Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Rational Response to Richard Conniff Article

Remember back in late June when the Richard Conniff article ("Why Genealogy is Bunk" on the cover, and "The Family Tree, Pruned" on page 90) in Smithsonian Magazine roiled the placid genealogy waters? I posted articles here (commenting on it, and embarrassing myself in the process) and here (responding to his statements in several hundred words - too prolix!).

The September 2007 issue of Smithsonian Magazine is on the library rack, and I checked for Letters to the Editor about the article. There were four. The best, and most succinct, was written by Elizabeth Shown Mills, and it reads:

"As a genealogist, I have spent 30 years arguing the value of family history as a scholarly discipline, a profession, an adjunct to medicine and law and a personal exploration of past societies. What Richard Conniff mocks and excoriates in his essay ("The Family Tree, Pruned") is not genealogy. It is "family tree climbing" of the basest ilk and posturing by nongenealogists who have not bothered to learn the difference between fanciful claims and reliable research.

"Elizabeth Shown Mills, Samford University Institute of Genealogy & Historical Research, Birmingham, Alabama."

Ouch. Nice job. Succinct. Biting. True! My compliments to the writer, who is one of the very best at what she does. And we can see why - the letter had to be short to be published, but biting to make the points.

We discussed a while ago the difference between "Genealogist" and "Family Historian" - my post was here. Ms. Mills has added another term that we didn't real discuss - the "Family Tree Climber." [Maybe some bloggers did cover it, and I don't recall.]

It strikes me that most of us start out as "family tree climbers" grabbing every branch and leaf on our ancestral tree to find names of relatives. Then most of us figure out that we'd better write down our sources and organize our collection of names, relationships, dates and places, and we gradually become "genealogists." This then stimulates our desire to find out more about these people and the times they lived in, and we become "family historians." Throughout this process we continually learn more about history, sociology, law, research techniques, etc. and move from a casual tree climber to an addicted family history researcher.

I am still, in many ways, a "Family Tree Climber." I enjoy the hunt for new ancestors, and revel in their accomplishments (or notable actions), to the extent that I brag about my more famous (or infamous) ancestral forebears. Most of us do. But I am also a Genealogist and a Family Historian because I go beyond the "name search" to flesh out my ancestor's life as best I can from reputable sources.

1 comment:

footnoteMaven said...


Hadn't even thought to check for letters in response to Conniff's article.

Thanks for reminding us and for treating us to the best of the best.

Now who's ears are burning Mr. Conniff?