some aren't, and many have no such aspirations; none of which answers should necessarily reflect upon the readability of their content.

  9. What a great conversation! Thanks Marian for bringing this wonderful post to the mix. I have to say that while I understand (from Michael's comment) the standards he is referencing, that still does not lead me to cite my sources in a blog post. Most of my blog posts share family stories - stories my grandfather told me about HIS grandparents etc. I clearly state that and leave it at that.

    And Craig's comment really "speaks" to me - because I have no aspirations to be an expert, but I greatly appreciate those of you who are! (and I include Marian, Craig and Michael in that group)

  10. Marian wrote:
    >And what about the pop genealogy magazines? Can we consider those genealogy? There are a number of publications such as Family Tree Magazine, Internet Genealogy and Family Chronicle that specifically don't include footnotes in their articles.

    Marian, if it were not for the Everton's old _Genealogical Helper,_ the "pop genealogy magazine" of its era, I might not have ended up making genealogy my career. To be a robust pursuit, genealogy does need all kinds of forums, meeting all kinds of needs for all kinds of people.

    A wide-ranging marketplace allows us to teach methods and standards in a way that resonates with individual genealogists at different levels of their growth. Naturally, I am delighted that Martin, Michael, and many other bloggers now preach source citation--and I love that Michael provides a 'how to cite this article' at the end of every blog. But it's also true that different genres traditionally handle things in different ways, and typically for good reasons.

    One exciting thing about blogging is that it IS a fairly new genre in which conventions are still being set. One reassuring thing is that there are so many of you who are demonstrating how to teach standards in ways that encourage rather than intimidate.

  11. Michael puts "how to cite" at the end of each blog entry? Whoa, gotta go back and re-engineer that into my own blog. That's a great idea. I have a subscription to his blog and now I hang my head in shame that I didn't read all the way to the end.

    The recent blog postings and APG Member List postings have given me a lot to think about. They are inspiring my own blog entries, although I still need more processing time in my head. There is so much to think about! Thank you to all for the on-going discussion.