What Is the Right Age to Begin Family Research?
Last weekend, I decided to attend a Beginner DNA Workshop through the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston. Although I didn't expect to learn anything from the lecture's content, I wanted to get a feel for the society and what I might expect if I were to join and become an active member.
After the workshop, the large group broke into various groups by geographical SIG (special interest group). I stopped by tables for Litvak, Belarus, and Ukraine to add my name to the mailing list, schmooze with a member or two, and briefly listen to the SIG coordinators.
When I approached the Ukraine SIG table, I sat behind other members who were listening intently to the coordinator discussing on-the-ground research possibilities for Ukraine. Upon noticing my presence, one older gentleman sitting in front of me loudly noted, "Isn't she too young to be here?!" and then whispered something to the gentleman beside him.
Now, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I will assume this man made this comment in jest. Indeed, the average age of participants at the meeting was well into retirement years, so I probably did stick out among the crowd.
Yet, as my husband pointed out to me recently, humor draws on at least a kernel of truth. I, and many other younger genealogists, have noted there can be a prevailing attitude among some in the genealogy community that you need to be a certain age to be taken seriously or have anything of merit to contribute. I've been thinking a lot about why such attitudes exist, and here are the major explanations I've come up with:
1. Genealogy is a timely activity, and the younger generation should be focusing on "living" or raising a family.
2. Genealogy is a costly activity, and younger generations can't really afford it or should be spending their money elsewhere.
3. Those who have lived longer know more about the family and have more anecdotes to contribute. They simply have more knowledge and experience.
4. True genealogy existed before technological advances like Ancestry.com or DNA testing.
I'm sure there are plenty other reasons, but I would like to address each one listed above.
1. Genealogy is a timely activity. 100% true. There's no denying it. I've spent countless hours researching, writing, and collaborating. Before I decided I wanted to be a professional genealogist, genealogy was a hobby, just like it is for many (and really still is for me). I would build trees for fun, peruse JewishGen.org into the late hours as I fed or cradled an infant, and assist others in their DNA mysteries during my downtime. Some people choose yoga, running, pottery, or fishing as their hobbies. Mine just happens to be researching dead people and locating the living. Now, I want to do this professionally, so I put in the time necessary to build my business and brand, just like any other entrepreneur.
2. Genealogy is a costly activity. This is also true, although there are ways to mitigate costs (and thanks to the wonders of technology, I regularly do just that through sites like JewishGen or FamilySearch). I've spent lots of money on maintaining various subscriptions, ordering DNA tests, sending away for records, buying books, and taking courses to improve my craft. But any hobby and profession requires costs. My kids are well fed, clothed, and entertained. Genealogy is in addition to those requirements, and I see it as a worthwhile endeavor.
3. Older generations have more knowledge and experience. Maybe yes, maybe no. For sure, I have certain gatekeepers in my family who hold so much family knowledge from just experiencing life surrounded by family that it's mind-boggling. I may not have those life experiences yet, but I know enough to talk to these family members to fill the black and white records with colorful stories.
But I would also argue that just having the knowledge isn't enough. How are you going to use it? When I was filling out my information on the SIG mailing lists, most wrote "I don't know" in regards to what town(s) their families were from. They may know Lithuania, for example, but they have no clue what part. They also have no idea where to look to find the information or how to begin the process. Age certainly brings wisdom, but there is no guarantee that age is a determining factor in knowledge and experience.
4. Real genealogy doesn't require technology. I've seen this argument several times. There's a belief among some in the older generations that newer genealogists can't truly understand true genealogy. We will never understand the painstaking research necessary to find someone in a census or the patience required after sending away for records or reaching out to new relatives via postal service.
Yes, sites like Ancestry have cut down on much of the wait time needed to find information. I can now email potential relatives or Google their names to learn more about them. But I still know what it's like to send away for records that aren't available online, call relatives, and visit repositories. I also know the importance of checking facts. Too many people, regardless of their age, add information to their trees on sites like Ancestry without verification. Others take these "shaky leaves" and adopt them for their own trees without verifying them. Misinformation can spread like wildfire. I've seen several trees with the same mistake because no one took the time to actually conduct the research.
Science and technology are always evolving. Methodologies change. Why should genealogy remain stagnant? There are certainly foundational lessons to maintain from the past, but change can be good. Would you really want your doctor using decades-old information or technology? A professor teaching an outdated lesson? Your contractor using old materials and tools? As a professional genealogist, I think education is paramount. No genealogist can know it all, and the best genealogists are constantly learning new content or methodologies to improve their practice.
DNA is also a gamechanger for genealogy. I am very active in the field of Genetic Genealogy and assist clients regularly to solve DNA cases or assist on social media. DNA is a new frontier for genealogy and requires a whole new set or knowledge and experience, while maintaining an understanding of traditional genealogy and practices.
So what is the right age to begin genealogy? The right age is whenever you're ready, and the earlier the better! Because I'm younger, I'm able to ask my older relatives about our ancestors, have both my parents take DNA tests to help sort my matches, and use technology I grew up with to research, assist clients from all over the country, and collaborate on various social media platforms. I've met too many people who wish they had started earlier to connect with their roots. In truth, I wish I had started even earlier to ask my grandparents and their siblings questions that may now be lost to time.
So my response to the man who thought I was too young to attend the genealogical society meeting?
I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be.