Sunday, April 21, 2013

Pandora's Box: "Official Bloggers"

As the topic heats up over Banai Feldstein's post about the "Official" RootsTech bloggers over at the Genealogy Nitpicker, I have to add my two cents to this one....I've been watching, and reading, and making mental notes about this topic for years...but since Banai opened Pandora's box, let's take a peek inside, shall we?

Disclaimer: I may be a blogger, but I am in no way a super blogger. In fact, I blog when I want to write about something. Which for me, usually means I cannot force anything. I have to be somewhat inspired, or nothing is going to get written. Period. I would like to branch out into shorter, more frequent posts, but to be honest, it's just not my style - which is what I ADORE about blogging! I don't have to fit anyone's mold. I can be ME here, and if folks come to read it, fantastic...if not, I still have a place to exercise the writing demon, as it were, to let it out, before the pressure becomes too much for the host - most writers will know what I mean by this! Therefore, I am not speaking from a place that is seeking the designation - but I notice how many others should be considered for this honor based on their hard work, and who continue to be passed over.

In regards to Banai's post, I feel her frustration....not as one trying to be an "Official" blogger, but from a reader's perspective. I've been researching my family history and studying history for over 20 years, but I've been attending conferences for only about 5 years, and blogging for about 3 (2010). What I have observed has been both wonderful and perplexing.

When my adventure into blogging began, I was immediately enraptured by the concept! I love this creative space, and I LOVE reading the varied creative spaces of others! I began prior to this blog, in the library and gardening fields, but when I found the genealogy bloggers, I knew I was home. They were such an amazing group - unlike anything I had encountered before. And this group continues to amaze me! I learn from them at such an astounding rate. If something new comes out in our field, or if I need help with a tricky standard resource, the blogging community will usually have a post about it somewhere. This is something that I never want to see change - as they say, you are perfect the way you are - keep up the remarkable work!

However, the reaction to Banai's post has me a little concerned. As I have attended many national conferences these past few years (RootsTech twice in person - once virtually), I am one that loves reading the "Official" blog posts, and also, if there are any new "Official" bloggers, I love discovering these as well. But I understand the growing frustration over the same list being given to us as "Official" bloggers, year after year.

Here's why I too get a little frustrated:

1. Hobby versus Profession: Let me begin by saying that those chosen are 90% awesome choices! The genealogy blogging community has produced several blogging "celebrities" who continue to rise in popularity and put so much time and work into what they are doing, that NO ONE can compete with this level of production or quality. These upper-crust bloggers deserve to be there, but they have gotten there from a dedication level that is on the professional side, and not the occasional/hobby blogger side. As much as I love Thomas MacEntee, he has admitted that this is a job for him (a job he is very passionate about and loves), he is a professional at this, and he is not alone in that role. Many of the high ranking bloggers are now full-time social media professionals. Most may still be approachable on a social level, but they operate at a different blogging level. Period.

2. Blogger versus Social Media Guru: One thing that Banai mentioned was the low number of blog posts and low session attendance because of the time pressures involved in interviews, pod-casting,  video segments, Twitter, etc. (Reason given by the bloggers themselves) These are all wonderful, and I admit to using Twitter probably more than any of the Social Media tools out there....but hey, aren't "Official Bloggers" supposed to blog? I love the new video elements that are now easy and cost effective to produce, but to be honest, I'm not such a big fan of this new fad that is producing a gazillion new "interviews" in video format. I'm with Banai on this one: if you are an "Official Blogger", please attend a good portion of sessions and blog about what you learned or didn't learn. Staying in the exhibit hall and interviewing vendors is not really attending the conference, it's jumping on a band wagon that feels like pandering to a bigger crowd in the hopes of getting more "exposure". (Not talking about the video veterans out there that have been pioneering this wonderful element for years - I'm talking about the scads of copy-cats, or fantastic bloggers who think they have to rely on new video/interview segments to keep reader attention.)

3. Valuing Many Voices: Let's put aside the "celebrity" bloggers/Social Media gurus for a second and think about why we chose blogging to begin with. Our first love was sharing, both our experiences and stories, and thereby learning from each other. I love the welcoming community that developed from this genea-blogging journey! I have made so many amazing friends from this community, but it is sad to see the diverse voices not celebrated nor given the same opportunities to share their knowledge and experience. I agree with Banai about the RootsTech selections this year, and I mentioned it in my 2013 RootsTech post - the selections were expected on one level - and ridiculous on another. Yes, the main blogger staples were expected and as always do a wonderful job, but instead of expanding WITHIN the genea-blogging community, RootsTech chose to expand outward into non-genealogy bloggers. At first, I was very open-minded about this. As a librarian in a state research/genealogy library, I am constantly watching our patron base and looking for new ways to reach the younger, non-genealogy, audience. Which means, I was initially excited about this move to see how this new group of bloggers would react to RootsTech.....and then the opposite happened: They ignored, or in my book, snubbed the honor, and did not write ONE post about this conference! (With the exceptions noted by Banai and myself in an earlier post) If they were not going to even mention this conference in their blog as an "Official Blogger", they get an automatic "FAIL" from me....I was shocked by this and severely disappointed. If that is the reaction of the non-genealogy bloggers chosen for this honor, then PLEASE, RootsTech, next year, branch out WITHIN the genealogy community and reward those who have also worked hard by blogging their experiences, so we can learn from a much more diverse community!

4. Numbers: Ummm, yeah, when conferences branch out and consider their list of "Official" bloggers, could they please focus less on traffic volume and more on quality of blog content? **Note** I am NOT dissing the "celebrities'" content, but rather criticizing RootsTech's choice to use traffic as a main component for selection - they are seriously missing some great genealogy gems out there by picking the same list year after year. Newsflash, RootsTech, I understand marketing principles, and driving Social Media traffic your way to grow the conference, but let's play a little fair and sprinkle your list with some new genealogy voices to BALANCE the offerings and increase the content quality!

5. If you can't say anything nice....: First of all - Hey genea-celebrities - We LOVE you guys!! You teach us SO much ALL the time! You have dedicated your time and resources to educating us and bringing us together as a formidable group! This community would not exist as it does today without your dedication and we THANK YOU! However, this is not a community that should be afraid to criticize a bit when needed. In fact, I will never stay silent (regardless of low reader numbers) if I see an area that should be tweaked in our community. We are all members of this community, and despite non-celebrity status, we ALL have voices. I was just a bit disturbed by the attacks coming to Banai in the comments field. Sorry guys, but in the "Official Blogger" issue, she's right - and most of you know it. Let's not shoot the messenger. Instead, let's continue our respectable community by being self-critical where needed, which fosters growth.


Here's how I think we can fix this issue:
1. Conferences - Back off of the "Official Blogger" title, unless the field rotates more and embraces

diversity - how about a teen genea-blogger - do we have any of those we could feature? You betcha! As I said, there are so many gems out there - let's celebrate our amazing voices! BTW, I will give kudos to NGS and FGS as they seem to be getting this principle pretty well. They appear to be experimenting with this designation over the past couple of years. Last year, NGS allowed anyone who wanted to sign up be designated as an "Official Blogger" and who therefore had access to the media booth for writing. I signed up for this last year, but as a speaker, and host at two different booths, I was way too busy to put my best blogging foot forward, which I fully admit and regret. Also, that poor media space was so empty. I used it a few times, but it ended up being  a bit too noisy as several folks used it as a lunch break area - no one was monitoring its use. However, I was so thrilled to see the big list, and found some great new bloggers this way! FGS coming up in August is experimenting with the "Ambassador" role which anyone can sign up for, and from that list they will select their "Official Bloggers" - that sounds like a great idea! Let folks compete for this status on an equal playing field!

2. New Designation? On the other hand, some really amazing personalities/celebrities have emerged over the years due to their hard work, dedication, and lifelong experiences. While we have rewarded a few with speaking and most with the automatic "Official Blogger" status, I think they have surpassed this role. They have truly become our Social Media and journalistic representatives - many on a professional basis. If they are going to spend more time on interviews, videos, etc, and leaving their first love, blogging, as a second thought, maybe this designation does not really fit them as it did once before? (obviously there are some exceptions here!) I know this might make some others mad, and maybe this is perpetuating the problem, but maybe something a bit more prestigious to honor their work? Leave the "Official Blogger" designation to those who really have kept blogging as their main focus and who will truly honor that designation by blogging their way through the conferences? Perhaps the upper-crust group fits more into a Social Media Press class, and not just bloggers? We are growing with the rate of technology, so why shouldn't our conference designations grow in the same manner? Or, on second thought, as Thomas mentioned, maybe it's time to forget the whole thing and chuck any designation? Hmmm, the two values I see in the designation: 1. Honors hard work and quality of commentary. 2. Brings attention to a new crop of great bloggers - if done right!

Thank heavens I don't make the rules! But from the words of a great comic, years ago: "It's good talk" (insert New York accent here)

P.S. Thanks Banai for pointing out the terrible search function for Blogger! Mine sucks too! It  may have pulled up any time I mentioned RootsTech, but did so out of date order. I am a librarian, so I tend to tag EVERYTHING - probably too much, but hopefully that will snag many. Great observation!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Book Review: Ancestors & Relatives

Title: Ancestors & Relatives; Genealogy, Identity & Community
Author: Eviatar Zerubavel
Publication: 2012 Oxford University Press

I stumbled upon this book at the NGS Conference last year in Cincinnati. It was prominently displayed by one of the book vendors, and I have to admit, I am a sucker for a pretty or intriguing cover. Is it wrong for a librarian to admit she is influenced by book covers? Perhaps, but I'm just being honest - I am highly attracted to visually aesthetic things - including books. After getting this one home, I was eager to delve right in....and I did....more than once, because the first read had me a tad outraged. I have since re-read the book while trying to remember its intended audience - but that is where I get a bit uncomfortable.

Let's talk about intended audience to bring you up to speed. As already stated, I found this at the National Genealogical Society conference....not endorsed by said organization, but automatically included in a major book vendor's booth because of the book jacket's natural appeal to genealogists. The title itself hearkens to the genealogist and family historian - we are a complex, yet analytical group. We love uncovering the layers of family history, and I suspect, also enjoy learning more about the human nature behind our desire to research said ancestors. The inside book jacket panel includes the tag line: "Genealogy has long been one of humanity's greatest obsessions." I certainly will never argue with that summation - he has us pegged so far. The next paragraph talks about the current popularity of genealogy and the national TV shows that demonstrate the recent surge. All of this is enough to "market" any book to present-day genealogists. The rest of the jacket talks about the biological need behind our wanting to know where we come from, and the various strategies we use when dealing with sticky or shady branches of our trees. The back of the book is where things get more honest. Each quote of endorsement comes from an academic authority: UC Berkeley, Princeton, Harvard. That combined with some of the terms used in the endorsements and I had to slap myself on the forehead. I should have known from the publisher that this was not a title meant for the masses. It is an academic treatise on how we take biological fact and "create" or "formulate" genealogies from it in order to make sense of our origins.

With all of that in mind, the book is a much easier read. My early outrage with this book centered on the analysis he consistently gives concerning genealogies and how we "construct" them based on our own arbitrary selection of ancestors due to religious and racial preferences. In short, he spends much of the book explaining why we prune or shape our tree into what we prefer - not what the genealogical or documentary evidence proves. For clarity from the author himself, on page 11, we are given the book's actual purpose:

"This book is and attempt to uncover the normally taken-for-granted and therefore mostly ignored cognitive underpinnings of genealogy by examining the way we - experts as well as laypersons - envision ancestry, descent, and other forms of relatedness....I thus set out to explore here "the genealogical imagination"...My main goal throughout the book is to uncover the general (that is, transcultural as well as transhistorical) principles underlying the way we envision genealogical relatedness."

Ok, let's get into the good about this book:
I certainly learned a new word - progonoplexia - which means obsession with one's ancestry - very handy word to throw out at genea-parties! Beyond that, this is a truly deep read on the anthropological and sociological influences behind our notions of relatedness and/or kinship. From a historical perspective, it is fascinating to look back at how these biological aspects shaped our earliest pursuit of genealogy. He goes back to Biblical times and Darwinism to demonstrate our selective nature when it comes to feeling connected to past individuals. He reminds us that there is no such thing as a pure origin (European, African, Asian, etc.), and therefore debunks any use of DNA as a means of connecting to your past. Without any significant elements of origin, it is apparent that we are all related to each other, regardless of our attempts to ignore or embrace the origin that we prefer - Thank you, Mr. Obvious.

Taking all of this into account, he uses it to explain the idiocy of Hitler's Jewish ancestry rules, and the US's one drop rule in relation to slavery, and even the current blood degrees among present-day Native American tribes. I have to admit that some of the exploration of branch/ancestor selection (defined as "braiding, clipping, pasting, lumping, splitting, stretching, and pruning") had me cringing - not from current practices, but due to some of the widely accepted and practiced methods of genealogical research of the past. I found myself shaking my head in disbelief as some of his theories really explained many of the older published family histories that line our shelves. Why did we choose that branch of the family to document and claim as a prominent line? Why are some lines ignored? Why are many racially prejudiced in one area, while ready to embrace that Cherokee Indian Princess they are convinced lurks in the family tree? I will also concede, that not all of these "selective" genealogical practices are from methods of the past. There are many folks out there today (more than I really care to admit) that are very selective about their research, and refuse to talk about the branches they are ashamed of.....

But that is where I begin to find fault with his research. Despite his acknowledgement of the current phenomenal interest in genealogy, he fails to address current methods of research, and does not differentiate between past horrific practices versus today's focus of responsible research methods. There is not one exploration or description of a current genealogist - I am certain he has NEVER conversed with an accredited genealogist. He does not address any of our strides in citation/primary source focused research. I also found it troubling that when he addresses our ignoring of certain branches (such as the ancestry of aunts and uncles), he explains this as intentional pruning usually based on some undesirable aspect of the line - he never once concedes that sometimes a branch is left behind in research simply because of outside factors - such as time limitations and proximity to available records. Unfortunately, he paints a grim picture of our selective biological nature, pruning off the undesirable. For today's genealogist, that could not be farther from the truth, and for many of us, the more colorful the branch, the deeper we dig and the more likely we are to brag about it! It is clear by the end of the book that he has defined the genealogist as a magician or charlatan of sorts, creating ancestral lines based on "imagination" and selective "genealogical apartheid" (pg.99) On the last page he concludes that "Genealogy, in short, is first and foremost, a way of thinking." (pg.131)

Clearly, if you are interested in the sociological and anthropological forces behind humanity's development of genealogical practice and yes, "thought" all means, it is a great read for that. Just remember, this is an academic book, with some academic principles, and if you are easily offended by an emphasis on evolution, a lumping together of past mistakes with current practices, you might want to check it out of the library instead of purchasing said treatise. I have also read others' impressions of this book, and some have complained that the hardback book at $24.95 is 225 pages, with only 131 being actual writing....the remaining pages are made up of end notes and an index. He also takes up quite a few pages with diagrams trying to demonstrate relationship, which really seemed superfluous to me. The overwhelming agreement seems to be - get the e-book, do not waste your money on the hardback print edition. At the end of the day, I felt a bit like a sucker....he wrote this grandiose, yet incomplete analysis of genealogical principles for a tenure requirement and tried to package it under the popular guise of present-day genealogy interest to sell more copies...if this had been a complete picture of the history of genealogical practice, I would have loved it....but the glaring omission and collective insults heaped at the genealogist greatly reduce my score:
Rating: 3.0 Quills
Happy reading!


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