Formerly published by GlobalGazette.ca
Published March 17, 1999
A Study of Genealogists & Family Historians, Part IV
By Ronald D. Lambert, Sociology Professor, University of Waterloo
Ron Lambert, currently professor of sociology  at the University of Waterloo, shares the final segment of his four part series entitled: A STUDY OF GENEALOGISTS & FAMILY HISTORIANS.
Part IV examines what family historians said about the scope of their active participation in family history, with special reference to their investment in genealogy, and their practices, accomplishments and identities as family historians. Part One shed new light onto who genealogists are. Part Two studies the elements which motivate so many people to undertake family history research. Part Three examines the factors associated with the family historian's emergent interest in genealogy.
The Family Historian Role
Early in the project, I talked with many genealogists and asked them to tell me about their genealogical activities. These conversations led me to conceive of the family historian role as made up of five components:
With this working definition in hand, I developed questions asking about the components for each person's parents' and spouses' parents' lines. Since respondents may be the family historian for one or more lines, I repeated the questions for fathers' and mothers' lines separately and, if respondents were married, for each of their spouses' lines, too.
To illustrate each of the activity areas comprising the family historian role, I will draw on respondents' answers to the question, "what value does genealogy have for your?" Their words also capture something of what they found compelling in the role.
We take our camera copy stand along on every trip - the relatives we meet are thrilled to have us interested in copying their old pictures and hearing all their stories. (We do tape these.) We have over 1000 slides and have put on several presentations.
I am now in touch with relatives with whom I had little or no contact before. As these relatives are interested in our family, it has been extremely enjoyable for me to gather names of relatives.
Some of my cousins and siblings are into the family reunion stuff, so every five or so years I get to shine for a day or so whilst I explain to them all my latest researches. But I really believe that some of the younger ones think that I'm just some sort of dotty old uncle for doing this stuff.
Having identified the five components of the fhr, I asked respondents the following questions for each of their parents' lines and, if they were married at the time of the survey, for each of their spouses' parents' lines.
2. Do you seek and collect old photos and documents, or copies of them, for this line?
3. Do you seek and record information on the living generations of this line?
4. Have you written or do you plan to write a family history on this line?
5. Do [you see yourself] [relatives see you] as the family historian for this line?
72 percent of the respondents reported that they had done "a lot" of research on their fathers' lines, compared to 59 percent on their mothers' lines. Half as much effort was put into researching each of the spouses' lines, also favouring fathers' over mothers' lines. Men were more likely than women to do "a lot" of research on their fathers' lines; however, women were more likely than men to devote a lot of research to their mothers' lines and to both of their spouses' lines.
17 percent of respondents, more men than women, said they had written family histories on their fathers' lines. Thirteen percent had done so for their mothers' lines, and less than 10 percent for each of the spouses' lines. Men and women did not differ for the latter three lines.
more than 90 percent of men and women made a practice of preserving their fathers' and mothers' family artifacts. The figures for the spouses' lines were 10 to 20 percent lower, but in both cases women were more likely to archive their in-laws' records than men were to archive their in-laws'.
72 percent of the respondents made a point of recording information on the living generations of their fathers' lines, somewhat more than the 67 percent who did so for their mothers' lines. The figures were 58 percent for the spouses' fathers' lines and 52 percent for the spouses' mothers' lines, again with women giving greater priority to their husbands' lines than men did to their wives' lines.
about 75 percent of the "ever-married" respondents, the same for men and women, claimed a family historian identity for their fathers' lines. Fifty-nine percent of men and 72 percent of women, however, saw themselves as family historians for their mothers' lines. Less than half of the respondents claimed to be family historians for their spouses' lines, but women were substantially more likely to do so.
I said above that respondents seemed to see research as central to the fhr. I wondered whether respondents' self-images as family historians depended more on doing research than on recording information on living relatives, writing family histories and protecting family artifacts. This proved to be the case for all four lines. Writing family histories was the second important component, also for all four lines.
We can summarize these findings in the following way: in general, respondents' lines were favoured over spouses' lines; fathers' lines were favoured over mothers' lines; and women were more committed to their husbands' lines than men were to their wives' lines. Doing research was the key to people's self-images as family historians for each of the four lines.
I looked at several facets of respondents' involvement in genealogy. The figures presented here provide descriptive benchmarks for the OGS community.
Investments in Genealogy. Respondents praised genealogy as a flexible hobby, in that one can pick it up or set it aside, depending on other obligations, spend as little or as much time and money as one wishes and can afford, work alone or in the company of like-minded genealogists according to one's taste, work on one's own families or on behalf of the genealogical community, and so on.
Two questions probed how much time respondents devoted to genealogy. The first one asked, "How many hours have you devoted to genealogical activities, of all kinds, during the last full month?" At the low end, nearly 15 percent of the sample said they had devoted no time to genealogy during the preceding month; at the high end, another 15 percent said they had spent "41 or more hours (5+days)" on genealogy. Fifty-two percent of the sample had invested the equivalent of more than one complete (8-hour) day to the hobby during the previous month.
A follow-up question asked, "Was this less, the same, or more time than you usually devoted to all genealogical activities in other months of 1993 to the present?" One-half of the respondents replied that the figure for the preceding month was typical. Another third said it was less than usual, while 15 percent said it was more than usual. Furthermore, those who spent very little or a great deal of time in the preceding month were most likely to report that this was abnormal.
While men and women were quite similar in the amount of time given to genealogy, people differed somewhat by age. Eighteen percent of the eldest respondents said they had spent zero hours on genealogy, compared to 7 percent of the youngest respondents. Beyond this, however, the differences were rather small. Eleven percent of the eldest and 14 percent of the youngest respondents, for example, devoted five-or-more days to their hobby.
I also asked respondents to estimate how much money they had spent on genealogy "in 1993 only". They were requested to
At the low end of the scale, 29 percent said they spent less than $100; at the high end, 10 percent reported expenditures over $1,000. About half the sample spent between $100 and $500.
I checked whether respondents' sex, age, current marital status, income and employment status, individually or in combination, had any impact on how much money they spent on genealogy. As it turned out, only sex made a difference, with women spending significantly more than men in 1993.
Sources of Information. Although genealogists have many different sources of information at their disposal, they find some of them more useful than others. The following question explored these preferences:
The sources are listed below according to the percentage of active researchers who reported using them.
Living relatives (80%)
Newspaper articles, announcements & advertisements (66%)
Cemetery transcriptions (63%)
Church records (59%)
Government vital records (births- marriages-deaths) (57%)
Old atlases & maps (56%)
Old photographs (56%)
Other genealogists (52%)
International Genealogical Index (48%)
Land records (48%)
Local histories (46%)
"Queries" in various publications (46%)
Family Bibles (38%)
Family records & heirlooms (35%)
City directories (34%)
Research directories, e.g. the "Genealogical Research Directory" (32%)
Seminars & workshops (32%)
Archival documents (32%)
Research guides or manuals (31%)
Published genealogies (30%)
Telephone books (27%)
Ancestral File (25%)
Military records (24%)
Court records (21%)
Tax & assessment rolls (19%)
Funeral home records (17%)
Miscellaneous lists of names (15%)
Social Security records (9%)
Mail, Libraries and Archives. Two separate questions asked, "How many letters bearing on your own or others' genealogical research have you [written] [received] each month, on average, in all of 1993 to the present?" Fifty-three percent said they had written, and 43 percent said they had received, one or more letters per month.
A third question asked, "How many queries have you published in genealogical magazines, newsletters and directories in all of 1993 to the present?" More than half of the sample said they had published no queries at all in the 15 or so months permitted by the question. While OGS offers members two free insertions per year in Families, not to mention comparable privileges in their Branch and other group memberships, only 17 percent had published one query and 13 percent had published two queries in the 15-month period.
A fourth question asked whether respondents had "visited and used the facilities" of the Ontario Archives in Toronto, the National Archives in Ottawa, and the OGS Library in North York. Slightly more than 50 percent of the respondents had used the Ontario Archives and approximately 40 percent had used each of the National Archives and the OGS Library. As one might expect, where one lived was associated with usage of these facilities. Fifty-seven percent of Ontario residents had used the Ontario Archives, compared with 37 percent of members from other provinces and 31 percent of members from the United States. About 40 percent of Ontarian and other Canadian residents had visited the National Archives, compared to 16 percent of American residents. About 20 percent of non-Ontarians had visited the OGS Library in North York, somewhat less than half the percentage of Ontarians.
Finally, a pair of questions asked whether there was a Latter-day Saints Family History Center "in your community or nearby" and, "How often have you used a Family History Center in all of 1993 to the present?" I left it to respondents to decide whether an FHC was in the community or "nearby" since I was not in a position to judge their accessibility. Slightly more than 90 percent of the sample had access to an FHC; of them, a third said they had not used it in the preceding 15 months, a third had used it one to three times, and a third had used it more frequently. Of those who did not have an FHC nearby, 30 percent had nonetheless used this resource on one or more occasions.
Use of Computers. I asked respondents, "Do you use a computer for genealogy?", and of those who had, "What software (for example, PAF, WordPerfect, etc.) do you rely on most for genealogy?" In offering WordPerfect as an example, I wanted respondents to understand that non-genealogical software packages were acceptable answers if used for broadly genealogical purposes.
Approximately 55 percent of the sample, 61 percent of the men and 52 percent of the women, said that they used a computer. Three-quarters of the respondents under age 50 used computers. Usage dropped to 64 percent in the 50 to 59 age category, 50 percent in the 60 to 69 category and 37 percent in the 70-and-over category. In dwelling on the relationship between age and computer usage, however, we should not lose sight of the impressive level of computer literacy demonstrated by the eldest genealogists.
Approximately 45 percent of computer-users said that they employed Personal Ancestry File. Brother's Keeper, Roots III/IV, Family Tree Maker and Family Roots were nominated by 12, 9, 8 and 4 percent of users, respectively. About 12 percent cited a variety of other genealogical packages and nearly 10 percent said they used a spread sheet or data base package. WordPerfect and Word were mentioned by 38 and 6 percent, respectively.
Service to the Genealogical Community. Few people outside our families are as enthusiastic about our family histories as we are. For many of us, it falls to us to do our own research. We need each other, however, to create information resources, to educate us in how to do research, to publish our queries, and so on. And, on the evidence, we reciprocate.
Several questions in the survey probed respondents' contributions to this communal side of genealogy. Service to genealogical societies was tapped by questions that asked, "Do you serve on the executive or a committee of any of the genealogical societies that you belong to in 1994?" and, "Did you serve in any such positions in 1993?" In each case, nearly 20 percent of the sample reported that they had served or were serving on an executive or a committee, although not necessarily in OGS. Women were significantly more likely to do so than men. Age, on the other hand, did not make a difference in people's answers to either question.
Production of information resources, the second form of service, was probed with the following question:
A different way of capturing people's contributions to the larger genealogical community is to ask them how they divided their time among different purposes, as in the following question:
Estimated percentage of time in 1993 to the present given to:
a. Genealogical Research= ------
b. Genealogical Groups= ------
c. Creation of Information Resources= ------
Genealogists sometimes serve others by doing research for them, though they are unrelated. To explore this form of service, I asked the following two questions:
[Those who had done research for non-relatives were then asked:] Why did you do research on non-relatives in 1993 to the present? (Circle all the numbers that apply)
It bears repeating that the findings from the questionnaire survey of the membership of the Ontario Genealogical Society are applicable only to the genealogical community, and this within limits. Lacking comparable data for members of patriotic ancestral societies, such as the United Empire Loyalists and the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, we should not assume that the present findings apply to them, as well. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the dominant motivation of the two communities is quite distinct. Mindful of this limitation, I wish to highlight a few of the themes emerging from the findings.
First, the membership of the Ontario Genealogical Society reflects the composition of Ontario society as it once was, not as it now is. This is a consequence of the fact that the available records of this province and this country will be most useful to people who can trace their ancestry through several generations in this jurisdiction. Whether OGS has any obligation to serve more recently arrived ethnic groups, and if so, how, remains an open question.
Second, genealogists' interest in the past is firmly rooted in a desire to know their ancestors as people and to bequeath this knowledge to future generations. They see themselves as a bridge or a door between generations. At the same time, the data offered little or no support for some guesses about other motives. There was little evidence of a religious motivation, a desire for illustrious ancestry, or a pursuit of the illusion of stability. Nor was there any evidence of a nostalgic and wistful yearning for an ethnically simpler time.
Third, some of the findings speak to the question of how affordable genealogy is. Is genealogy only for the well-to-do? Nearly three in 10 respondents enjoyed genealogy for less than $100 in 1993, and another five in 10 spent between $100 and $500. Moreover, their income and employment status had little influence on how much was spent on genealogy. A number of resources bring genealogy within the reach of most people. The Family History Centers are open to genealogists at no cost, and these were accessible to 9 in 10 respondents. Members of OGS and its branches can publish several queries per year as part of their membership, although this entitlement was not fully utilized. Personal Ancestry File, available at nominal cost, was used by nearly half of the genealogists using computers.
Fourth, the results demonstrated a significant level of support for the genealogical community. Thus, a fifth of the respondents served their genealogical societies in some capacity in 1993 and 1994, nearly a third of them contributed to the production of information resources, and about a fifth of respondents' "genealogical time" was devoted to these two service activities. These findings, it bears repeating, do not apply to "free-lance" genealogists who are unattached to any genealogical societies.
The fifth and perhaps over-riding finding has to do with the family historian role itself. One cannot look at the response rate and what people wrote in their questionnaires without concluding that, for many respondents, genealogy provides a valued role and focus in their lives. The fhr offers intellectual and emotional stimulation, an enlarged sense of self, a valued position within the extended family, companionship with other genealogists, and a perspective on time which unites the past, present and future. For some genealogists, it offers continuity with some of the skills practised in their work lives; for others, it compensates for deficiencies in their work lives. For both, it renews and enlarges the family, now extended in space and time, and offers reasonable assurance that the fruits of their genealogical labours will outlast them.
Sixth, scattered through the findings, there is the suggestion that women's attachment to family history may differ in important respects from men's. Women seemed, for example, to take different rewards, largely social and intellectual, from the hobby. This was also reflected in their answers to questions about doing family history on their own and their husbands' lines. These differences are probably an extension of traditional differences in men's and women's family roles. Whether these differences in genealogical motivation and practice will erode in the future, with more fundamental changes in the family and men's and women's roles, only time can answer.
1) This article appeared originally, with only minor differences, in Families, February 1996 (vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 11-25). Previous articles in this Families series were: "A Profile of the Membership of The Ontario Genealogical Society", May 1995 (vol. 34, no. 2), pp. 73-80; "Searching for Genealogical Motivation", August 1995 (vol. 34, no. 3), pp. 149-160; and "Becoming a Family Historian", November 1995 (vol. 34, no. 4), pp. 223-232. Again, I thank all those who completed and returned the questionnaire, making these articles possible. I also want to thank Marilyn Black Lambert for her helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article and Ryan Taylor, Editor of Families when these articles appeared, for his encouragement and assistance.
2) The Ontario Genealogical Society was formed in Waterloo in 1961. Its membership was 1,960 in 1977, 4,595 in 1986, and 6,840 in by the end of 1993 (The Ontario Genealogical Society Strategic Plan, 1994, compiled by Alison Lobb, Mar. 1994, pp.4-5). The latter figure included 5,189 individual members, 489 family members, 1,041 associate members, and 121 institutional members.
3) I did not report in the first article that 60 percent of the "ever-married" respondents (52 percent of the entire sample) were grandparents and 7 percent were great-grandparents. Fifty-six percent of those who had never been married said they did genealogy "for posterity (for children, grandchildren, nephews or nieces)". The figure was virtually the same for childless respondents who were or had been married. It rose to 72 percent for parents and to 81 percent for grandparents and great-grandparents. These differences were not simply due to age differences among singles, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. This finding underscores the tendency for genealogists to think of the fruits of their hobby as a gift to future generations.
4) Further thought and research may argue for a revision of this working definition.
5) The response options for the research question were: a lot; some; none; don't know; for the archivist question: yes; no; don't know; for the registrar question: generally; sometimes; no; don't know; for the communication question: I have; I plan to; unsure; I won't; and for the two identity questions: yes; one of several historians; no; don't know.
6) Including unmarried, separated, divorced and widowed respondents in the comparisons changed the results for respondents' parents' lines by only 1 or 2 percent.
7) Performance of the fhr did not depend on respondents' age in any clear and regular fashion. Since these questions did not confine respondents to "1993 to the present" as other questions did, this meant that elderly genealogists could report doing "a lot" of research over a life-time of genealogy, although they might have done very little in the recent past.
8) Respondents were given the following options to choose from: (0) zero hours; (1) 1-4 hours (up to 1/2 day); (2) 5-8 hours (1/2 to 1 day); (3) 9-16 hours (up to 2 days); (4) 17-24 hours (up to 3 days); (5) 25-32 hours (up to 4 days); (6) 33-40 hours (up to 5 days); (7) 41 or more hours (5+ days).
9) Answering the questionnaire during the early weeks of April, respondents were probably estimating the amount of time that they devoted to genealogy during the winter month of Mar. . This may be the reason that a third of them said the amount of time given to genealogy in the preceding month was "less than usual".
10) The time frame for this question was the calendar year 1993, and not "1993 to the present", to ensure that certain expenditures, such as membership fees in genealogical societies, were counted only once.
11) The response options were: (0) $0-$50; (1) $51-$100; (2) $101-$200; (3) $201-$300; (4) $301-$500; (5) $501-$1,000; (6) $1,001-$2,000; (7) $2,001-$3,000; (8) over $3,000.
12) Some respondents objected that 15-16 months (1993 through Mar. or April, 1994) was unduly restrictive. I imposed this limit for several reasons: first, the longer the time frame, the more sources would be checked, thus reducing variability in people's reports and thus the usefulness of the data; second, I wanted to determine whether veteran and novice genealogists differed in the scope and character of their involvement in the hobby; third, it was my hope that people would be able to focus more meaningfully on a recent and relatively short time-frame than on a time-frame extending over an indeterminate number of years.
13) Respondents volunteered a number of other sources, but none of them exceeded 1 or 2 percent. For the record, 1 percent mentioned electronic bulletin boards.
14) I included Social Security records because 12 percent of the sample were American residents and Canadians might use this source for American relatives.
15) The question also advised respondents that multiple entries in an annual directory, such as the Genealogical Research Directory, should be counted only once.
16) This question did not confine respondents to "1993 to the present", on the grounds that visiting these facilities might be a relatively rare event for many people. I was primarily interested in whether they had availed themselves of these services in person
17) Response options for the first of these two questions were: (1) none (go to question 8); up to 10% of your time; (3) 10 to 25% of your time; (4) 25 to 50% of your time; (5) more than 50% of your time. Response options for the second question were: (1) as a favour; (2) for my genealogical group; (3) for money; (4) for my own interest (5) other (please specify).
18) This is also the conclusion of J.P. Dulong in his unpublished doctoral dissertation, "Genealogical Groups in a Changing Organizational Environment: From Lineage to Heritage," Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, 1986. Although mine is a sample of genealogists, I asked "Are you a member of any ancestral or patriotic societies, such as the United Empire Loyalists or the Daughters of the American Revolution?" Those who answered in the negative were then asked: "Do you plan to apply some day for admission to an ancestral or patriotic society?" About 12 percent said they were members and 7 percent said they intended to apply for membership. Members and would-be members of ancestral patriotic societies did not differ noticeably from non-members in their professed motivation for doing genealogy.
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