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Published January 18, 1999

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

Ron Lambert, currently professor of sociology [1999] at the University of Waterloo, shares the third segment of his four part series entitled: A STUDY OF GENEALOGISTS & FAMILY HISTORIANS.

This article examines the factors associated with the family historian's emergent interest in genealogy. 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 Four will report 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.

Becoming a Family Historian
    Unwittingly, I bought property near the town where my ancestor had lived and one day I saw my first old document carrying his name. I've not stopped since.

    Standing at my great-great-grandmother's grave, I felt a tremendous compulsion to know all about her.

    Death of mother ... shocked me to realize that my last authentic link with the past was gone!
The above quotations illustrate but a few of the influences that genealogists cited for starting family history, the subject matter of this paper. This is one of a series of articles summarizing selected findings from A Study of Genealogists & Family Historians, based on a survey conducted in 1994. Using a mail questionnaire, information was collected from 1,348 members or 89 percent of a random sample of the membership of The Ontario Genealogical Society. The first article profiled the sample in terms of respondents' background characteristics, while the second examined respondents' professed reasons for doing genealogy. Here, we turn to their recollections of what influenced them to adopt genealogy as a hobby.

In the previous article about reasons for doing genealogy, I cautioned that important reasons might not correspond with whatever may be the "real" causes of this behaviour. The same caution applies in this article, too. First, individuals may have little sense of what governs their behaviour at the time it first occurs, if for no other reason than they do not see it as requiring "explanation". Second, it is not so much when people first do something that counts, as when they start to think of themselves as the kind of person who can be expected to do such things. One may ask grandparents, for example, about their parents without thinking of oneself as a genealogist or even as doing genealogy. To ask people when they started doing genealogy is as much a question about when they started to think of themselves as genealogists, as it is about their activity. Changed self-perceptions are difficult to date, unless they were marked by some momentous event such as a death in the family or a ceremonial occasion such as a bar-mitzvah. Third, my questionnaire asked people what they thought and did, in many cases 10 to 20 years after the fact. If people took little note of what they did at the time, this gives memory little to work with today. Moreover, what one has become - a family historian, for example - will also tend to colour what and how things are remembered.

In asking people to recall their past, therefore, I start from the position that the past shapes the present and the present shapes (remembrance of) the past. The problem, then, is to explore how past and present are interwoven in the fabric of an individual's life; this parallels, in some ways, the efforts of genealogists to discover a part of themselves in their ancestors.

As a further caution, we remember that the respondents in this study are representative of the OGS membership, and not a more inclusive population containing both genealogists and non-genealogists. In consequence, we are not entitled to say, for example, that the presence of family historians in respondents' childhood families explains their decision to take up genealogy. To sustain this claim, we would need to know whether genealogists were more likely than non-genealogists to be exposed to childhood family historians.

People may develop an interest in family history broadly speaking at one of two periods in their lives. As young people, their curiosity may be piqued by family members who seem especially knowledgeable about the family's past and whose story telling intrigues and excites them. Or, as mature adults, people may find that genealogy offers intellectual perspective and emotional support in dealing with birth, death and life's other challenges.

Also, respondents' answers about why they started genealogy embody two kinds of explanations. Some individuals emphasized specific experiences or occurrences arising external to themselves, such as the death of a close family member or "old clippings, cards, pictures that asked questions, begging for answers", to use the words of one respondent. Other individuals seem to see genealogy as a natural fulfilment of some enduring characteristic in themselves, such as their inherent curiosity or an abiding love of history or family.

Childhood Family Historians. The questionnaire opened with a series of four questions about respondents' early experiences with family history or family historians. In the first question, I was interested in whether respondents' childhood families boasted a genealogist or family historian. It read as follows:
    When you were in your early teens or younger, were there one or more family members who seemed to know a great deal about your family's genealogy and history, individuals who might have been thought of as the family historian(s)?
Approximately one-half of the sample of 1,348 respondents answered that there had been such a person in their childhood families. Another 39 percent said there had been no such person, and nine percent said they were unsure. The remaining two percent did not answer the question.

Respondents who reported the presence of a family historian were then asked to describe "up to two of the most knowledgeable family members". They were asked about the sex, side of family (father's or mother's side), relationship to the respondent (e.g., aunt, cousin), and how close they felt to this person. The last question and its response options read, "How personally 'close' did you feel to this person?" ( very close; fairly close; not close; didn't know).

In addition to the 50 percent who cited a family historian, 34 percent offered a second one as well. I will refer to these as the primary and secondary childhood family historians, respectively. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the primary or first named family historians were women, a proportion which is quite similar to women's representation in the OGS sample (63 percent). When I add in the secondary family historians, the proportion of women overall climbs to 68 percent. Remembering that the sample in this study is made up exclusively of genealogists, we can only speculate how many non-genealogists would claim childhood family historians. On the face of it, however, there is no reason to think that the gender breakdown of childhood family historians would be any different for non-genealogists than for this sample of genealogists.

The primary childhood family historians were roughly equally divided between the father's and mother's sides of the family, although the mother's side was somewhat more favoured among secondary family historians.

What were the relationships of the respondents to their childhood family historians? Among the primary family historians, 20 percent were aunts, followed by 17 percent mothers, 17 percent grandmothers, and 14 percent fathers. All of the other relations were under 10 percent, nine percent being cousins (without distinguishing their degree of relationship). Combining the primary and secondary family historians, 21 percent were aunts, 17 percent mothers, and 16 percent grandmothers. The comparable figures for their male counterparts were six percent uncles, 11 percent fathers, and seven percent grandfathers. Cousins accounted for 13 percent of the combined relationships.

Observing the centrality of aunts, mothers and grandmothers as family historians, it is not surprising that 56 percent of respondents said they were "close" and 33 percent "fairly close" to their primary and secondary family historians (combined). I explored the closeness of the relationship between respondents and their childhood family historians a bit further. I wondered if all family historians were created equal. It is no surprise that respondents felt closest to their parents, more than to any of the others; but after them came grandparents, then parents' siblings (aunts and uncles), and finally cousins and more distant relations. There was no difference in respondents' feelings toward their fathers and mothers. Beyond their parents, however, they felt closer to aunts than to uncles, closer to grandmothers than to grandfathers, and closer to female than to male cousins and distant relatives. These findings were the same for male and female respondents. As family historians, then, women tended to predominate, at least in respondents' reconstruction of their childhood families. And both men and women in the sample felt closer to them than to the male historians of their childhood.

Childhood Interest in Genealogy. Did genealogists acquire their interests as young people, or did it arise later in life? "When you were in your early teens or younger," I asked, "how interested were you in your family's history?" Thirteen percent answered "very much", 38 percent "some", 31 percent "not much", and 17 percent "not at all". In other words, nearly half of the sample said they had little or no interest in genealogy in their youth; at the other extreme, only a small minority were very interested. I do not know how non-genealogists would have answered this question, but these figures do not suggest exceptional levels of interest on the part of people who eventually opted for genealogy. For most of them, their interest seems to have blossomed later in life, a finding to which I will return later.

At the same time, however, there was an association between the presence of a childhood family historian and respondents' remembered interest in their families' histories. When there was a family historian, 20 percent said they were very interested and 10 percent said they were not at all interested. When there was no family historian, eight percent said they were very interested and 24 percent said they were uninterested.

Birth Order. Is there something about being only or eldest children that disposes them, more than middle or younger children, to an interest in family history? One hears the argument that only or eldest children are raised differently than later children, or that they are more attuned to their parents' wishes and concerns. Might they also believe they have a special duty to preserve the family tradition? To get at birth-order, I asked the following question:
    Tell me about your brothers and sisters who lived past infancy (although they may now be deceased). In the table below, enter the number of siblings who are/were older or younger than you, or the same age as you (that is, your twin).
Overall, 12 percent of genealogists were only-children, 41 percent were eldest children, 26 percent middle children and 21 percent were later children. Combining the first two categories, more than half or 53 percent of the respondents were only- or first-born children. The average size of their parents' families (that is, respondents plus their siblings) was about three children among those less than forty years old, about three and one-half in the age categories 40-49, 50-59, and 60-69, and nearly four among those 70 or over.

As children, were only- or first-born respondents more interested than later-borns in family history? The four birth-order categories (only-, first-, middle-, and later-born) did not differ in whether respondents recalled childhood family historians or whether they were interested in family history as young people.

A different way to look at the data is to ask whether any of respondents' siblings are also family historians. Once a person adopts genealogy, does this encourage or discourage his or her siblings to do likewise? Having asked how many brothers and sisters were older, younger or the same age as respondents, I asked who among them had done genealogy. Only-born respondents were set aside from this analysis, of course. Of the remaining cases, 17 percent reported one or more genealogist-siblings; conversely, 83 percent of the sample said that none of their siblings did genealogy. Furthermore, when first-born respondents did genealogy, they were less likely to have siblings who also did genealogy, than when middle- or later-born respondents. It is as though first-born respondents were more likely to stake out genealogy as their territory. Or, when first-born respondents did genealogy, middle and later-born respondents could rest assured in the knowledge that their family's past was in good hands.

Starting Genealogy. The following question asked respondents why, in hindsight, they had started genealogy:
    What people or events influenced you to actually start doing genealogy? Circle the number for every item below that describes an influence on you. If something that influenced you is not listed, please print or clearly write it in the space provided.
To start them off, I gave respondents five options that my preliminary interviews had suggested were of some importance. I also hoped that these would serve as examples and thus encourage people to think in concrete terms about any additional events or people who might have nudged them into genealogy. I wanted to subtly discourage the use of vaguely defined motives or interests where it is difficult to discern why these long-term tendencies should result in genealogy when they did. Nevertheless, respondents remained free to give explanations such as, "I was always interested in my family" or "I liked to solve puzzles". The pre-set options were:
    1. At the urging of my spouse;
    2. The death of a close relative;
    3. The example of a relative who did genealogy;
    4. A book I read or a film I saw, like Roots;
    5. Because a friend was doing genealogy.
What influenced respondents to take a serious interest in genealogy? Building on my five options, I coded any additional write-in answers to the question. I decided which categories of influence to use based on the frequency of different answers or whether something discussed in one of the earlier papers gave them relevance. The death of a relative, for example, could be grouped with other family influences, but I have kept death, illness and aging separate because this factor was considered in the last article as a distinct reason for doing genealogy. Posterity was one of the top three reasons, so I have coded it here, too. Religious influences could have been ignored because so few people mentioned this kind of influence, but, again, I had singled out this factor for special attention in the last article.

The figures below sum to about 150 percent because I allowed up to three answers per respondent. Influences are listed from most to least important.
    1. Family influences, including attendance at family reunions, family anniversaries, birthday parties; the example of family members who did genealogy; inspired by listening to family members tell family stories; a relative requested information (41%)

    2. Death of close family members; illness and awareness of aging; older generation is dying off (26%)

    3. Sundry motives, interests and questions, such as curiosity, a desire to learn about roots; tracing diseases in the family tree; a question to answer or a family story to check; to get a picture of where people fit in to the family; general interest in history, heritage (24%)

    4. Family artifacts, such as a family Bible, heirlooms, photos, certificates, wills; property associated with an ancestor; inherited objects; tidying up personal papers after death of parent (14%)

    5. Reading, films, talks, exhibits on family history and history more generally; reading the book or seeing the film Roots (13%)

    6. Non-family social influences, including the example of friends doing genealogy; encouragement of friends (10%)

    7. Circumstances, as in retirement, leisure time; being homebound; something to do on travels (6%)

    8. School, own experiences or children's experiences; school project (4%)

    9. Secondary sources, including articles or books on the family; a family member's version of the family tree (4%)

    10. As a byproduct of or to facilitate another activity, such as an application to join an ancestral patriotic society; as a centennial project (4%)

    11. Posterity, as a gift to future generations (3%)

    12. Gift; genealogy presented as a gift to mother or father (1%)

    13. Religion; teachings, requirement of the church (1%)
Childhood Experiences. A number of respondents recounted in detail their childhood experiences in school and family which, they believed, set their feet on the path to genealogy. Four percent of the sample mentioned school experiences, for example, half of them their own. One respondent dated her interest in her family, living and dead, to the death of a younger sibling when she, the respondent, was five years old. She recalled vividly her mother's words of consolation:
    I confessed to my mother that I was afraid of dying. Coming close, she said, "You have always been a good little girl, you haven't lived long enough to be bad and if you should die, you will go straight to heaven. My father will run to meet you for you are my little girl and I was his little girl. He will come to you for my sake but he will love you for your sake. Then he will want his mother and father to meet you and they will love you and want all your cousins to meet you and you won't be lonely."
Who were the cousins I enquired? My mother started to tell me, I suppose, to keep the subject off death. The numbers of relations intrigued me and I wanted to know a hundred names. My mother told me of her living uncles and their children ... . Another woman associated genealogy with sunny memories of her mother and genealogist father:
    I grew up in a graveyard! Literally! My father was a genealogist ... and began doing research before I was born ... . When I was a child, any available time taken from his busy [employment] ..., usually on a Sunday, was spent recording stones in local cemeteries. My mother packed a super picnic lunch and she whiled away the afternoon hours knitting as we children played among the stones. ... Genealogy has always been a big part of my life and I was very fortunate to have had such a friend and mentor in my father.
Motives and Interests. Although I looked for specific or concrete events that might have precipitated people's involvement in genealogy, the kinds of motives and interests people gave were nonetheless instructive. Often their curiosity took the form of a desire to answer specific questions. Respondents in the health professions, for example, typically expressed an interest in tracking diseases in their family trees. Others frequently credited genealogy with helping to satisfy deeply rooted needs in their self-identities, as the following answer illustrates:
    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 farming community and somewhat untypical of my immediate and extended family. I did not want to live as the people around me were living; I had romantic dreams involving further education and travel. ... Reading about the spirit of adventure and the courage exhibited by immigrants ... 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.
Respondents turned to genealogy, too, when, for whatever reason, they either became aware of their ignorance of their family history or they at last decided to remedy it. Sometimes initial forays into genealogy provided the impetus for a more serious and sustained dedication to family history. This seems to have been the case for the following respondent who wrote:
    When I realized with regret how little my sisters and I knew about our maternal ancestors, and that my desultory and superficial research was proving that we knew even less than we thought, I was "hooked" into searching for more information, including historical background.
Specific Influences. As we can see from the influences listed above, most of the invitations to take up genealogy were quite specific in nature and most of them originated in the family itself. Respondents cited a host of experiences in which they were influenced by relatives or responded to requests for information on the family. A family's oral traditions, contained in stories that were told and retold at family gatherings and avidly devoured by their listeners, were mentioned prominently. These stories whetted respondents' appetite to know more about the people featured in them.

Closely related were a family's material artifacts, most notably the family Bible, old photographs, and assorted documents. Respondents were often brought face-to-face with what they did not know when, following the death of a parent, they inherited the task of sorting and organizing his or her personal possessions. It was at times such as these that respondents found they could not identify individuals in photographs, or had difficulty in reconstructing the life of the individual whom they mourned.

A special kind of family influence occurred in connection with serious illness and death, which moved people in some dramatic fashion to face up to the actual or anticipated loss of loved ones. For the most part, it was others' deaths, not the prospect of their own, that won respondents to genealogy. Remembering that 73 percent of the sample described posterity as an important reason for doing genealogy, it is striking that only three percent said this influenced their decision to start doing genealogy. So it was not the indeterminate future that beckoned them. Nearly a quarter of the sample seem to have adopted family history as a part of the grieving process, with another percent citing awareness that the older generation was dying off. While about one percent alluded to their own aging, they rarely referred openly or directly to their own death. In a few cases, respondents turned to family history during periods of family illness, as did the following two respondents:
    My father, who knew almost nothing of his background, became ill. I decided to provide him with as much information as I could before he died.

    Before [my father] died he asked me to find out where his baby sister had been buried, he was just a child at the time. That was all it took.
Genealogy helped another woman reassure her husband about his prospects for life:
    My husband's father died at 50, [so] he thought he would die early too. I wanted to disprove this with genealogical research. I did and I continued from there.
Genealogy's charms have to be experienced to be appreciated. This was the case for respondents whose interest in genealogy developed as a byproduct of doing something else, such as establishing their credentials for joining a group like the United Empire Loyalists or doing a homework assignment in school. The Canadian Centennial in 1967 was interesting in this regard, because it seemed to legitimize people's interest in history, both national and personal, and precipitated their decisions to investigate family history. Centennial projects afforded people an opportunity to weave their ancestors' lives into the life of the nation, thus lending greater significance to both. The following experience was echoed by a number of respondents:
    I started genealogy in 1967, after reading several articles urging Canadians to trace family history, as a centennial project.
In a previous article, I speculated that people might be reluctant to confess to an interest in genealogy, perhaps fearing that their motives would be suspect. We can see this hesitancy in the following person who was grateful that Centennial gave her the courage to "come out":
    I was always hesitant to admit to an interest until Centennial year when others became interested too.
In a similar vein, although long after she had adopted genealogy as a hobby, another person enthusiastically endorsed the present study with the observation that:
    After years of concealing my enthusiasm for genealogy I feel as if I have "come out".
Year and Age. Memory is a pump that sometimes needs priming. I hoped that asking respondents what specifically lured them into genealogy would prepare them to focus on their age and the year when this momentous event occurred. The questions were: "In which year did you actually start doing genealogy?" and "How old were you?" More than 95 percent of the sample recalled a year and age when they became seriously interested in genealogy.

Respondents recalled actually starting genealogy in 1977 (mean average) or 1980 (the median year before and after which 50 percent of those who answered said they started). On average, then, respondents had engaged in genealogy for about 15 years, having begun when they were about 44 or 45 years old. They joined The Ontario Genealogical Society after about seven years, although they may have been members of other genealogical societies or may have been unattached during this period. We remember, of course, that only seven percent of this sample were under 40 at the time of the survey.

Summary and Conclusions. Since I was not there at the time to observe, and since respondents did not keep diaries describing their evolving interest in family history, I must rely on their reconstruction of events leading to their involvement in genealogy. While half of the sample reported that there was somebody who might have qualified as a family historian in their childhood families, only a minority of the respondents themselves were very interested in their family's history. Aunts, mothers and grandmothers were prominent childhood family historians, and respondents felt closer to them than to uncles, fathers and grandfathers who were family historians.

Respondents dated their serious interest in family history from around 1977 when they were about 44 years old. A variety of influences from within the family, most notably family stories, the example of others doing genealogy, and requests for information, were most often cited as factors leading to involvement in genealogy. Prominent, also, were deaths of close family members and family artifacts.

In the next and final article, I will report what respondents 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.


1) This article appeared originally in Families, November 1995 (vol. 34, no. 4, pp. 223-232). The previous articles in this series are: "A Profile of the Membership of The Ontario Genealogical Society", Families, May 1995 (vol. 34, no. 2); "Searching for Genealogical Motivation", Families, August 1995 (vol. 34, no. 3). Quotations are used to illustrate points of view, while respecting the confidentiality of respondents. Within quotations, I have substituted words (in square brackets) in order to avoid any potentially identifying references. I thank the unnamed authors of these quotations for the illumination their words provide. Some of the findings and discussion presented here appear also in periodicals intended for an audience of sociologists. The author's office address is Department of Sociology, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON N2L 3G1; and e-mail is .

2) I wish space had permitted a probe about the marital status of respondents' childhood family historians. However, I console myself with the information on the marital status of the respondents themselves, which findings were reported in the first article in this series.

3) Presumably a childhood family historian who was not known at the time to be a family historian, would either not be mentioned or would generally fall into the "not close" or "didn't know" categories. This problem was raised by one of the respondents.

4) There were only 14 twins in the sample. They were excluded from the birth order analysis because they did not fit comfortably into the categories and there were too few of them to analyze separately.

5) Religion was rarely mentioned as a reason for starting genealogy, and this for the most part by Mormons.

6) On some occasions, respondents provided one piece of information, leaving me to calculate the other piece.

7) Respondents answered the following questions: "Do you currently keep some kind of personal diary?" and "Have you recorded your reminiscences of your life?" Fifteen percent said they kept a diary on a regular basis; 18 percent occasionally; 7 percent "used to", but no longer did so; and 59 percent said they did not. Eight percent said they had recorded their reminiscences, 26 percent had begun to, and the remainder had not.

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