Sunday, March 13, 2011

Genealogist, Family Historian, or Both?

Because of a search through old newspapers at Google News Archive yesterday I began to think about what I view as the differences between genealogy and family history.

A genealogist searches for names, dates, and places of family members who came before, and seeks to verify blood relationships between individuals.

A family historian searches for the names, dates, relationships, and places, but is also interested in learning about the historic settings of those family members and their relationships to other people and to their environments.

I don't think a family historian can be a family historian without first being a genealogist: without the information of names, dates, locations there's no setting of time or place. Without the relationships, there is no family. But a person can stop at being a genealogist and have little interest in the activities that took place in the lives of ancestors except as they help document names, dates, and relationships.

I don't know that one is better than the other, but for me, learning about the environment in which my ancestors lived gives a new dimension to them and their lives. It helps me imagine my grandmother ironing her dress and fixing her hair before her visit to the photographer's studio. It lets me imagine leaving the light of day behind to work in a dark and dangerous coal mine. Learning about homemaking in the 1800s helps me put my great-grandmothers in their kitchens and on their farms. And so many other settings help me envision of the lives of my ancestors.

I think I am more of a family historian - after I've found the people, dates, locations, and relationships. I guess I must be both!

How about you? Are you a genealogist, a family historian, or both? After finding the names, what matters most to you as you search out your ancestors?


  1. Yes Nancy, I am both by your terms. And, since starting the Genealogy Blog I have researched more, have learned more and of course it takes more time which I find frustrating because so much living gets in the way of my life I don't post as often as I would like.
    There's that thought "I need to check that site for more information" or I find a decedent that I need to contact, after all they may have more information. Funny, two distant cousins I contacted lately didn't have near the information I have. Thanks for this post, it's a good subject.

  2. Nancy I like your post and it is something that I have been thinking about as well. But, I have also been adding the titles "Family Curator" and "Family Archivist" around as well. Heard those terms a lot at RootsTech and think they add to the definition of what we do, but I don't think that one definition may be sufficient...hmmm more pondering! Thanks for the great blog!

  3. Interesting point, Nancy, but I think once you're hooked on the genealogy side you can't help but want to be a family historian (or curator, or archivist) and gather every photo, letter, family bible, story etc that you can get your hands on. A professional genealogist supplies info from records in the public domain, so maybe the difference is that a family historian has access to private items within the family and can therefore add much more personal detail? I think I wear both hats too :-) Jo

  4. I enjoy your blog and have chosen you to receive the "One Lovely Blog" award. You can find out more at my blog, The Mashburn Collection.

  5. Nancy, you inspired me to finish my blog post about this and I liked your blog to the post. You can read it here:

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  6. What a hoot! I talk about those differences on my blog profile with this definition:

    ge·ne·al·o·gy (jn-l-j, -l-, jn-)
    n. pl. ge·ne·al·o·gies
    1. A record or table of the descent of a person, family, or group from an ancestor or ancestors; a family tree.
    2. Direct descent from an ancestor; lineage or pedigree.
    3. The study or investigation of ancestry and family histories.

  7. I agree completely, Nancy! It would be too hard to stop at genealogy. I need to know more about these people that came before us!

  8. Great posting, I started out at genealogy all the figures and have advanced to wanting to know more about their lives, what was happening around them and how they may have lived.


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