Genealogy’s Need for Curators

Over the weekend 1000memories.com shared the results of their recent survey on family history. The survey found that more people than ever are interested in learning about their family history but they (on average) know even less about their genealogy. This week, four of the genealogy community’s top thinkers will share their reactions. Today, Thomas MacEntee shares his thoughts.

How is it that with 1000memories.com’s recent survey that there is an increase in interest about family history yet there is a decrease in the knowledge about finding one’s ancestors? Especially with today’s access to a variety of information on the Internet, this just doesn’t make sense.

Personally, I think the genealogy community – also reflecting the population in general – is suffering from a bad case of “information overload.” Too much information, too much time spent searching and finding what is needed to do genealogy research, too many sites that are outdated or don’t speak to today’s newcomers to the field.  A formula for frustration? Yes. An opportunity for new thinkers? Yes. The solution: more curators in the field of genealogy.

What is a Curator?

A hoarder collects indiscriminately. A curator collects with a vision, with purpose, and discriminates between what adds value to the discussion and to the experience and what doesn’t.

When I mention curator, most people envision a person involved in the arts or a museum, with a specific, expert body of knowledge, who collects such knowledge and periodically produces a show or exhibit with related examples. The recently-opened Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas is a good example.

With so much information available about genealogy, both on the Internet and in archives and repositories, there is a dire need for people to evaluate this information, bring the best of the best to light, generate a conversation about that information, and act as a guide for the genealogy community.

For me, a prime example of a genealogy curator is Dick Eastman, of Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter. For over 15 years, Dick has been evaluating and digesting vast amounts of information about genealogy and technology and presenting, from his viewpoint, those items that are most helpful to the genealogy community.

The Role of the Curator in Genealogy

Before I discuss the curator’s role in genealogy, realize that the concept of a curator might be seen as running counter to the heart of genealogical research. As genealogists, we are taught to gather each and every bit of information about a person – no matter how small or insignificant – and track it, record it and see if it fits into the puzzle. But as genealogists, once we’ve done the collecting, we do act as curators: we determine what makes sense, what doesn’t fit, what proves our theory of how and why our ancestors lived. In essence, genealogists are curators of the people’s lives that are researched.

As a newcomer to genealogy, wouldn’t you just be overwhelmed with the amount of information available for your family history research? And this has always been the case.  Forty years ago, before the Internet, we went to repositories like The Newberry Library in Chicago or the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or even your local library and sought out the reference librarian (who by the way, is a curator). She or he would be responsible for knowing that repository’s collection and giving guidance to the researcher. They would know the best resources for a specific genealogy question. They would know not to mention resources that might not be relevant, that might not answer the query.  They employ the skills of a curator in terms of weeding out what isn’t needed, highlighting the valuable resources, and guiding the researcher to meeting their goals.

Wanted: Genealogy Curators

I consider myself a genealogy curator and employ social media to share my finds. I post articles on Facebook. I start conversations on Twitter about newly found resources. I utilize social bookmarking to add to my collection.

What the genealogy community needs right now is more curators. Many genealogists are coming to this realization and are seeking out experts in topics such as death records, military pensions, and more. And what if you can’t find an expert in a niche area? That is how curators are born – often out of frustration in not being able to find a reliable expert on a topic.

With more and more new genealogists and family historians joining our community each and every day, there is a need for guidance, a need for experts. Do you have a love of cemeteries? Become a curator of cemetery knowledge for the genealogy community.  You can even “drill down” to a subset of knowledge such as tombstone and cemetery restoration, cenotaphs or even a specific cemetery in a specific location.

Not only has the recent interest in genealogy created this need, it has also created opportunity. Right now the genealogy field is like the western expanse which confronted many of our ancestors here in America.  Who will lead us? How will we find our way? Do we have the knowledge we need?

The Trust Factor with Curators

When you allow another person to gather information and present “the best of” or “the most valuable” to you, there is a certain trust factor involved. Realize that as humans we’ll all have our own biases and try as we might, these will influence what we present as curators. One thing to look for is transparency.

Is the curator up-front with his or her relationships with vendors and other influencers? Is the curator channeling you towards certain products or sites because they utilize affiliate sales links? Does the curator have his or her own interests at heart or are they truly trying to provide the best knowledge on a topic to the community?

A trust-worthy relationship with a curator is essential. Otherwise, you might be missing vital information as well as be guided to resources that are of no value to you.

Fly Solo – Curate Your Own Information

What if you can’t find a curator for a specific area of information? Or what if you feel that one or more curators for that subject aren’t covering all the important areas of a subject? Time to be your own curator.

But curate not just for yourself. Share your knowledge with the rest of the community. Why is this important? Well, not only will you be giving back to and become a part of a community known for knowledge sharing, but you’ll also enlist your followers to look out for related information you might have missed.

As a curator, I can’t cover all the bases although I try.  This is where collaboration via the genealogy community comes in.  Very often a friend on Facebook or a follower on Twitter will bring to my attention an article or resource that I might have missed.  Does this diminish my role or my power as a curator? Not really – in today’s online world, experts want to be seen as human – just like you and me. In addition, as a curator I don’t see myself as “owning” information and never would I hoard information for my own use.

A Genealogist is a Curator

In my mind, a curator should collect, distill, analyze, inform, engage, and inspire. The same skills I use as a genealogist: I collect information. I distill information and analyze it. I inform my fellow researchers or family members as to what I’ve found. I engage others with an interest in genealogy and carry the conversation forward. I also hope to inspire others in their own search for their ancestors, and in essence, themselves.

Do you want to participate in the conversation? 1000Memories invites and encourages you to blog and/or tweet about it. Please send the link to mike@1000memories.com or tweet what you think and use the hashtag #familyhistorymonth in the tweet. Next Saturday, 1000memories will publish a summary of all the perspectives and ideas shared. 

© 2011, copyright Thomas MacEntee

When he’s not busy writing blog posts, organizing the 2000+ members of GeneaBloggers (http://www.geneabloggers.com), teaching online genealogy webinars and more, Thomas MacEntee is busy in his role as “genealogy ninja.” Stealth is not easy for a Lane Bryant-sized guy like Thomas but he manages to get the inside track on emerging technologies and vendors as they relate to the genealogy industry. After being laid off from a 25-year career in the tech industry in 2008, Thomas has been able to “repurpose” his skill set for the genealogy community and loves to see other genealogists succeed, whether it is with their own research or building their own careers in the field. You can reach Thomas at hidefgen@gmail.com or visit his site at High-Definition Genealogy – http://www.hidefgen.com.

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