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Genealogists Attack the Library…Poorly

This article’s been sitting in my consideration pile a few weeks as I’ve wondered what to do with it.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum – a nonlending library it should be noted – has decided to stop lending material via ILL after a rare book went missing when the library that borrowed it lost it.

That’s why we can’t have nice things.

The archivists present this as a long needed correction to its policies and necessary to preservation, and I don’t see how any reasonable person could be upset about the policy change.

However, genealogists aren’t always reasonable people. In fact, they’re sometimes quite obsessive.

This blog post is a good example, in which a genealogist tries to answer the question of “why do genealogy?”:

My usual response “Well, why not do genealogy?” gets a few laughs, but really doesn’t stress the importance of why I and millions of others are obsessed with tracing their ancestry and heritage. Do you ever get so wrapped up in the “hunt” that you sometimes lose focus as to why you want to know more about your ancestors? Is “doing genealogy” such a large part of your life that the motivational factors sometimes defy description? Do you have trouble putting into words what researching your roots means to you?

Notice there’s nothing in there resembling an answer to “why.” Getting wrapped up in a hunt so as to lose focus? So large a part of life that motivational factors defy description? He finally admits that he can’t put it into words, which means he can’t answer why, other than addictive personality disorder.

And this: “Could the passion for genealogy actually be similar to one’s own faith, one’s own spiritual compass?”

Well, maybe if you’re Chinese and this has been part of your cultural heritage since Confucius. If you’re a random American, it’s just obsession and addiction that you can’t justify or explain.

And that’s fine. People should be able to do whatever they like that they can’t justify or explain as long as they leave other people be. There’s no inherent difference between this and binge-watching Netflix.

Except in this instance when some of them believe the key preservation mission of a Presidential and historical research library should be ignored so they can find out a tiny amount about yet another of their dead ancestors who weren’t remarkable in the first place or they wouldn’t have to hunt so hard for information.

A researcher who was too impatient to wait her turn for a microfilm machine got “incensed” by the new ILL policy, and “put the word out on her Facebook page, and a stir ensued, with genealogists calling the decision to stop interlibrary loans a travesty and wondering whether someone is trying to profit from material that was once sent to libraries nationwide for free.”

Of course she complained to her brood of genealogists without considering the reasonableness of the policy, because that’s what self-obsessed people do.

And of course a “stir ensued,” the stirring  of a group of self-obsessed people who don’t have an archive to run.

Calling a reasonable change in policy a “travesty” is the kind of thing addictive and obsessive people do, and wondering about profit given the circumstances is what stupid and ignorant people do.

But in addition to the genealogists’ obsession, there was also this amusing comment that wanted to sound so rational and is instead so poorly argued. Ignore the many misspellings except “faultering”; that’s a great word that I’d like to find a use for.

In a time when libraries are faultering [sic] with fewer people actually coming and sitting in a reading room to do research, it is sad to see the ALPL dig their hole deeper. The rationale of its administrators makes some sense if there were no other options, but in this day and age it makes no sense. There are so many newspapers and books that have been digatalized and are searchable. Most are free to web users, some sites have small charges and even those can be accesssed through most public libraries. So ALPL where are you going? Why do we need you to pontificate about your wonderful newspaper library when it is a dinosaur. Most of it can be accessed on line. And if some is not accessible, why don’t you take on digatalization and share the results on line? Why don’t you take the lead and funnel some of your precious and unique material to Google books for scanning and sharing. What are your arguments against such?

It’s so easy to reply from the library’s perspective. If fewer people are coming in, that could be because the library is lending out rare materials through ILL, so stopping that will make people come in. People visit libraries and archives when there are NOT other options.

If the historical newspaper library is a “dinosaur” and “most are free” to web users and nobody needs to use the library collection anyway, what sense does it make to complain about the ILL policy change? Just go online and get every historical newspaper you want for practically free!

And the arguments against Google Books digitization? If you know anything about Google Books, and if you’re going to use it in an argument you should, you’ll know the Google Books Project deals with VERY large libraries, usually major research university libraries, national libraries, and that sort of thing.

Lovely as it I’m sure it is, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum probably doesn’t have enough to justify the process, and digitization isn’t cheap.

And the Google digitization of historical newspapers specifically? The newspapers nobody supposedly needs access to anyway but everyone’s complaining about anyway? Google ended that project in 2011, so, you know, they’re probably not going to restart a dead project for this library.

It’s almost like this random non-professional doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Unlike full access to historical newspapers or reliable information, that’s something you can always get plenty of online, though.



  1. anonymous coward says:

    I do not understand the drive to connect yourself to dead people. However, we provide the resources for people who do.

  2. These same people would be just as butt hurt if they needed that rare book that was lost to do their own research. Then they would be clamoring to stop lending things out via ILL so that they won’t get lost and they could use them.

  3. This is NOT over yet.

  4. Drew Smith says:

    As both a librarian and a genealogist, I find a great deal in this article to be disturbed about. For starters, the first item in the Comment Policy is “Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.” But apparently this policy does not apply to the content of the article itself, as it paints genealogists with a very broad brush, not a positive one. The article has statements like “There’s no inherent difference between this and binge-watching Netflix.”, although I’m not aware of anyone binge-watching Netflix in order to determine what illnesses are most common in a family, what parts of the world one’s ancestors were from (and what historic events they lived through), or what family stories are true and what aren’t. All library patron populations have a small percentage of individuals who are “self-absorbed”, but there’s no evidence that this percentage is any higher among genealogists than among any other group. And while that particular genealogist blogger (one person among many thousands of such bloggers) may be unaware of the status of Google’s digitization, it is still a valid point that a library might want to devote more of its efforts to digitization, which could be accomplished at minimal cost by partnering with FamilySearch (who has such a program for libraries). I’m sure that many of my colleagues in the genealogical librarianship world could have much more to say about this, but I will end by saying that genealogists are human beings who, like almost all of our library patrons, may not be privy to all the processes and costs associated with collection and preservation, but who should never be tarred and feathered with the label of being “self-absorbed”.

  5. I am not clear as to the point of this article other than to lump all genealogists into a group and criticize them. The criticisms are harsh and seemingly based on one or two examples. There is not much to be gained by using a small sampling of a population and lashing out at all members of that particular group.

    Genealogists’ research skills include learning the history and the culture of various countries and time periods in which their ancestors lived. Genealogists learn research methods, note-taking, and methodical application of reasoning and analytical skills.

    This article bites the hand that feeds them, since genealogists are a large part of the population who frequent libraries, archives, and museums. Certainly some genealogists might be demanding, or unreasonable, just as is found in every segment of the population. But the majority are not, and writing an article like this one does nothing to improve relationships.

  6. Unfortunately this post devolved into personal attacks on genealogists and library patrons. The Annoyed Librarian used broad generalizations and armchair diagnoses to make a point, rather than using sound librarianship. We should leave diagnoses of disorders up to people trained in that field. As librarians, we cannot attack or dismiss another’s claim to spiritual beliefs due to someone’s heritage or perceived lack thereof. This post wasn’t so much a post about librarianship, but a post about a large and unwieldy contempt for one’s own patrons. Please retract, lest a genealogist read this and think librarians have lost their professional distance from the personalities of the people we serve.

  7. As a researcher, I have no issues with on-site review and reading of ILL books from special collections.
    I have had this experience in the past. The book comes in, I take it to a table to use, and when done return it to the reference librarian. I can come back later and use it again up to the last day of the due date.
    I appreciate the availability of special collection references and understand my part in the experience. Rules are rules to be obeyed and penalties should be known before an item is ordered.

  8. Jennifer Daugherty says:

    I am an archivist AND I work with many genealogists. Some might even say, I am also a genealogy librarian. Genealogists have been some of the greatest proponents of my collection. (The outcry from genealogists helped bring attention to state of Georgia dismantling their state archives.) I’ve received more monetary donations to my collection and word of mouth publicity from genealogy patrons than I have from any other type. I don’t judge research interests or how important a person’s family was. Sometimes the “least important” documented people tell us more than the most documented. Also, related to genealogy research is the field of public history and social history. I recently presented at the North Carolina Library Association conference on bringing new users to Special Collections through promotion of genealogy. Perhaps the blogger would like a copy of my presentation?

    Again, who are we to say there is no value in personal family research? The blogger obviously doesn’t know anything about the citizen science movement around genetic genealogy. Without genealogists doing family history research, there would be no movement and none of the scientific data that has been collected.

    The issue about the ILL polices of the Lincoln library is a change and people are often upset by change. I’m not sure that is a reason to belittle them. When people become upset, whether they be genealogists or others, that we don’t ILL, I explain the importance of preserving our books for all. I offer alternative such as copying indexes and doing look ups. I don’t look at them with condescension or congratulate myself on knowing more about library processes than a patron.

    • ” I explain the importance of preserving our books for all. I offer alternative such as copying indexes and doing look ups. I don’t look at them with condescension or congratulate myself on knowing more about library processes than a patron.”

      And you’re 100% right to approach it this way.

  9. Barb Selletti says:

    I totally agree with many of the previous observations and comments. As librarians, it’s our job to provide resources and assistance to all of our patrons. Why they wish these resources is none of our business (and leave the psychoanalysis to the professionals please). As both a genealogist and an academic Interlibrary Loan librarian with 20 years experience, I know the importance of having access to critical items from a distance. I cannot answer for the general public’s reasons, but I can answer why I do family research. My husband and I are both adoptees and we love history. We want to know who we are, where we’re from, what brought us to where we are now. People who easily have this information at their fingertips cannot begin to appreciate what kind of struggle that places on a person…The overwhelming need to know. I won’t go on and on about that, but I find the author of this article insulting and condescending (sorry, I have to say this). As librarians we should all be outraged by this attitude towards anyone. Yes, we should be concerned about items (especially irreplaceable items). I don’t have an issue with limited access to protect them. I think it could be a challenge for us in the field to see how we can have the best of both worlds: Access to precious resources and protection of said items.

  10. Tina Beaird says:

    I have used the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library many times and I am 1. A genealogy librarian and 2. a librarian who handles Inter-library loans. I was at the ALPL for a meeting in late November when we were told ILL had stopped, not will be stopping, but HAD stopped. We were not informed ahead of time, which would have been a nice courtesy. While I am frustrated and personally disappointed by how the policy was changed without advanced notice (most libraries alert other ILL departments when a major change is coming, so we can alert our patrons and colleagues) I understand the change. In defense of the blogger’s ‘angry genealogists’ for those patrons who have benefited from the ILL policy in the past, it is a painful adjustment. Many people do not have the luxury to travel to Springfield to access much needed documentation or newspaper verification for a research project, whether genealogical in nature or not. The article does paint genealogists in a rude and unmannerly way. Is it unfair? I say yes.
    We are not to judge why and how a patron need access to materials, our job is to provide the best service we can with all available resources.
    As an aside, we were informed by the librarian at the ALPL that newspapers will be digitized over the next several years so there will be times when portions of that collection will be unavailable. I hope they will have the forethought to let their colleagues know so we can all plan accordingly. Unfortunately for those ‘angry genealogists’ who may be seeking Lincoln books, Civil War atlases or other previously circulating items, they’ll have to visit Springfield for access.

  11. Elaine Jones Hayes says:

    I am a genealogist and genealogy librarian (with an MLS) and I find this article to be offensive and confusing because it does not reflect my experiences at all. Genealogist make up a large group of the clients of archives and rare book rooms and are more knowledgeable about archival standards, libraries and librarianship than the general public as a whole. Most are great defenders of both public and special libraries in the United States. They support the libraries financially with fees (including lots of ILL fees), volunteer activities and with generous donations of money and materials. Most understand library policies and work within them to do their research on a daily basis. Most understand that not all materials are available on demand and an occasional visit to the source, be it archives or courthouse, is sometimes necessary. Every group of people has a few unreasonable members and it appears the author had a bad experience with one and decided to generalize this experience to the entire population of genealogy researchers. This seems to me to be a large error in reasoning.

  12. I am a genealogist of 40 years and a library employee of 30 years, and I find the tone of the article baffling and judgmental. Since when do we as librarians judge the “why” of our members information requests? Indeed, the only time we ask “why” is when we need more information to best answer their needs.
    But if you need a “why” you only need to refer to Marshall Duke’s (of Emory University) work on American families that is touched upon in this article by Bruce Feiler published in the NY Times:

  13. As a librarian and a genealogist, I am saddened and annoyed by this post. I’m saddened that Library Journal saw fit to publish an article that dismisses a vibrant and supportive group of library users as “self-obsessed.” I’m annoyed that Annoyed Librarian didn’t see fit to talk to any genealogy librarians. If she had, she would have realized that communication of the change in the ILL policy would have gone a long way, as Tina Beaird pointed out in her earlier comment.

    I am also saddened and annoyed that AL isn’t keeping up with librarianship. If she were, she would realize that libraries with vibrant online collections are not seeing their in-person numbers decrease. Perhaps she should attend a Librarians Day event, such as the RUSA-sponsored Librarians Day preconferences at ALA Midwinter and ALA Annual, or perhaps the Librarians Day event held before the Federation of Genealogical Societies’ annual conference. Then she would see what genealogy librarianship is about.

    There are many reasons why people do genealogy. It is perhaps the most personal of all research. I have helped adoptees identify their birth parents and make connections with living biological relatives. I have helped people try to find what happened to an ancestor’s sibling — only to discover that they had been institutionalized for what would be treatable now. I’ve helped people who “just” wanted a sense of where they came from.

    I put “just” in quotation marks because it isn’t really “just” where they came from. Genealogy / family history brings a sense of connection — a connection not only with the past, but also with the present. I have read countless letters home from Civil War soldiers. There are two themes: days upon days of utter boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror, and begging the folks back to home write to them. Doesn’t that sound like what our soldiers go through today?

    And yes, there is the element of the thrill of the hunt. Being able to make a discovery because you took the records and were able to piece something together is a special kind of thrill to many researchers.

    I would strongly encourage Annoyed Librarian to talk with some genealogists and the librarians and archivists who serve them, rather than relying on a couple of articles and Facebook discussions.

  14. Lori Thornton says:

    Annoyed Librarian’s column, “Genealogists Attack the Library . . . Poorly,” greatly annoyed me. I work as both a librarian and a genealogist. The column overgeneralizes, presenting genealogists in an unfavorable light. In a former position my job included interlibrary loan. When books were loaned, our library recognized the risks of lending materials. Occasionally books were not returned. We passed replacement charges along to the responsible lending library who in turn passed these charges along to the borrower. The postal service damaged far more books than those lost due to non-return. Our library did not lend materials considered rare or an irreplaceable essential work.

    Professional genealogists speaking to amateurs at national, regional, state, and local conferences and workshops encourage respect of libraries’ rules for using materials. Genealogy Standards published by the Board for Certification of Genealogists (2014) states “Genealogists treat all source materials and images of source materials carefully, with regard for their preservation and future availability.” (Standard 20, “Careful handling,” p. 16) The book also addresses respect for record custodians because of their roles in providing access and preserving records. (Standard 21, “Respect for source caretakers,” p. 16). Annoyed Librarian chose to single out a genealogical book lost. What about the art book, religious work, or musical score not returned? Why single out a user population at all?

    Annoyed Librarian refers to one genealogist’s blog post about his obsession. I think many of us can still articulate why we do genealogy. Many begin for one reason, but that reason gradually shifts over time. My grandmother wanted to learn more about her maternal grandfather. At the time I lived near one of the ten best genealogical facilities in the country. I decided to see if I could locate more information on him. Soon I wanted to know about other ancestors as well. Placing my ancestors in their social and historical context helps me understand the history of our nation and its regions. Individuals may become obsessed with any occupation or hobby, but it does not mean all are. What about the corporate ladder climbing working 80 hours a week, missing his child’s ball games or band performances all the time? Everyone needs to achieve life balance, prioritizing the important and relegating work and hobbies to their proper places. Implying all genealogists lose focus based on one blogger’s opinion shows the author needs to attend a major genealogical conference or institute to become familiar with genealogy as a profession and hobby.

  15. I was a reference librarian for the past 20 years in a public library that got outsourced by Google. By accident I went into genealogy and it saved my career. The days of public librarianship and reference no longer exist, EXCEPT if you’re doing genealogy. All anyone wants to do in a public library today is fill out a job application, apply for some government program, get an online application of some sort, use a 3D printer or read their email.

    Public library reference died 10 years ago.

    Genealogists excepted. They respect libraries, have library cards, make donations, pay taxes, pay for services like ILL and have a core respect for research. Are they obsessed? Sure, but that’s the center of librarianship for the past millenium, working in the Biblotheque Obessionale. It’s not a bad thing, its a make libraries great again thing.

    A blog, supported by a national library association, that makes fun of its customers, needs to do some soul searching. But then let’s be realistic, Library Journal, and ALA have not represented the rank and file core group of librarians as long as I can remember. So for them to have a blogger who is so judgmental and so out of touch, makes complete sense. And it’s a blogger with a pseudonym. Classic.

    So what if the genealogist bug you. Find me a better library user and I’ll eat my retired librarian hat.

  16. Martha Grenzeback says:

    I found this column quite amazing. I am both a genealogy & local history librarian, and an interlibrary loan librarian. I can tell you that “obsessive” researchers are both our bread and butter and a joy to any professional who likes doing real reference work. What librarian isn’t thrilled by a patron who is willing to pay ILL lending fees for that one source that will give him or her the information sought? Who looks for things that can’t be found in a five-minute Google search? Who needs our help to explore the intricacies of the Homestead Act or the Freedmen’s Bureau records? This is real research, and as interesting and important as anyone’s thesis on the effectiveness of incentive schemes for electric vehicles (true topic).
    In addition, I can’t fathom taking one cranky blog post as a “good example” and extrapolating a whole weird portrait of genealogists as a group from it. Does the Annoyed Librarian actually work with the public any more? Read widely?
    Finally, it is certainly not up to us to determine whether someone’s research is “worthy” or not. Do we tell a patron not to use a computer for online games, and privilege the patron who is watching a documentary or googling a cure for cancer? Really, this post goes against every principle I thought we librarians had.

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