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Sunday, April 10, 2011

How much genealogy can you stand? Part Seven on the limits of genealogy

Genealogy is a goal oriented activity. In some ways it is similar to a collectibles hobby such as stamps, coins, figurines and others. There is a finite number of items and variations and at some point you can consider your collection to be complete. For example, I can collect all of the First Day Covers of all of the U.S. Commemorative Stamps in existence. Although, in one sense, my collection may never be considered complete because of the variations in the stamps and the different publishers of first day covers. In genealogy, we are collecting names and information about people and for that reason alone, no genealogy can ever be considered complete. During the last few posts I have explored some of the issues with limits in genealogy. There are limits related to location as well as limits imposed by the passage of time.

If you were sailing across the ocean in a very small ship, like the Mayflower for example, you could almost believe that the trip would never end. But if you kept sailing on a particular bearing, you would always strike land, you might die first, but the trip was never endless. Genealogy is like a trip across the ocean. If you keep following a particular line, you will always reach a limit. It may be a lack of records at a certain place and time, or one of the many more difficult issues imposed by antiquity. You can always come forward from any given ancestor and in that sense the search never ends, but at some point you need to acknowledge that you have done what practically can be done to move back into the past.

Mortality itself provides the ultimate limit to our search. Many of us look forward to the time when we can mingle with our ancestors and ask all the hard questions that never got answered. But until that time comes, we just keep looking and hoping the next round of technological change will open the doors that have been closed to us for so long.

I literally can't believe it. I am in the middle of writing about the topic of limits and I have a member of a class I am teaching start to tell me about tracing her ancestors back to 800 AD. It reminds me of the time that I got tired of filling in the blanks in my stamp album and went out and purchased a set of all the U.S. Commemoratives in one fell swoop. Copying a long pedigree may be satisfying on one level but it begs the issue of limits. All it really does is move the limit to a different place and time and destroys the fun of collecting.

The whole premise of having certified or accredited genealogists assumes that competency in a given area or with a certain set of qualifications defines what it means to be a genealogist. I can claim to be more qualified than you are by virtue of the fact that I accomplished a certain arbitrary set of tasks imposed by the accrediting board. Accreditation is merely another way of looking at limits. In this case the limits are imposed by those who say you cannot play our game unless you follow our rules and by the way, we are the only valid game. In Arizona, you have certain legal rights if you are a licensed contractor. If you try to work as an unlicensed contractor and someone fails to pay your bill, in some cases, you cannot use the court system to collect the debt. Licensing and accreditation both impose very severe limits on their respective professions. Both imply that real work, whether it is contracting or genealogy, can only be done by the "professional" and that anyone else in intruding on the real work.

No where is this attitude more prevalent than with the "professions." Most of the states in the U.S. have so-called unauthorized practice statutes, some make it a criminal act to practice certain professions without a license. Arizona doesn't have an unauthorized practice of law statue, but none the less there is always a running battle going on between the Arizona State Bar Association and those individuals who try to "practice law." Many years ago I represented a client who was in jail. His crime? Operating a moving business without a license. Yes, he had a truck and the temerity to try to help people to move without being licensed.  To some extent, all professional organizations would like to be in that position. They would all like to impose limits to benefit their members and make membership more valuable.

Now, don't start sending me angry comments about how necessary it is to have professional organizations. I support professionalism, but still you have to recognize that in some cases, genealogical professional organizations impose limits.

I know that some would argue that limits are necessary and even beneficial. I suggest that unless we recognize the reality of limits, we cannot ever attain any degree of competency. Genealogy itself imposes its own limits on what we can and cannot do with our time. There are many who choose shuffleboard, cards, fishing, sports, or whatever instead of genealogy. Making those choices is a matter of limits. It is unlikely that you will be become a world class bass fisherman and still have time to be a genealogist. It might be done, but only by moving the limit on to some other area of interest.

Too many times, I have heard people say that they always wanted to investigate their family but had some excuse. Too old, too young, too many children at home, too much work, too little work, too many obligations, on and on and on. All of them are expressing limits.

Next time, looking at real vs. unreal limits.  Yep, this series is going on.

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