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Published January 1, 1999

A Study of Genealogists & Family Historians, Part II
By Ronald D. Lambert, Sociology Professor, University of Waterloo

Ron Lambert, currently professor of sociology [1999] at the University of Waterloo, shares the second segment of his four part series entitled: A STUDY OF GENEALOGISTS & FAMILY HISTORIANS. Part one was published in the last issue of The Global Gazette and the next two parts will be published in consecutive issues with the last one appearing on Jan. 26, 1999.

This segment studies the elements which motivate so many people to undertake family history research. Part one shed new light onto who genealogists are while parts three and four will examine the factors associated with the family historian's emergent interest in genealogy and what genealogists said they do in family history.


This is the second of four articles describing selected findings from A Study of Genealogists & Family Historians, conducted in 1994 and based on a random sample survey of the membership of The Ontario Genealogical Society. In a past issue of Families, I discussed the purpose of the study and described the 1,348 respondents who participated in terms of their age, sex, national origins, marital status, employment status, income, religious affiliation and so on (Part I) . The present article focuses on findings from respondents' answers to two questions that asked about their reasons for doing genealogy and what value they found in genealogy. I will also look at the different emphases that men and women and different age groups placed on genealogy.

The Reasons Question. The reasons question took the following form:

What are your reasons for doing genealogy? After each statement below, circle the number of your answer: circle [1] if a statement describes an important reason why you do genealogy; circle [2] for a fairly important reason; and circle [3] for a reason that is irrelevant to you personally.

This introduction was followed by a series of 25 statements that I had developed from detailed face-to-face interviews with genealogists during the preceding year. I think the answers to this question say something important about the meaning which respondents attributed to their involvement in genealogy, but, by themselves, they do not describe the causes of this involvement. People may be no more conscious of the "real" causes of their interest in genealogy than they are of any other affliction.

Indeed, some respondents described genealogy as a mysterious affliction, an infectious disease, an obsession, and a "bug", with no known cure. "[Genealogy] has a compelling fascination that I do not understand though I have tried," one respondent mused. Genealogy began innocently as a hobby, another person confessed, "[h]owever, as time ensued it was to me like alcohol is to an alcoholic or drugs to an addict." A number of respondents pleaded ignorance of genealogy's appeal, preferring instead to sum it up as "fun". One individual cautioned that, "[s]ome of the things I enjoy are not why I do it," and another said, "[s]ome of the reasons circled as 'irrelevant' are nevertheless pleasant rewards." The answers people gave encapsulate stories which they told an inquisitive sociologist and which they presumably tell themselves, thus making sense of their behaviour.

To simplify presentation of the findings, I have grouped the list of reasons into five categories: first, statements which deal with history and the ancestral past; second, a single item which is oriented toward the future; third, statements which bear on the individual genealogist's sense of self; fourth, some items which emphasize the social side of doing genealogy; and fifth, a series of statements which describe other benefits that genealogy may bestow. The figure after each statement below indicates the percentage of respondents who thought it was an important reason for doing genealogy. Within categories, reasons are listed verbatim from most to least popular.
    The Past
    1. To come to know my ancestors as people. (79%)
    2. To restore forgotten ancestor to the family's memory. (55%)
    3. To check a family story or solve a family mystery. (36%)
    4. As a way to study history. (32%)
    5. To go back in time, in my imagination. (29%)
    6. To trace diseases in a family tree. (9%)
    7. To find an important or famous ancestor. (6%)

    The Future
    8. For posterity (for children, grandchildren, nephews or nieces). (73%)

    The Self
    9. To learn about my roots, about who I am. (80%)
    10. Because I enjoy being the family historian. (35%)
    11. Doing genealogy gives me a feeling of competence. (23%)
    12. To carry on the work already begun by another family member. (18%)
    13. As my way of dealing with mortality and the prospect of death. (5%)

    14. To meet living relatives. (23%)
    15. Because I enjoy the company of other genealogists. (18%)
    16. To keep my genealogist wife/husband company. (3% of married respondents)

    Other Benefits
    17. Because I like to solve puzzles. (46%)
    18. To occupy myself in my spare time or in retirement. (28%)
    19. To create information resources, like name indexes, for other genealogists to use. (16%)
    20. So I can publish a book or article. (11%)
    21. As a reason to travel. (10%)
    22. In order to join a group like the United Empire Loyalists. (5%)
    23. To serve on the executive or committee of a genealogical group. (2%)
    24. For religious reasons. (1%)
    25. For pay, either part-time or full-time. (1%)
The Values Question. The values question appeared at the end of the questionnaire and read, "In your own words, what value does genealogy have for you?" Respondents were invited to use extra paper if needed. Judging from the number of lengthy, eloquent and often moving statements about the value of genealogy, it is clear that respondents had thought a lot about genealogy and took the question to heart. Eighty-four percent of the sample wrote at least something in response, plus another percent said they had nothing new to add to their answers to the preceding questions. I will quote generously from the answers to illustrate how different groups of people thought, but, as promised, I will not divulge the authors' names.

What Respondents Told Me. The most common reason for doing genealogy was to discover respondents' roots and identities. Fully 80 percent of the sample rated this an "important" reason. Thanks to genealogy, "[m]y sense of 'me' expands", one person stated simply. Another respondent elaborated on his quest for roots and identity in the following way:
    [Genealogy] gives me an anchor in an otherwise very fluid world which is becoming more cold and impersonal all the time, and it gives me a solid foundation, a rock if you will, upon which to build and establish my identity as a person. I am no longer a single isolated entity in a vast sea of humanity - I now have roots and connections.
By establishing her lineage, genealogy helped the following woman affirm her independence:
    I am a descendant of my ancestors and not just my husband's wife. (emphasis in the original)
A respondent recalled beginning genealogy, the subject of the next article in this series, as a search for personal identity:
    I suspect that my pursuit of genealogy began as a search for who I am. From an early age, I felt I was something of an "outsider", a person quite untypical of my ... community and somewhat untypical of my immediate and extended family. I did not want to live as the people around me were living; ... Reading about the spirit of adventure and the courage exhibited by immigrants from the British Isles excited me. I wanted to know the individual stories of direct ancestors; their ability to leave the world they were born into attracted me since it might provide me with an example I could emulate.
The second and third most favoured reasons for doing genealogy were to know one's ancestors as people and for posterity, rated important by 79 and 73 percent of the sample, respectively. The desire to know one's ancestors as people appeared repeatedly in answers to the values questions. One person described how research had enlivened ancestors in her imagination:
    Some individuals on my family tree are nothing but a statistic, but as I probe and search and discover more valuable data, this ancestor comes to life in my mind. I imagine his/her characteristics, height, eye color, smile, etc. And, if I have been so fortunate as to uncover a portrait, then the personality of my ancestor pops out at me.
Another talked about the same imaginative process, and expressed the hope that he, too, would be remembered:
    As I collect the dates and places, I get an anchor for that person. As I collect biographical information, life details, photographs, etc., that person starts to solidify. Eventually I will end up with a whole person, his/her entire lifetime, on paper and in my mind and imagination. Good or bad, the details of his/her life are what make me what I am today. They may or may not be famous but they all had a hand in making me. If someone is interested in what they had done in their life time, then their life was not a total waste. Hopefully, someone down the line will look back at me and say, "That was my great-great-grandfather!"
Experiencing the locale in which an ancestor lived is an invaluable aid to the imagination, a respondent testified:
    History comes alive for us when we visit a small town and locate the actual house where our ancestors lived and the church they attended. It comes alive when we visit a rural area and walk through a corn field knowing that many years ago a house stood there, and see their trees still in existence, and follow the same dirt road that they must have travelled back and forth to the town. History also comes alive when we visit an old part of Toronto, now taken over mainly by factories, and read that when first settled by relatives in the 1880's there were "fields of wild flowers leading down to the water" - what a wonderful picture is formed in the mind!
For many genealogists, family history is a gift to posterity, the third most important reason. The following quotations come from two women:
    Since I likely will have neither money or possessions to pass on to my daughter, perhaps a genealogy will be my legacy.

    When I put [my ancestors'] names and accomplishments on paper it is my way of preserving and honouring their life and name for future generations to see. They need not have been famous - many were plain folks who raised their families the best they could, being good family members and good members of their community.
As we will see shortly, posterity assumed a greater urgency with age, a connection which the following respondent made:
    As I draw close to the end of my life, I want to leave records for my children - and grandchildren - about the lives of those from whom they are descended. What quirks did they inherit from their ancestors: their dependence on liquor? their love of knowledge? their ability to work with their hands? their temper? their beauty? their shyness?
The next five reasons for doing genealogy, each of them rated important by more than 30 percent of the sample, were to restore forgotten ancestors to the family's memory (55 percent), because one likes to solve puzzles (46 percent), to check a family story (36 percent), because one enjoys being the family historian (35 percent), and as a way to study history (32 percent). The following quotation nicely illustrates one man's desire to restore forgotten ancestors to his family's memory:
    I ... realize how quickly people can be forgotten because, when I began my genealogy, I did not know very many generations back. This makes me want to do something to contribute to making sure people are remembered and not forgotten. This would help to show that their lives were not insignificant and ensure that they are remembered for all times if I find out who they were and record it.
Life is short and so is the memory of it:
    It's amazing to think so little remains of lives lived over a 100 years ago - just a name on a census and a gravestone, but their name is my name too.
Beyond the past and the future, there is the family historian role itself, performed and enjoyed in the present and among the living. It is this role which ties together many of the reasons for doing genealogy. Consider, for example, the importance attached to solving puzzles, enjoyment of the family historian role, and also the feeling of competence associated with performing the role. As well, nearly 40 percent of the answers to the values question referred to some aspect of the family historian role, including the mastery of new skills, the process of research, the thrill of discovery, acquiring knowledge in history and geography, writing articles or family histories, serving as a registrar for the living, being seen as the expert on the family and on family research, defining oneself as the family historian, sharing information and assisting others in their research, attending genealogical seminars and workshops, creating information resources for other genealogists, serving on committees and executives of genealogical societies, public speaking, meeting distant kin, travel to places associated with the family, enjoying contact with other genealogists, and so on. Added to this list, the family historian role offers a passport to foreign territory within the extended family, sometimes still shrouded in ancient enmities. Some find the role a "healing role". "On behalf of former generations," a respondent wrote, "I am attempting to heal wounds." Some family historians, like the following person, wrote about the role as a position of some respect in her family:
    There is a degree of prestige in knowing the "family story" and being the keeper of the records for the family ...
Another reported:
    I enjoy being considered an authority by other family members.
The data point to the tremendous capacity of the role of family historian to give meaning to people's lives and to organize their relations with others. It engages them in a number of ways, in terms of personal identity, self-esteem and motivation. This capacity is, surely, a large part of the mysterious appeal that this non-work role has for people who have retired or whose work life can accommodate its many seductions. Some people seize upon a few possibilities associated with the role, while others find themselves pleasantly consumed by it. Both orientations toward the role appeared frequently in respondents' answers to the values question.

I will consider the family historian role more fully in the final article in this series, when we turn to respondents' answers to questions about their activities and accomplishments in family history.

Some Other Ideas About Genealogical Motivation. Do respondents' answers offer support for some unflattering claims we sometimes hear about what motivates genealogists? In the absence of evidence from surveys showing how popular these ideas are in the larger society, I will avoid calling them "stereotypes". Nonetheless, I read respondents' answers for any indication of four kinds of motivation: that genealogists seek to embellish their lives through illustrious ancestors; that old age drives people to religion, thus awakening their interest in those who have gone before; that genealogists gather the facts of births-marriages-deaths (bmd's) like squirrels gather nuts, and with about as little appreciation; and that genealogy is the last hurrah of people lamenting the passing of the kind of society they knew as young people.

Genealogists, some cynics believe, seek illustrious ancestors either to confirm their lofty views of themselves or to add lustre to their drab and undistinguished lives. There is little evidence in the data for either form of self-flattery. Only six percent of the sample attached importance to finding a famous ancestor. On the values question, less than one percent felt compelled to mention the prospects of famous ancestors.

While six percent expressed admiration and gratitude to their ancestors for the hardships they had endured and for preparing the way for the current generation, they did so with no apparent invidious intent. This feeling was expressed simply and movingly by a woman who wrote:
    I want to leave a record of things that I know and others of my generation know, about our ancestors for those who come after us. The lives of my ancestors are like those in Thornton Wilder's play "Our Town". As Emily said to the stage manager, "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. ... Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? - every, every minute?" and the Stage Manager replies: "No. The saints and poets, maybe - they do some."

    My ancestors made no claims to greatness and yet when I look back 150 years I marvel at what they accomplished and I owe them recognition, respect, gratitude and life. And in that spirit, I do my genealogy recording.
A somewhat different perspective was offered by a person who wrote:
    ...I don't really care who or what my ancestors were - that was their time and place, and they lived as they had to. I am in my time and place, and except for the genes I inherited which influence my choices in life, what I do with them is mine alone to decide.
But, she continued:
    I do feel a real kinship with them all, and it's nice to slowly get to know them. ... It's especially rewarding when their personality shows through the facts and figures.
Aging drives people into the arms of religion, according to the second hypothesis, as death comes more plainly into view. Aging turns one's mind to the prospects of the hereafter and those who have gone before. However, there is little evidence that religion, in any conventional sense of the word, is lurking in the data. Only one percent said they did genealogy for what they would describe as religious reasons and five percent found comfort in it as a way of confronting their mortality. Interestingly, mortality was no more important for the oldest than for the youngest respondents.

In the written answers to the values question, less than a single percent saw overtly religious significance in doing genealogy and only a handful of respondents explicitly mentioned genealogy in connection with their own death. In another question, I had asked about respondents' beliefs about the hereafter, which prompted the following observation from one individual:
    [The question] sparked quite a smile because I've often told my family and friends not to be sad when I die because I'm going to have the time of my life when I meet my ancestors and finally fit all the puzzle pieces together.
Perhaps concerns with personal mortality are dressed up as an interest in remembrance and posterity. If so, the data do not allow me to see behind this disguise. Genealogists' motivation was clearer, however, when they wrote about their reactions to the deaths of those near and dear to them. Under these circumstances, genealogy seemed to provide a way of immersing them in their memories and prolonging their ties to those who had died. Recounting the recent death of a close relative, one individual wrote:
    Genealogy gives me a sense of continuity and at times seems to answer the question of why I'm here. At certain times such as this past week [speaking of the relative's death], I find it comforting to have listened to him and copied down many of his stories.
After recounting the pleasure genealogy had given her and her husband, another respondent recalled:
    Genealogy ... provided me with a project to help me through the grieving process when my husband died.
The answer about the religious significance of genealogy would be quite different, of course, if I were studying a largely Mormon group of genealogists, as I hope to do eventually. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do genealogy as a religious obligation, but there were only 18 Mormons in the sample.

A third claim about genealogists is that they are interested only in their ancestors' vital statistics. Instead of collecting hockey cards, they collect births, marriages and deaths. While a few respondents described themselves as collectors, they made it clear that it was ancestors they "collected", not statistics. One "collector" developed this theme at some length, including the following:
    We are all collectors of something - coins, stamps, shells, buttons, heirloom snuff boxes or pictures. Genealogists collect ancestors! We find them in the most interesting places and times[, a]s we search back through generations of ancestors to discover their station in life, their trials, their losses, their triumphs and their loves. We see these people as actual persons not just names on paper. ... As genealogists we are collectors of relatives but also of each letter and piece of paper with dates, names, places, connections and events which in turn leads us to collecting books about people, about places at different times and in turn may mean we are collected because of letters we have written, indexes we have compiled and histories we have written.
Beyond these few self-described collectors, as we have seen above, nearly 80 percent of the sample said they wanted to know ancestors as people in their time and place. And, in a separate attitude question, more than 90 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that, "A family history is incomplete if it lacks information on the community and the times in which ancestors lived."

The fourth view of genealogists' motivation is suggested by findings reported in the previous article in this series. In that article, we saw that OGS members who were residents of Ontario tend to come from old Canadian and British born stock, dating back more than 100 years in this province. We also saw that genealogists have relatively stable residential histories. If genealogists are not trying to compensate for disruptions in their own lives, maybe they are trying to compensate for the disappearance of the society they knew in their youth. In this view, they may resent the continuing influx of immigrants and the changing ethnic and racial composition of Ontarian or Canadian society, or for that matter, American society. Although I did not have a question in the questionnaire that asked specifically about attitudes toward the changing face of Ontario, for example, not a single respondent wrote anything in response to the values question that remotely suggested this kind of resentment. Then, there was the respondent who attributed the following "negative value" to genealogy:
    Coming from a WASP background, ... I find I'm only learning about WASP beginnings. At a time when I'd rather become a citizen of the world, I feel it's too much like navel-gazing. I enjoy multi-cultural Toronto. I'd rather be learning about the origins of all these other people.
A sizeable number of respondents praised their ancestors for the hardships they had endured, but without hint of invidious comparisons with contemporary immigrants to this country and without lamenting the multiethnic or multiracial future of the nation. One respondent said that he was more appreciative of immigrants' accomplishments in this country, thanks to his own ancestors' tribulations. Another respondent wrote:
    I believe I have a more open mind and understanding and compassion for others in matters of racism, ethical, religious, and moral matters.
And another:
    It helps me to understand and relate to my friends and neighbours and people of different backgrounds from my own.
Also, in contrast to this negative portrayal of genealogists, a number of respondents thought that genealogy contributes to the unity of the human family:
    Genealogical research is a great "leveller" - bringing people of all backgrounds together - and finding family relationships with them, unexpectedly, emphasizes what a small world we live in - ultimately we are all related if we could go back far enough.
I undertook this study because of my curiosity about how and why people develop an interest in the past, given that our culture is so overwhelmingly future-oriented. It is clear from the reasons and values questions that members of The Ontario Genealogical Society express strong interests in the past. What is striking, however, is how much the present and future figure in their thinking about the past. While the present and the future are firmly rooted in the past, as historians like to remind us, our understanding of the past is surely rooted in present needs and future plans. We can see this in the importance respondents attached to contemporary reasons and values.

Both age and gender affected the sheer number of reasons respondents gave for doing genealogy. In general, older people gave more reasons than younger people and women gave more than men. With these findings in mind, I checked whether different age groups and men or women favoured different reasons.

Different Ages, Different Reasons. I entertained the idea that people might, at different stages in their lives, expect different things from genealogy. This expectation was borne out by the findings for two of the three most popular reasons. The older respondents were, the more likely they were to give posterity as a reason for doing genealogy. The relationship with age ran in the opposite direction for roots. The younger respondents were, the more interested they were in defining themselves through genealogy. Both of these relationships make sense if we think that people just starting out in genealogy are still asking questions about where they have come from, while those who are much older are tidying up their worldly memories to leave to their successors.

Outside of the top three reasons, older respondents were more likely to say they did genealogy in order to join a group like the United Empire Loyalists, as a reason to travel, for religious reasons, and to fill spare time, although, as I have noted, the overall popularity of these reasons (except for filling spare time) was very low. If we see the reasons dealing with the past as lying at the heart of the genealogical enterprise, it is interesting that their popularity was unaffected by respondents' age.

Mens' and Women's Attachments to Genealogy. I noted in the previous article that women predominate in genealogy overall and in every age category. We now observe that men and women displayed a different pattern of reasons, albeit differences amidst substantial overlap in their motivation. Exploring differences in people's responses to genealogy provides perspective on its meaning as a human enterprise.

On the reasons question, women were more likely than men to say they wanted to know their ancestors as people, to go back in time in their imagination, to check a family story or mystery and to trace diseases in their family trees. They were also more likely to cite feelings of competence and the challenge of puzzles, as well as enjoyment in meeting living relatives and associating with other genealogists as important reasons. On the values question, women were more likely than men to value genealogy in terms of the family historian role, contacts with the living family and social relations. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to report that publishing a book or article and filling their spare time were important reasons.

In a psychological sense, then, genealogy seems to answer somewhat different needs in women than in men - not because men lack these needs, but because men and women have traditionally satisfied them in quite different ways. Women have more likely been homemakers and worked in jobs which denied them rewards which men have often found in their work lives. The family historian role, as discussed above, offers an abundance of challenges and rewards which women more than men have found appealing and opportune. As of 1994, the evidence suggests that women continue to predominate in a hobby which feeds their imaginative lives, satisfies their intellectual needs, and provides important social opportunities.

A respondent captured the sentiments of many women in these few words:
    Genealogy gives me a chance to live in the past but still live in the present and look to the future. It fills many hours that would otherwise be lonely and has given me many new friends. Being rather shy I would not meet new people or go to new places without it.
Another woman wrote:
    My ... job never involves presentations and seldom any original research, creative writing or thoughts which matter. Yet I have done all of this in abundance through genealogy. Also I am the final analyst and sole decision maker regarding my research. At work, I usually type only the words written by others or follow their instructions - to the letter. Genealogy permits me to think independently and be respected as a knowledgeable, successful individual in my specialty. My love of research and family history is often shared by helping others to do theirs.
She summed up the value of genealogy in this way:
    Genealogy attracts men and women equally and it offers opportunities to socialize, enjoy friendships, share research knowledge and work together in a nonsexual way. Strange, but I've noticed that when genealogists gather socially, they usually discuss a variety of topics that have nothing to do with their main common interest. Obviously, many of them have a wide interest range. In summary, genealogy has a value for me that cannot be measured in dollars, but intangibly and joyously it fills my soul.
Many respondents emphasized the capacity of genealogy to foster friendships around shared values. One woman put it this way:
    Genealogy is my friend. Friends keep you company. As I live alone, I find that getting immersed in one form of research or another 'relative' to family and history, keeps away the loneliness and blues. Friends may call for help in their research and I am happy to offer suggestions to help them in their genealogical pursuit.
Some respondents also drew attention to the importance of researching what they called their "umbilical lines," that is, the women's lines. One woman wrote:
    I'm proud of the mothers and aunts, their strength, their dreadful conditions. They made long boat trips or travelled overland with small children through wild country to join husbands who had gone before. They fed, taught, clothed and nursed families with nothing but courage and natural skill. The aunts who nursed and cared for nieces, nephews and cousins and received nothing in return except board and a shared bedroom and whose names are forgotten in most family trees - the mothers would not have survived without their sisters' help, unpaid and devoted.
In the next article, I will report what respondents told me about their childhood interest in family history, what occasioned their serious interest in genealogy, and what factors precipitated their decision to start doing genealogy.


1) This article appeared in Families, August 1995 (vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 149-160). See also, "A Profile of the Membership of The Ontario Genealogical Society", Families, May 1995 (vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 73-80), wherein I described the study on which this and the other papers are based. I want to repeat my thanks to the respondents who returned the completed questionnaires, and especially the respondents whose written answers to the values question are quoted in this paper. Quotations are used to illustrate points of view, while respecting confidentiality. Given the abundance of quotable answers, it was no easy task to decide which ones to use. Fortunately, the next two articles will allow me to return to the well. Some of the findings and discussion reported here appear also in periodicals intended for an audience of sociologists.

2) Some respondents were reluctant to single out any specific feature of genealogy as a reason for engaging in it or valuing it. They preferred to sum up their feelings with the single word, "fun". The vast majority of respondents, however, were much more specific in their portrayal of genealogy.

3) To determine why people differ in their orientations to time, I must eventually compare genealogists with non-genealogists. Since the sample in this study is limited to genealogists, I am unable to make this kind of comparison. All is not lost, however, because comparisons among genealogists can still teach us about differences in orientations toward the past.

4) These observations have greater validity for the age range represented in the sample. Undoubtedly women's status in society has changed, but sometimes these changes are exaggerated as women continue to carry a disproportionate share of the responsibilities around the home and in the family.

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