Are you ever too young to be a ‘genealogist’?

A few days ago I happened to tweet that someone had told me I looked “too young to be a genealogist”. It was perhaps originally a throwaway comment, but it got me thinking. 

The response I had from people out there in twitter land was quite astonishing. It seems that I am by no means the only one that has been occasionally irritated by this generalisation and certainly not the only “young” family historian out there. 

Yet, the stereotype exists. Is genealogy cool? Well, I think it could be. I think it ought to be. In these days of people moving to the other side of the world, travelling great distances just for a meeting and connecting to people across the oceans in a second on social media, I think it is perhaps more important than ever to understand where we come from and what our ancestors went through in order for us to be here at all. 

Sadly, a straw poll amongst friends suggested that most of them were also of the opinion that family history is for old people. The phrases “blue rinse” and even “slightly dusty” were associated with people interested in the past. (I must note here that I also think you are never too old to be interested in genealogy and I have never met a ‘dusty’ researcher!)  

Yet almost everybody I’ve spoken to wants to know about their heritage. 

When questioned, very few even knew their grandparents’ names, and this appears to be common with people of all ages, not just younger people. Many are not interested in researching as far back as possible at all, but rather in finding out more about people who were with us in living memory. It is all too easy to think that our grandparents and great grandparents were never young. 

Why then, if these people are so interested in finding out about their family’s past, have they not done anything about it? Because record offices are scary, researchers jealously guard their papers and because they can’t access information online? Well, while these ideas came up, it was often for more mundane reasons – not knowing where to start, thinking it would be too difficult and expensive and simply not having the time were far more common responses. 

At this point I will be open and say “My name is Elizabeth. I am 26, and I love family and local history”. I will also come out and say that I do not have a history degree. My partner does, but what he knows about genealogy would fit on a postage stamp (“I know my mother’s maiden name!”) . I am actively pursuing an MSc in Genealogy however, and I do have a BSc (hons) and existing post graduate qualifications in other disciplines, some of which overlap, mostly in my favourite subject – maps! 

Ever since I was a little girl I’ve been intrigued by family history. I have read books, joined societies, written histories, sat in record offices, contacted all sorts of people, travelled the length and breadth of my home counties (I now class both Norfolk and Suffolk as home) and further afield looking for places, people, folklore and things to photograph. I am embarking on my first book, combining my loves of photography and history and through Your Local History am aiming to inspire others to start researching themselves by giving them a helping hand with getting started and completing research locally. 

I do not pretend to be a professional researcher with decades of experience, but I do try and open records to everybody, meet requests with enthusiasm and inspire confidence in people that have never set foot in a record office before. I am quite happy to show them how. Equally, I am quite happy to show them how to research records online and how to contact distant relatives and other interested parties through websites and forums. 

What’s more, I am of course still learning every day and hope to carry on doing so for a long time to come. After all, I’d like to be an ‘old dude’ genealogist too, one day. Of course, by the time I’m 85 I’ll have been researching for 70 years and will hopefully be a ‘go to’ expert in an age where cars fly, the Vulcans have made first contact and people are looking at ‘print systems analyst’ and ‘west area travel plan officer’ on old records (probably not the census, although I hope to see myself on one eventually) and looking them up in a 3D virtual representation of library. 

I am aware that there will be those that argue that there is much more to family history. I do not disagree. I will cite sources and interpret manorial records quite happily. However, what I really want to do is help others satisfy their curiosity and ask questions of themselves, their relatives and their history – and if they can write their own book to pass down to future generations, with their own experiences in life, so much the better… 

This has been a somewhat unusual blog post for me and I am sure that it will raise some debate as to what makes a ‘genealogist’ (which I think can be quite different to a ‘family historian’) and the merits of experience vs enthusiasm and qualifications. I hope that it will go some way to eliminating the stereotypes that exist – after all, librarians up and down the country are sporting “shhhh” tattoos on their fingers and seem to have eliminated something of their old fashioned image. It’s high time genealogy did the same! 

So, as I pursue my career, I will not just be visiting archives, but geotagging photographs, embracing the ancestry iPhone app (which is a boon in graveyards) and keeping an eye out for developments in DNA research. 

What I hope to inspire in people is that anyone can be a family historian, regardless of age, occupation and circumstances.

Just start asking questions! 

0 Responses

  1. I am in my 20s too and I enjoyed reading this blog post. I especially liked "After all, I’d like to be an ‘old dude’ genealogist too, one day" !!! Just how I feel!!

  2. Age can be a bit of a red herring, though age and experience are different issues. By definition a younger genealogist may not be as experienced as an older genealogist, but experience is only part of the story. Clearly all genealogists need to know the basics – it would be a poor genie who didn't know how to get a birth cert! – but the key essential for any genealogist is either to know the answer to any question asked of them by a client, but equally important, to be able to work out how they can find the answer if they don't.

    When I previously worked in telly production, and in some of the journo and genie work I do now, I’ve always worked to the mantra that it was never my job to be the expert, but it was always my job to find the expertise to deliver the answer to the question of the moment. I know a few genies who revel in the term 'expert' – there is no such thing. I hate the term, despite being occasionally labelled as one by keen editors etc, but to me all I am is simply a researcher – some things I know about, some things I have absolutely no idea about, and some things I think I know about and then discover I don’t know half as much as I thought I did! What I do completely understand though are my limits, and how to go about sorting out what I don’t know, as and when I need to.

    Nobody has all the answers, but of course some have more experience. But they only have that experience because with each question they did not know the answer to before, they went off and found that answer. So if you don’t have that experience now when starting off as a genie, never worry about it – just make sure you’re still asking the right questions to what you don’t know, and that you can create the right pathway to lead you to the answers. Experience will come with each success. The biggest skill any genie can have, in my view, is the ability to keep asking the right questions. In that respect, some older genies I know are at a disadvantage – they think they’ve already asked them all, which occasionally breeds an arrogance. Others I know are terrified of the developments of the internet and the democratisation of the hobby towards the masses, away from the previous elites who once had dominion. Being younger and having a hunger to keep asking question after question, being willing to embrace 21st solutions to the industry in the 21st century, none of these things are seriously worth thinking of as disadvantages!

    To put it much simpler – don’t worry about the snobbish attitudes of those who feel threatened by your youth and drive. Just concentrate on your clients and doing the job they pay you to do. If anyone has a problem with that, tough luck to them – it is their problem! 🙂

  3. Hi
    I started researching my family history when I was about 22. I was fairly obsessive back then (I'm 46 now) but there was no internet, no social networking media, so it was harder than it is now. In hindsight, the best thing about being a young genealogist then was all the 'old' people I met, who were interested in their genealogy and doing the 'dusty' thing in their retirement.

    Most of them are no longer with us, and I feel so privileged to have met them and spent time with them and listened to their stories. Some of the information they told me is in letters that I still have. Some of it was told to me directly and I've recorded it. Some of it is stored in my memory. I didn't tape or video them and I regret that.

    As a young genealogist you are in the very fortunate position of being able to talk to people who knew your grandparents when they were young, and maybe even your great grandparents. If I had any advice to give you it would be RECORD that stuff. The paper records and digitised records will still be there in 20-30 years or more, but they won't.

    I stopped and put my research away for many years when children and life took over, and I'm just coming back to it now. There are many more records available, and I'm able to find things I would never have been able to access without travelling before. But the old people are gone.

    You are very lucky – and very smart.

  4. I had my first foray into an archive to research family history when I was 19. My mother's family have always been keen on knowing about their family and kept track of the extended family over many generations. They were always exchanging stories or reminiscences about the past. My father's family was a stark contrast. We knew hardly anything about quite close relations. To know more about my father's family has been my quest.

    I too have always been passionate about maps. Eventually I took the plunge and completed history and geography majors at university. I am now using the skills in archival research that I developed doing genealogy for my historical research work. I always chat to my friends and relations who are into genealogy about the historical research that I am doing. They have years of experience that I can draw on and every now and then provide me with a useful lead or idea. Genealogists make a great contribution to our historical knowledge.

    Too young? I didn't feel that I was too young when I first started out and I don't think you can ever be too young. I agree with Michelle that youth is an advantage as more of your older relations are alive to talk to.

    I am experimenting with technology for my historical research. Twitter and blogs have opened my eyes to exciting developments that allow us to harness technology in order to understand history better. I look forward to reading about how you use technology in your work.

  5. This blog made me smile, as I feel that anyone at 26 is not particularly young to be a genealogist. Having written that I agree most people do start when they retire.

    I have now reached the stage of greying hair and grey sideboards at some may think the grand old age of 61, this means I have been a genealogist for over 55 years.
    Each year proves to me I know less about the subject than I thought I knew.

    Family history as all history starts now it is not something lost in the mists of time but a subject vibrant and current and requires the energy of youth to explore and record the facts before they are lost or more likely, hidden from view.

    Experience is good and may at times be an advantage but the young also have the advantage of enthusiasm, and aptitude to accept new ways of working sometimes lost on the older generations.
    The young are the future of our past.

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