Friday, August 17, 2012

Know what you're looking for

Irrepressible geneablogger and ex-Midwesterner Kerry Scott is back, asking why anyone could possibly dislike's ad campaign with the tag line, "You don't need to know what you're looking for. You just need to start looking."

She and many commenters, including Elizabeth Shown Mills, think it's just fine. I don't, for two reasons.

For one thing, taken literally, the statement is false. You do need to know something in order to start looking. Anyone whose parents put them up for adoption as a baby in a state where adoptions are sealed knows this. They have no idea what they're looking for, and just starting to look won't help them a bit.

My own newbie research style was to head for the genealogy books and look up my maternal grandparents' mildly rare surname and see what turned up. If I hadn't known that name, the genealogy books would have held much less charm for me.

Secondly, I have no problem with newbies not knowing stuff. We've all been there. My problem is with profitable companies glorifying ignorance -- especially when they can make just as much money with ads that don't pander (like the ones, "We can help you find...") and don't encourage the already omnipresent notion that everything genealogists need is just a keystroke or two away.

There is a kernel of truth in the slogan: when you do look, you often find surprises, things you did not know to look for or to expect. But the less you know to start with, the less likely you are to look where the surprises are, or to recognize them when you find them. The old Gary Larson cartoon -- where the kid asks the teacher to excuse him because his brain was full -- has it wrong. Your brain is more like the coatroom behind the classroom: the more coathooks you put up, the more it can hold.

I remember a sadder-but-wiser article in the Ohio quarterly a few years ago, written by someone who for years had dismissed out of hand family records involving people who spelled the surname a little differently. Not knowing what to look for, just jumping in and seeing what happened, cost that person years of research and knowledge of his family. (I'm sure I mentioned that somewhere in this blog, but can't find it. Guess I'm one coathook short of a load today.)

Genealogy is attractive enough in itself, as it really is. is plenty attractive as a research tool. A deceptive sales pitch does no credit to either one.

Kerry Scott, "You Don't Have to Know What You're Looking For," Clue Wagon, posted 15 August 2012 ( : accessed 16 August 2012).

Harold Henderson, "Know What You're Looking For," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 17 August 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Michele Simmons Lewis said...

I have to agree with you on this one, Harold. I think that Ancestry could do more to teach people good research techniques right from the start. The first thing that newbies access are the family trees on Ancestry and they don't know any better than to take everything they find as gospel. They copy it into their own file and then proudly upload it. Ancestry DOES have articles and such that explain research techniques but they are buried in the webpage. They need to have a genealogy 101 offering that is prominently displayed on their site as well as disclaimer on the family trees.

Amy Coffin, MLIS said...

How are they glorifying ignorance? Are you saying that newbies are ignorant? Why is it wrong to log on to Ancestry and start exploring?

Curt Witcher (a guy who knows a thing or two about the research process) spoke about getting newbies to explore genealogy. You have to get them in the door. That's the first step. If we bombard them with rules and books as soon as they step in the building, they will not come back.

You do not need to know what you're looking for. If that was the case, librarians (also people who know a thing or two about the research process) would reject everyone who approaches the reference desk. The goal is to meet the information need, and sometimes exploration is part of the process.

Ignorant? No. Deceptive? Don't see it. Ancestry is not saying family history is just a keystroke away. They're saying, "Give it a try. It's not scary and you don't have to know much about your family to get started."

Genealogy is like any other sport or hobby. It takes time and practice to excel. We must give newbies time to learn and explore so they will excel. Ancestry is trying to sell their product, which is an excellent platform on which to cut one's genealogy teeth.

Give new genealogists a chance to learn--to look when they don't know what they're looking for--and it will grow the genealogy community. The honed research skills will come in time, just like expertise comes in every other avenue.

Harold said...

Amy, thanks for your thoughtful questions and disagreement!

Perhaps I was not precise enough. I have never said that newbies are wrong to jump in and start exploring. I have criticized *Ancestry* for promoting its valuable service by encouraging habits that we all start out with but need eventually to unlearn. It's not like this is the only way to get people in the door.

I would never suggest rejecting a client or patron who didn't know much or was unclear what they wanted. The subject at hand is how best to promote one's services without being misleading.

For a beginner, the false implication of this slogan is that we *never* need to know anything, that all our research can be conducted in same way as our first enthusiastic forays. If this kind of ad were the only way to get people interested in genealogy, then I'd say, OK, let's do what we have to do. But it's not.