In the last newsletter, I wrote about an article I saw in the Federalist entitled “The Death of Expertise.” The article dealt with the problems in greater society that have come with the great equalization of the internet. In my post, I discussed how these same stresses are appearing in the genealogical community. Over the last couple of weeks, this post has created a tremendous amount of discussion in the blogosphere as well as social media.
Within two hours of the newsletter coming out, the first response piece was posted. Over the next days, numerous other pieces were posted, not only in response to what I said, but in response to what others had posted in response to my original post. It was amazing how far afield some of the posts went from the original topic. It is always heartening to see a post precipitate conversation. In this case it was interesting to see how the conversation turned down some curious paths.
It was interesting to see how some immediately jumped onto the “elitist” bandwagon. Expertise is not elitist. It is experience and knowledge, both of which are freely available to anyone. As Michael John Neil put it so well “I don’t believe in the existence of the genealogical elite and I don’t believe in the existence of the genealogy police.” I have the same experience as Michael. I’ve never met anyone considered themselves to be an “elite.” I have however, met a number of individuals who consider themselves genealogy police, putting themselves in charge of protecting the defenseless newbies.
Some of these folks have been very upset about experienced genealogists calling them selfish, and only interested in making money, and doing nothing to contribute and help others. First, I must say, anyone who thinks that professional genealogists make a fortune at their craft is extremely mistaken. Professionals work very hard to make a living.
That said, they also give a tremendous amount back to the community in general. They publish their work in peer-reviewed journals and other periodicals (for which they are paid nothing) that will help people in the future. The combined information published in the entire runs of these journals is an incredibly valuable, and irreplaceable, resource. Reconstituting family connections is sometimes very difficult, with no single document to prove a connection, and with extensive discussion needed to understand why something is so. This is the kind of information that is not easily included in online family trees at the moment.
They also make presentations and conduct workshops, often for little or no compensation. Quite frankly, the amount of pay speakers receive for a speaking engagement does not even begin to adequately compensate for the amount of time it takes to research and put these presentations together. They are not making a fortune doing it.
Why do we do these things? To help researchers of all levels. We want to help people learn how to research and find their family. Seeing the glint in peoples’ eyes as they learn a new concept, or have a new door opened in their mind, is a most wonderful experience. To say that experienced people do not care and do not share is patently untrue and insulting.
Another complaint I’ve heard is that the “elite” should stop “harassing” those people who don’t believe in things like source citations and stop forcing people to write a Harvard Ph.D.-worthy citation for every fact. Is there anything more self-destructive than not writing down where you found a piece of information so you can find it again? Those who discuss how to create proper citations are trying to help more experienced researchers do it in the best way possible.
But those tools are not for everyone, beginners especially. I, like most other professionals I know, do not tell beginners to go out and buy Evidence Explained and the Chicago Manual of Style and get cracking! I tell beginners to simple record exactly where they found the information so that they can find it again, because inevitably they will find another source that disagrees with their information and they will have to go back and look again. Even the doyenne of genealogical citations, Elizabeth Shown Mills, says the same thing. Recently she posted Sunday’s Sermon: Ten Citation Commandments for Intimidated Souls. Number 3 is “Thou shalt not be paranoid. Any citation is better than none at all.”
So, I say that expertise is still critical to our success as genealogists. From rank beginner to incredibly experienced, we ignore it at our own peril. Why? Because learning how to find your family from those who have gone before helps to keep you from making mistakes, and more importantly, ensures that the people you put into your online family tree actually ARE related to you.