Facts and Foibles of Gelealogy Research - Misconceptions of Amateur Genealogy Researchers
A paper read at the Genealogy Session of the Twenty-fifth
Annual History Conference, December 11, 1943, at
by JOSEPH C. WOLF
Two years ago I had the privilege and
pleasure of talking to this group on the "Tools and Techniques
of Genealogical Research."2 My paper at that time was rather
general and was composed' partly of directions to the beginner
and the somewhat advanced amateur, and partly of hints which I
hoped would be useful to the more experienced researcher.
However, my closing remarks-the last six sentences, in fact
were a plea for accuracy, a demand that the genealogist test
and verify every note, every reference, every scrap of
information discovered by him before admitting it to serious
consideration in his work.
In the two years that have elapsed since that plea, I have
seen a good many so-called genealogists at work, and I have
used a great many so-called family histories and genealogical
compilations of various kinds, and I have decided that the few
sentences of warning with which I closed that paper were
perhaps the most important words I uttered that day.
It is, I am afraid, a sad but indisputable fact that most
genealogical research being carried on today in this library
and in every other library in the country is inaccurate,
slipshod, and, in many instances, consciously or unconsciously
perverted from the truth to serve the researchers' own
This is in part because the activity is being carried on by
workers who are untrained in the science of research, but it
also is largely due to the fact that perhaps ninety percent of
the books used by these seekers after family history contain
factual errors, false assumptions, and reckless reasoning.
In other words, we have a field of study in which the
research materials are both reliable and unreliable.
Unfortunately, there are more unreliable sources than in any
other field, while at the same time the workers using those
materials have had less training in critical research procedure
than workers in other branches of study. Given such a
situation, nothing can result but a constant multiplication
errors and a constant decline in the reputation of genealogy
It certainly is not my purpose to condemn all amateur
genealogy. There are many competent amateurs and there are many
incompetent professionals. Nevertheless it is true, I think,
that the truly valuable and reliable works in this field are
almost entirely the work of the skilled professional.
But we cannot overlook the work of the skilled amateur, or
even the conscientious unskilled amateur. Both make important
contributions, if it is only to provide clues to the trained
worker, and even the work of the most uncritical beginner is
likely to be found accurate in the recent generations.
The solution, perhaps, is to discourage the incompetents,
the mere seekers after reflected glory, the social climbers,
and those who want a coat-of-arms because it will look handsome
as a decoration over their mantel. Once these pathetic folk and
the prfessionals who cater to them have been weeded out, we
must proceed to educate the remaining serious workers to a
proper appreciation of the complex nature and actual science of
genealogical research. We must point out to them the
qualifications for professional work, the strict disciplines
and techniques that must be developed, and the unfailing regard
for the proven fact which must be the touchstone of all their
efforts. Not until such weeding out and such education has
taken place can the defenders of genealogical research be
respected as the science it really is.