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Published December 15, 1998
A Study of Genealogists & Family Historians, Part I
By Ronald D. Lambert, Sociology Professor, University of Waterloo
Ron Lambert, currently professor of sociology  at the University of Waterloo, begins a four part series entitled: A STUDY OF GENEALOGISTS & FAMILY HISTORIANS. The next three parts will be published in consecutive issues with the last one appearing on Jan. 26, 1999.
This fascinating study sheds new light onto who genealogists are, the elements which motivate so many people to undertake family history research, the factors associated with the family historian's emergent interest in genealogy and what genealogists said they do in family history.
Professor Lambert was born in Prince Edward County Ontario. He received his BA and MA from McMaster University and his PhD from the University of Michigan.
Married to Marilyn Black, from Flint, Michigan, they have three daughters and four grandchildren. Ron fell prey to genealogy in 1982 and, for three years, was chair of the Waterloo-Wellington Branch of Ontario Genealogy Society.
A Profile of the Membership of The Ontario Genealogical Society
"It is wonderful to travel back to another time and, if you are lucky, you will discover a part of yourself there."
"If I follow in the footsteps of my ancestors, I can expect to spend much longer dead than alive. ... on the positive side, ... I've finally noticed there is no letter 'a' in the word 'cemetery."
Think of some claims about what motivates genealogists. Turning backward in time, it has been said, is a form of escapism or evidence of a reluctance to engage the world as it is. Perhaps it signifies a desire to compensate for modest accomplishments in their own lives or, alternatively, a vain perception of themselves as the crowning achievement of their lineage. Maybe genealogists seek refuge in their ancestral past and hope in this way to silence the clock running out on their lives. Maybe genealogy offers a symbolic gift, a form of homage, a gesture of gratitude, a repayment to their forebears "for services rendered". Maybe dead ancestors are the ideal relatives because they are always agreeable and do not talk back in the way living relatives sometimes insist on doing. Maybe some or all these speculations are true at one time or another. Then again, maybe none of them is true.
Whatever motivates genealogists, I suspect their interest in the ancestral past is the "tip of the iceberg", and that many non-genealogists also entertain genealogical questions at various points in their lives. Unlike genealogists, however, they abandon these questions unanswered, perhaps because they do not know where to look for answers or because such interests seem immodest and dilettantish. In time, I would like to study what happens to these would-be genealogists who stop before they start.
Perhaps all that I have said begs the question. We all know genealogists who speak glowingly of their hobby, but seem to devote most of their time to running genealogical organizations and a host of other activities in the here-and-now, all of it very far removed from the ancestral past which first excited their interest. Many genealogists "seem to spend countless hours discussing their family with anyone who will listen," one of my respondents observed tartly, "but precious little time in actual research." Perhaps genealogical activities are really no different from non-genealogical activities, with the exception of a perfunctory bow toward the past. Again, I am puzzled about what genealogists feel they are accomplishing.
A Study of Genealogists & Family Historians
This is the first of a series of articles summarizing findings from a mail survey of the membership of The Ontario Genealogical Society. I developed the questionnaire over a period of a year, benefiting from intensive interviews with members of the Waterloo-Wellington Branch of OGS. Conducted in 1994, the survey is part of a continuing study of the genealogical community.
In early Mar. 1994, I drew a random sample of 1,518 names from the membership list of The Ontario Genealogical Society. The sample included 39 percent of the OGS membership to that date, excluding branch-only or associate members, corporate subscribers to Families (e.g., libraries and genealogical societies), and a small number of non-Canadian/non-American addresses. At the end of Mar. , I mailed a questionnaire to each name selected, along with a letter of support from the President of OGS and a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). Three weeks later, reminder cards were sent to people who had not yet responded, followed another three weeks later by replacement questionnaires and another SASE. A total of 1,348 respondents, or 89 percent of the sample, returned completed questionnaires. This extremely high response rate testifies to my good fortune in studying something that evidently matters a great deal to genealogists.
As a token of my gratitude, I promised respondents that I would report back to them through the pages of Families (the periodical of The Ontario Genealogical Society). In this article, I will describe respondents' background characteristics, including their sex, age, national origins, religious affiliation, marital status, levels of education, employment status, income and geographic mobility. Since the sample included such a large proportion of the membership of The Ontario Genealogical Society, and since the response rate was so high, the findings can be generalized to the membership of OGS. The next article will report on respondents' reasons for participating in genealogy, illustrated in their own words by what they felt was valuable in genealogy. In the third article, I will look at some of the factors associated with respondents' emergent interest in genealogy. The fourth article will summarize what genealogists said they do in family history. Taken together, the results offer a snapshot of OGS-genealogists based on what they said in the questionnaire.
Sex and Age. Sex and age are peculiarly relevant for describing genealogists because they are commonly thought to be older and female. In the face of this expectation, perhaps the interesting finding is not that 63 percent of genealogists are women, but that 37 percent are men. Regardless, the question remains why genealogy holds such a different appeal for men and women. Does this reflect traditional differences in men's and women's roles in society, or is it simply a result of women's greater life expectancy? The second explanation is plausible since genealogists are much older than Canadians generally and women live longer than men. In the sample, 27 percent of the respondents were 70 or over and 29 percent were between 60 and 69. Only seven percent were younger than 40.
As it turns out, there was little relationship between sex and age. In every age category, women predominated in genealogy: 56 percent of the youngest category and 59 percent of the oldest category were women; the figures for women in the in-between age groups fluctuated between 64 and 68 percent. It seems unlikely that the overall differences between men and women can be explained away solely as a result of men's shorter life expectancies.
Maybe the differences in men's and women's involvement in genealogy grows out of more traditional differences in their roles and work experiences. Men and women were equally represented in genealogy among respondents who said they worked full-time. However, women in the sample were more likely than men to work part-time or as homemakers, and these were the two work situations where women were most dominant. Among part-time workers, women outnumbered men in genealogy four to one. Virtually all of the 170 homemaker genealogists were women. Part-time and domestic work create different opportunities and provide different incentives for people, most of them women, to engage in genealogy. The higher percentages for women in the age range 40 to 59 may be attributable to differences between men and women in the extent of their labour force participation in these years.
Among retired respondents, 57 percent were women and 43 percent men. In the oldest age group, 31 percent of women genealogists were widowed, compared with nine percent of the men. Although the numbers were less dramatic, this was also true for 14 percent of the women and six percent of the men in the 60 to 69 age category. It would appear that women more than men turn to genealogy as a creative outlet when time "permits," occasioned either by an absence of full-time paid employment or by the death of a spouse.
National Origins. Eighty-eight percent of the sample were Canadian residents and the remaining 12 percent were American residents. Of the Canadians, 86 percent were residents of Ontario.
In the current political climate, there is interest in the degree of racial and ethnic diversity in social institutions, even in voluntary associations such as OGS. In asking about race, I anticipated that some respondents would find this objectionable. I therefore attempted to phrase a question about race in the least offensive way and in terms more-or-less compatible with genealogists' acknowledged interest in ancestry, as follows: "Which racial groups (for example, Black, White, Native Indian) are part of your ancestry?" Approximately 96 percent said that they were Caucasian or White, while nearly four percent said they had or thought they might have native Indian ancestry. The figures for Blacks and Asians were each less than one percent. (The figures add up to more than 100 percent since some respondents claimed more than one racial ancestry.) More intriguing are the findings for national origins: "From which country did this line [four lines were specified: respondent's father and mother's lines and spouse's father and mother's lines] come to North America?" About 90 percent were able to give their parents' lines' countries of origin, and, where appropriate, their spouses' parents' lines.
Nearly 80 percent of all respondents' fathers' lines and 75 percent of their mothers' lines came to this continent from England, Scotland, Ireland, Ulster or Wales. The figures for spouses' fathers' and mothers' lines were 67 and 63 percent, respectively. The other major countries of origin were Germany at seven to eight percent and France at three to five percent for respondents' and spouses' parents.
Respondents were also asked the year in which each of their ancestral lines arrived in Canada (Canadian respondents) or the United States (American respondents). For those who gave dates, the mean or average year of arrival was 1850 for their fathers' lines, 1855 for their mothers' lines, 1866 for their spouses' fathers' lines, and 1871 for their spouses' mothers' lines.
"How many generations of this line, before you, have lived in Canada [or the United States, for American respondents]?" On average, respondents' were the fourth generation in Canada/USA on both their fathers' and mothers' sides of the family. The comparable figures for the spouses' lines were between the third and fourth generations, reflecting their generally later date of arrival in Canada/USA.
I asked respondents where they, their parents and grandparents were born. Approximately 95 percent of the Canadian respondents were born in this country. Eighty-two percent of their fathers and a similar percentage of their mothers were also born in Canada. Another 11 percent of each parent were born in the British Isles and three percent in the United States. A consistent pattern emerged for the grandparents as well. Between 60 and 67 percent of each of the four grandparents were born in Canada, with another 21 to 27 percent born in the British Isles. About three percent of each of the grandparents were born in the United States.
About 80 percent of the American respondents were born in the United States and most of the remainder in Canada. A quarter of their fathers and mothers were born in Canada, as were one-half of the paternal grandfathers and a third of each of the other three grandparents.
The conclusion, then, is that the membership of OGS is overwhelmingly white, Canadian or British born, of British descent, about fourth generation in Canada or the United States, and their families have been in Canada or the United States for upwards of 125 years. Moreover, married members have spouses who are very much like themselves. Just how unrepresentative the OGS membership is of the Ontario population is readily apparent in respondents' religious affiliations.
I singled out the Ontario residents in the sample, 82 percent of whom were born in this province, and compared their religious affiliations with figures from the 1851 and 1991 Ontario censuses. I used the 1851 census because respondents' lines, as we have just seen, have been in Canada since 1850 to 1855. Since churches have appeared and disappeared over the years, a few adjustments in the data were necessary to make the churches comparable. Comparisons involving the United Church required that I combine the membership figures for the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches in the 1851 census and for the United and Presbyterian Churches in the 1991 census and in the sample. The proportion in the combined United and Presbyterian Churches in the sample exceeded their proportion in the 1991 Ontario population by 38 percent to 18 percent. The figures for Anglicans were 19 percent of the sample and 11 percent of the population. Roman Catholics were under-represented, with 11 percent of the sample compared to 36 percent of the population.
The match between the sample and the population of Canada West (old Ontario) in 1851, however, was closer. The combined membership of the various Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches in 1851 was 44 percent, only six percent higher than for the combined United and Presbyterian Churches in the sample. There were four and seven percent more Anglicans and Catholics, respectively, in the 1851 population than in the sample. It appears, then, that the sample more faithfully represented the old Ontario of 1851 than the new Ontario of 1991.
A brief comment is in order lest these findings be read as a thinly-veiled criticism of OGS. If the primary responsibility of a geographically based genealogical society is to assist members in using information systems found within its jurisdiction, and if government withholds major record systems from the public domain until some decades have passed, then such a society will be of limited usefulness to more recent immigrants. A case in point is the Canadian census which is not available beyond 1901. As a secondary responsibility, individuals might expect OGS to provide information about genealogical resources native to other jurisdictions. However, OGS is a voluntary association and depends, for the most part, on the contributions of its members for the necessary expertise.
Marital Status. Nearly three-quarters of the sample were married at the time of the survey (64 percent first marriage plus eight percent remarriage), while 13 percent have never been married and ten percent are widows or widowers. I wondered whether there was any tendency for older genealogists, especially older women, to be disproportionately single, as conventional wisdom suggests. Of the 214 women who were 70 or older, 18 percent said they had never been married, compared with only three percent of the 146 men in the same age category. Only seven to eight percent of the 50-59 and 60-69 age groups were single. However, the percentage never-married increased in the two youngest age groups - about 16 percent of those age 40-49 and 38 percent of those under 40. "Never" in the case of the small category of younger respondents may simply mean "not yet"; or it may indicate a more fundamental change occurring in genealogists' marital circumstances.
Education and Income. In spite of the facts that older generations generally have lower levels of education than younger generations, and over half the sample are 60 or older, nearly one-half of the sample reported that they have completed university or have done some graduate work. In the two oldest age groups (60-69 and 70-plus), about 45 percent were university-educated; in the two youngest age groups (under 40 and 40-49), the figure approached 65 percent. Genealogists appear, then, to be a relatively highly educated group
. I checked for differences between men and women in their levels of formal education. Men generally had a higher level of education, as we might expect given the age of respondents.
Almost half of the respondents, 47 percent, described themselves as retired. Eighty-five percent of those 70 and over were retired, compared with 67 percent of those 60 to 69 and 19 percent of those 50 to 59. Overall, nearly 30 percent worked full-time and 13 percent were homemakers. Men were more likely to work full-time (39 percent compared to 24 percent for women) and to be retired (54 percent compared to 42 percent). Women, on the other hand, were more likely to work part-time (12 percent compared to four percent for men) and to be homemakers (20 percent compared to less than one percent).
Some preliminary analyses of respondents' paid occupations indicate that they were disproportionately employed in jobs that deal primarily with words and people rather than things. In turning to genealogy, many of them draw on the same set of skills that they use in their livelihoods. One respondent lamented that, "Genealogy is too much like what I do for a living. ... I prefer physical activities to delay the arrival of my ultimate vital statistic."
Is genealogy a hobby only for the affluent or can anybody play? I asked people about their total family income in 1993 before taxes. The income categories were few and broad, to avoid frightening people away from what is admittedly a highly personal question. I was mainly interested in how many genealogists fell into the lower income categories, as an indication of the height of the financial fence surrounding genealogy. Given the fact that nearly half of the sample were retired, it is more meaningful to look at respondents' income in light of their employment status. Before doing this, I set aside the 18 percent of the sample who declined to report their family income and thus confined my results to those who admitted to an income. Fully a third of homemakers and retirees said their income was in the $50,000+/year range. Two-thirds of full-time workers and slightly more than one-half of part-time workers fell into the same income category. Of those reporting family incomes of $50,000 or more, 86 percent of retirees, 93 percent of homemakers, and 98 percent of part-time workers were married, suggesting the presence of two incomes. The two lowest income categories (under $15,000/year and $15-25,000/year) accounted for six percent of those employed full-time, 16 percent of part-timers, 21 percent of retirees and 18 percent of homemakers. Stated differently, no less than 79 percent of the respondents in any of these four employment categories fell into the top two income categories ($25-$50,000/year and $50,000+/year).
Do the relatively high incomes mean that genealogy is the preserve of those who are well-off? Perhaps, but only indirectly. Genealogists, as we have seen, are much older than the general population; as a result, they have had longer work lives and should for this reason alone have higher incomes, at least for those still working full-time. In addition, the question asked for "total family income" and was not limited to the respondent's own income.
Geographic Mobility. Maybe people who have moved around a lot turn to genealogy to create a semblance of stability in their lives. To test this idea, Cardell Jacobson, a sociologist at Brigham Young University, compared genealogists with people engaged in other hobbies. He found that genealogists had more stable residential histories than other hobbyists, contrary to prediction. Unfortunately, I am unable to compare my OGS sample with non-genealogists. It is revealing, however, to look at respondents' answers to two related questions: "How many years have you lived in the present community or its immediate vicinity?" and "How many different communities have you lived in since moving from your parents' home?"
Respondents younger than 40 have lived in their "present community or its immediate vicinity" an average of 14 years. The average was 20 years for those age 40 to 49, 27 years for those age 50 to 59, 34 years for those age 60 to 69, and 36 years for those age 70 and over. Respondents also said they had lived in an average of three to four communities since moving from their parents' homes. The average was two and one-half for the youngest respondents and increased to nearly four and one-half for the oldest respondents. Even lacking a comparison with non-genealogists, we must be impressed with the apparent rootedness of genealogists.
As interesting as genealogists' background characteristics are in helping to picture who does genealogy, this kind of information does not reveal directly what they find so compelling in genealogy. When we observe, for example, that women predominate at every age level, we can only speculate about what draws them disproportionately to genealogy. We move a step closer to understanding genealogy's appeal when respondents use their own words, like those quoted at the beginning of this article. Next time, I will present findings from respondents' answers to two questions about their reasons for doing genealogy and what value they find in it.
1) This article originally appeared in Families, May 1995 (vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 73-80). I wish to record my sincere thanks: to the 1,348 respondents who contributed to the study by returning their completed questionnaires; to members of the Waterloo-Wellington Branch of OGS for their helpful comments on pretest versions of the questionnaire; to Rod McLeod, president of OGS, for providing a covering letter endorsing the project on behalf of OGS; to Marjorie Lambert-Sen for her assistance in mailing the questionnaire and coding the data; and to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the University of Waterloo for partial support. The Ontario Genealogical Society incurred no expenses in the conduct of the study. Some of the findings reported in this and the following articles also appear in papers intended for different audiences, most notably sociologists. I may be reached at my office, Department of Sociology, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON N2L 3G1; or by e-mail at
2) Here and elsewhere, I will quote from respondents' written answers to illustrate the different points of view contained in the data. To protect people's anonymity, I will not identify the sources of the quotations nor provide any identifying information within the quotations. I am indebted to respondents for their thoughtful answers about the value of genealogy.
3) I make no grand claims for the inherent superiority of surveys and specifically mail questionnaires as a means of gathering information. Stripped of pretense, questionnaires are merely a way of conducting a conversation between two people, though obviously stilted and not to everybody's taste. I would rather visit all the respondents in this study and talk with them individually about their experiences in genealogy, if for no other reason than to ensure that we are talking about the same things. But the cost in time and money would be prohibitive. Having said this, I still need to know whether people's ideas about genealogy are peculiar to them, or whether some number of others share these ideas. Hence the need for something like the questionnaire used in this study, even with its limitations.
4) In the letter that accompanied the replacement questionnaire, I sought to reassure respondents that, "Even if you have done very little genealogy in the past year, I am interested in your answers to the questionnaire." Some of the late respondents wrote that they had been away from home during the winter months. Other respondents who returned their questionnaires late reported fewer hours devoted to genealogy than those who answered early. Perhaps they thought they had less to contribute to the study because of their lesser involvement in genealogy, and it was this reservation that the second letter sought to dispel. I cannot say whether this belief deterred others who did not answer at all.
5) I also promised to draw the OGS numbers of 15 respondents who returned their questionnaires and to pay their basic OGS fee for 1995. The winning respondents have been notified by mail and their OGS numbers, without names, were published in Newsleaf, November 1994 (pp. 117-118).
6) The study is limited to people who do genealogy and are members of a genealogical society, in this case OGS. The findings may not apply to free-lance genealogists who have not joined a genealogical society. I would like to interview or conduct a survey with free-lancers sometime in the future, but I have foregone the pleasure of their company in this first survey.
7) Although this is not a technical article, readers ought to be wary about accepting findings that seem to link working part-time, for example, with the greater number of women doing genealogy. The sample was taken from the OGS membership, all of them genealogists, not from the larger Canadian population in which the overwhelming majority are non-genealogists. This means that respondents were not selected to represent the proportions of men and women actually working part-time in Canadian society. Therefore, any findings about working part-time and the preponderance of women in genealogy are suggestive, not conclusive.
8) Speaking for myself, I do not regard "race" as referring to a biological or genetic category. Labeling people as "black" or "white", for example, often bears little relationship to their genetic makeup. As a sociologist, I regard racial categories as socially defined in terms of arbitrarily chosen physical features that are taken as racial "markers". On the other hand, these racial categories are no less real in people's minds, even among those who oppose their use, and it is for this reason that I asked about respondents' "racial ancestry".
9) Cardell K. Jacobson, "Social dislocations and the search for genealogical roots." Human Relations, 1986, vol. 35, pp. 347-358.
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