Thursday, August 16, 2007

Genealogist vs Family Historian, Who Are You?

Schelly wrote on this subject, as did Chris. Now I'd like to add my two cents on the subject of genealogists vs family historians. I say the difference between the two is functional.

To my way of thinking, a genealogist is someone whose primary objective is to add (names and dates) to their family tree. They may also be interested in "putting flesh on the bones" of their ancestors but their primary goal and that which they spend most of their time and effort on is accumulating ancestors.

I think of a family historian as someone whose primary objective is to study, collect, and archive their family history with less if any concern for adding names to the family tree. They may update their family tree with new names and dates from time to time but their primary goal and that which they spend most of their time and effort on is not ancestor research. If you primarily do things such as keep and catalog family heirlooms, write family histories about your ancestors, maintain a family web site, organize family reunions, collect and publish collections of family recipes, write a family newsletter, create heritage scrapbooks, or research the lives of individuals on your family tree as opposed to adding names and dates of individuals to your family tree, you would fall into the category of what I think of as a family historian.

Back when I was actively searching records and databases in an effort to add more individuals to my family tree I thought of myself as a genealogist. I wasn't much interested in grandma's recipe for rye bread unless it was in an envelope with a return address in Poland that would be a clue to my ancestral village. Ever since I stopped actively searching for names and dates and transitioned to recording all that is my family's heritage, I've thought of myself as a family historian. My girlfriend who has never looked for a vital record in her life but who catalogs and writes about her grandparent's antiques and heirlooms is also a family historian. She is the keeper and writer of what she knows about her family's history. Her information may only go back a couple generations but it is her family's history none the less.

Certainly you might perform some of the activities I've identified for family historians while you attempt to take your family tree back another generation. Likewise you may take a moment to add the names and dates of newly married cousins to your family tree while you are engrossed in photographing and cataloging Aunt Mable's thimble collection. The key element is time. That which you spend more time at determines your label. (I spent a few minutes today washing dishes... but I don't think of myself as a dishwasher. I spent a couple of hours writing blog posts... and I do think of myself as a blogger.)

Now if you are a person who both researches ancestors for the purpose of adding them to your tree and you also spend a fairly equal amount of time recording your family heritage in one form or another, I'd say you're either a "geneahistorian", or a "familiologist". I like both terms. Geneahistorian (pronounced geena-historian) has a bit of a romantic sound to it while familiologist rings scientific. I think a good many of you functionally fall into this blended category. So tell me, which are you?


  1. Jasia, I'd say that I am a mixed breed. I think it is possible to be a genealogist without being a family historian IF you use the term genealogist in the strictest sense of simply looking for names and dates to add to your tree. And that I am not.

    However, I don't think you can be a family historian without being a genealogist also. After all, you have to have the names and dates in order to write or document your family history. My interest, when I started my research 20+ years ago was to find the people behind the names and dates in order to compile a family history.

    I think I'd like to be called a geneahistorian - I'm more of a humanist rather than a scientist.

  2. Excellent post, Jasia. Your notion that the difference is functional takes me back to my philosophy days (my hero, Aristotle, was big on functional definitions).

    Maybe we need a third term—"family archivist"—for the person who collects and catalogs without genealogical purpose. I know some scrapbookers who fall into this category.

    We may need a fourth term as well, for the person who collects raw genealogical data for the use of others. If I were to transcribe census records for an entire state, I would be acting in the service of genealogy, but I wouldn't really be functioning as a genealogist. Would I be a "genearchivist"?

  3. Jasia, excellent comments.

    Chris, your idea of "family archivist" has merit. I think there will always be people who just collect relevant family materials but are not interested in doing much more. We need those people, as they help to preserve the bits and pieces of our families' lives.

  4. Jasia, this is a great commentary. How about a 3-way telephone interview with Chris for the podcast coming up next week? (Prerecording today, tomorrow or Monday.)

  5. OK Becky, genahistorian it is! I think that title suits you. You can be the first to officially claim the title!

  6. Chris, d'ya think we should collaborate on a an Official Dictionary of Genea-Titles? I like the ones you came up with. Excellent! I'm sure if we put our minds to it we could create a genea-world best seller! Or should that be a fami-history world best seller...

  7. Thanks for the comment Schelly. And you're right, there is merit in Chris' suggestion for the title of "family archivist". Where would we be if not for those wonderful people who take the time and make the effort to collect and keep family materials? They definitely deserve a title of their own!

  8. Jasia,
    I guess I'm in the geneahistorian
    category. Thanks for coming up with that term! I've tried to think of one myself for how I view my research.

  9. I'm a family historian (ahem, Jasia.. you forgot collecting family interviews/oral histories in your catalog of items done by the family historian).

    This is an excellent post, it helps clarify what I do. I stand on the shoulders of giants who've worked on the family genealogy. I don't particularly care to go where they have. But oh, the stories.. oh the stories, those are what I like. And finding documents that help puzzle things together, such as the MIT newspaper article that helps me to understand some of the letters written to my grandmother (who was the writer and why is she so sad?) -- that's what's so golden to me.

    I'd say that I'm a family historiarchivist.

  10. Susan I just knew you were going to catch me on this! LOL!

    I remembered recording oral histories (REALLY!) but not until I after I'd posted the article. I have no excuse except that I was too lazy to go back and edit the post to include it. So sorry! I'm glad you left a comment though. Recording oral histories is one of the most significant things a family historian can do and definitely worth noting. Thanks!

  11. Aah! Layin' a trap or me, were you? (Heh, even in retropsect.)

  12. There HAS to be a gray area between your definitions of Historian and Genealogist. A Genealogist (Genea = Family, Log= write) logs his/her family information, and yes it can definitely be more than "just the facts, ma'am".

    A Family historian is a records and history keeper, they maintain the Family heritage, but focus on historical events vs. individuals.

    Fleshing the bones is common to both extremes, a historian researches the event, and the genealogist researches the people within the events. Both use time and place to fix their relationships.

    Historians can tell you in general where and when, Genealogists can tell you, with enough research EXACTLY where when and specifically who. They also have a tendency to find errors and correct them.