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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Genealogists Attack the AL…Poorly

It’s always fun when a post makes it out into the world, gets picked up by the obsessives of a subculture, and the comments and inbox start filling up with people who are ready to set me straight on whatever it was I didn’t write. These people apparently patrol the internet looking for things to be angry about because they have nothing better to do with their lives.

In my last post, I defended a library’s policy against irrational attacks by two genealogists. I say that because one genealogist commenter claimed “I am not clear as to the point of this article other than to lump all genealogists into a group and criticize them.”

That’s the point. I thought it was pretty clear. Although I will today, I wasn’t even talking about genealogy as such or genealogists as a group. Couldn’t care less about them, but if they want an opinion, I’ll manufacture one.

Again from her: “The criticisms are harsh and seemingly based on one or two examples.” Indeed, the criticism was OF one or two examples, in specific detail. 

That commenter wasn’t interested in library policy so much as extolling the virtues of genealogists, because, as I’ve now discovered, they’re certainly full of themselves, even if they can’t always read very well.

I wrote this: “However, genealogists aren’t always reasonable people. In fact, they’re sometimes quite obsessive.”

Those are carefully qualified statements about a small subset of a group, statements that I supported with an example of an unreasonable, obsessive genealogist. It seems a lot of genealogists identified with that person and got all mad.

That somehow became “lumping everyone together,” even though I was specifically unlumping. Another commenter claimed I made a “broad generalization.”

No, a “broad generalization” would have been: Genealogists are irrational and obsessive.

What was fascinating about some of the responses was the defensiveness based on a particular pattern of reading. The pattern of reading seemed to go like this:

My statement: Some genealogists are obsessive and irrational. Here is an example

Interpretation: All genealogists are obsessive and irrational.

Response to statement (to be angrily posted to the internet or emailed in quickly deleted irrational rants): Genealogists aren’t obsessive and irrational, none of them, and what’s more they’re all fine and talented people. Genealogy is an inherently important activity that everyone should engage in, and not at all a hobby some people enjoy and others find silly.

True to the spirit of the discussion, I’m piecing that “response” together from fragments of several responses and my imagination instead of bothering carefully with what any individual person had to say. 

Some of the genealogists apparently identified with the blogger I made fun of, didn’t like the way they were seen through the eyes of others, and wanted to claw those eyes out. 

Some people just can’t read carefully, and took criticism of a part of a group, expanded that to an implied criticism of an entire group, and then attacked that criticism I never made because it was easier than attacking the actual criticism. Straw man fallacy.

I also suspect that comparing genealogy research to binge-watching Netflix also offended people, even though I threw that it to defend the obsessive genealogists.

There was a cogent response from a librarian that could be read as taking me to task on that one, telling me about how important genealogy is to “the field of public history and social history” and “the citizen science movement around genetic genealogy.” That was the best defense of genealogical research as a benefit to anyone other than the researcher, and it’s a great point. That was the last of the great points. 

Another person claiming to be a librarian and a genealogist decided to leave his or her librarian hat at home and left a less cogent critique by saying, “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.”

A librarian would consider everyone’s information needs equally and find the desires behind them irrelevent and objectively equal.

Since I didn’t talk generally about libraries and genealogy, this is a start. 

Genealogy is a hobby. Hobbies are activities we pursue to pass our time. They aren’t “practical” activities, and people aren’t getting paid for them. It’s worth pursuing for its own sake because it bring the genealogists pleasure and satisfaction.

Also, from the perspective of most Netflix-bingers, Netflix binging is a hobby that also brings the bingers pleasure and satisfaction.

Listening to music, reading, playing sports and games, hiking and camping, cooking, all more hobbies.

From the perspective of others who don’t engage in the hobby, hobbies can range from indifferent to silly to a complete waste of time. There’s no objective standard to prove one is superior to the other.

You might believe that tracing your family ancestry is of vast importance; I think if your ancestors were worth remembering, you wouldn’t have to work so hard to do it.

Okay, that’s it. What are probably the vast majority of genealogists – busy, reasonable people surely – shouldn’t have a problem with that, but the small subset of obsessive and defensive genealogists (ODGs) might.

Why? I suspect, based on dealing with similar groups over the years, is that ODGs resent having their activity compared to the paltry activities of others. They don’t just want respect, they want admiration. They want OTHER people to think what they do is important as well, like the librarian and genealogist who believes that why someone is researching their own ancestors is more important than why someone is binging their own Netflix. 

Binge-watching Netflix doesn’t tell you “what parts of the world one’s ancestors were from (and what historic events they lived through),” but that doesn’t mean it’s inferior, and finding out about your ancestors doesn’t make you superior. In some countries it’s a sign of superiority to not have to track down your own ancestors because others do it for you.

Finding out about your ancestors might satisfy your particular desires, but your desires aren’t any more important than anyone else’s. Filling in your family tree doesn’t solve any important problems in the world; it just gives you something to do.

That’s what’s so hard to swallow, I suspect.

It’s not just a personal opinion; that’s the foundation that libraries are built on, although you wouldn’t know it from the responses from people claiming to be both librarians and genealogists.

We talk about information “needs,” but that’s just a polite pretense. Almost nobody “needs” the information they get from libraries.

Maybe we should talk about information desires. People desire all kinds of information, and libraries help fulfill as many of those desires as they can, based on circumstances and the competing desires of others.

Genealogists want to use libraries? Great! People looking for a brainless novel to read on the beach during vacation? Fine! Want computer access to you can catch up with your Facebook friends? Excellent! Finally going to start reading War and Peace for the fifth time? Good luck this time!

We can help you all. Every information need is considered equal because they’re objectively equally unimportant, if subjectively of varying importances. 

If you want to be considered a person with a hobby that should be supported by the library to the extent possible given competing interests, great. If you want special consideration, admiration, and appreciation because you believe your desires are more important than everyone else’s, get over yourselves.



  1. Drew Smith says:

    “We talk about information ‘needs,’ but that’s just a polite pretense. Almost nobody ‘needs’ the information they get from libraries.” In that case, perhaps we should make city and county governments, and college and university presidents aware of this fact. After all, it’s not like utilities and trash pick-up and police and fire protection, which residents do need. It’s not like faculty and classrooms and tutoring, which students do need. I’m quite certain that, learning that libraries are needed by “almost nobody”, those in charge of the budgets would be more than happy to use the dollars spent on them for other, more needful purposes.

    • anonymous coward says:

      They don’t NEED them in the same way they don’t NEED parks, or sports facilities, or an online portal for bill pay. Not needing them doesn’t mean there isn’t a mandate for them.

  2. “They don’t just want respect, they want admiration.”

    I agree with you about this statement. However, the more people want admirations from others, the more empty they will feel in the future. Because the real truth is people will actually get nothing when others admired them.

  3. Having worked as a librarian, I can understand a librarian’s frustration sometimes with genealogists who come in with unrealistic questions or exptectations. But they are hardly the majority of researchers that I have encountered. In addition, I must correct a statement from the author that is demonstrably false in the above posting: “They aren’t “practical” activities, and people aren’t getting paid for them.”

    I have made my living as a professional genealogist for more than 25 years (including working for several years as a librarian). I am one of countless people in the US and around the world who do so. Yes, the majority of genealogists are hobbyists, but even many of them work to the same scholarly standards as historians. As to whether or not our work has any practical use, here, too, the author falls short of accuracy. Among just some of the work done by both professional and hobbyist genealogists:

    * Working with the U.S. Armed Forced to identify living family members of those who died overseas so their bodies can be identified and repatriated.
    * Working with coroners’ offices to identify the bodies of unknown individuals so families can be informed.
    * Work with attorneys to identify heirs of intestate individuals so estates are not escheated to states.
    * Work with doctors and medical researchers to identify genetic trends in diseases to develop diagnostic tools and cures for everyone from infants to the elderly.

    The list could go on, but I see no need to belabor the point. I daresay that most people would have a difficult time justifying the above as “not practical.”

  4. Barbara Snow says:

    I’m now retired but was a librarian at a major academic library for almost 40 years, many of them in administration. ILL was one of my responsibilities and I oversaw the changes in ILL once digital copy became available.
    I’ve also been a genealogist for about 40 years.
    I didn’t comment on the original post, but here are my thoughts:
    1. You are correct that the library has a right and responsibility to administer ILL as appropriate to meet the mission of the library.
    2. The public — no matter what their research focus — does not always understand the ins and outs of library administration and when they are upset they don’t express themselves in librarian language, or for that matter in professional language.
    3. But librarians should be able to explain professional the rationale behind any policy. “One book was lost” is not a rationale. And it is not necessary to characterize the complainer or the group represented by that complaint, even if that person made some offending statements.
    4. Both librarians involved in the participating transaction were remiss.
    The borrowing library should have caught the fact that it was available electronically for $5.00 and steered the patron to that option rather than send the loan request out in the first place.
    The librarian at the lending library should have caught the fact that it was available electronically for less than the cost of an ILL transaction and offered that alternative.
    5. No ILL policy should assume that a book would not get lost. The loan policy should have spoken to that years ago.
    6. Any library that has “in library use ONLY” has an obligation to make that clear. We did it with wrappers around the book. Assuming the lending library met this obligation, the librarian at the borrowing library was at fault for not honoring the “in library use only” provision and her library should pay for the book. The librarian at the lending library should contact that librarian and make arrangements.
    In short — the failure was the fault of the librarians and a review of procedures was in order before jumping to a blanket policy change.

  5. To me it’s the age old issue of the difficulty in trying to be all things to all people or please all people. Genealogists are just one of the many groups who use the library that are jockeying to be pleased like tutoring groups, kids and teens, the homeless, gamers, crafters, etc. There’s always going to be a policy that one of the library user groups doesn’t like. You almost feel like saying “Oh, you don’t like this policy? Take a number and get in line because there’s a whole lot of other people with complaints ahead of you.” It will blow over eventually like most of these things do.

    • Come to think of that; crafters may be creative, but crafting is very bad for libraries.

    • Crafting is a very bad idea for libraries. Sorry for the typo. If they don’t like policies, then that’s too f***ing bad for them. That’s why I don’t use computers or play games much today.

  6. I was with you 100% when I read this article. Then I read your original article.

    “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.”

    That’s not making a statement about the problematic behavior of some genealogists. That’s making a generalization and dismissing a hobby as useless and addictive. By this logic, aren’t ALL hobbies useless and addictive?

    Furthermore, people have many reasons for doing genealogy. Maybe you should familiarize yourself with them in order to have a more understanding approach next time.

  7. “Genealogy is a hobby. Hobbies are activities we pursue to pass our time. They aren’t “practical” activities, and people aren’t getting paid for them.”

    That’s news to the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy, whose members work on cases such as:
    * Identification and location of next of kin or DNA donors in matters involving unclaimed decedents or POW/MIA personnel repatriation.
    * Probate and estate cases – known heirs, unknown heirs, missing heirs. / Heirs and beneficiaries of trust and insurance accounts.
    * Land issues involving title, adverse possession, rights of way, lis pendens, or muniment of title. / Oil, gas, and mineral royalties.
    More examples at

    All genealogists, “getting paid” and volunteer, use the same types of records and resources. Any genealogist, hobbyist or paid professional, may not be working on their own related-by-blood-or-marriage family.

    Yeah, some people can be unreasonable when a formerly-available service is stopped with no advanced notice. But some persons are unreasonable when they castigate members of their service community in an online forum which those “offenders” are not likely to read on any regular basis.

  8. For me, genealogy is a spiritual practice, as it was with my mother and her mother. I am not Chinese, nor do I have an “addictive personality.” Your ignorance on this topic suggests there is a lot about American folkways you know nothing about.

  9. Deborah Glantz Hanna says:

    I once thought I would get my MLS but then realized that being trained to be a librarian was just being trained to be a glorified clerk. I could do that on my own..and the information was the important part, not how to catalog it…..synthesizing truths from the information was the important part…whether it be genealogical/scientific or whatever…bringing life from the past out…making new connections
    and reading, reading and reading…obsessive behavior gets us to the top of creativity…and discovery…in all fields….some librarians are just too in the box….but I respect them for what they are. At least they safeguard the place where the information is kept.

  10. AL, if you think the response to your previous blog post constituted an “attack”, then you are either adorably naive or have very thin skin.

  11. Nathan Pease says:

    I realize that the name of this blog contains the word “annoyed”, so I shouldn’t be surprised by its temperament.
    But I must confess that I don’t agree with your explication of your last blog post. You say that you “defended a library’s policy against irrational attacks by two genealogists”. As far as I could tell, that last column was a lengthy, untoward tirade against genealogists. It’s my feeling that your post does not even meet the minimum requirements of the “Comment Policy” on this page: “Be respectful”.
    As someone who probably hasn’t been in the library business long enough to get “annoyed” and who works with genealogists every day, I may be excused from fathoming your intense annoyance of genealogists. But I don’t believe that your last blog was about “irrational attacks”, at least not those from genealogists.

  12. If I could throw my two cents in. Having worked at a law/genealogy/research library for several years that has, among other things, early 17th & 18th century Native American records, I can see the validity of both points. However, seeing how some of the aforementioned documents have “disappeared” over the years, only to “reappear” elsewhere, I’m for this library’s particular new policy. These kind of libraries are noted for having some of their valuable stuff “disappear” never to be seen/used again by the general public, so this makes sense.

    Granted, the library could have eased it in so as to not to hurt all of those fragile egos researchers seem to possess. But honestly, guv’ments are notorious for springing new rules on people with little or no warning. Stop getting your panties in a bunch over something you can’t control and instead wake up to the realization that not every single scrap of bound paper should be made available via ILL for you to peruse in an uncontrolled environment.

    Some items simply need to be viewed in person if you can’t get access to a digital or microfilm version.

  13. AL said: “You might believe that tracing your family ancestry is of vast importance; I think if your ancestors were worth remembering, you wouldn’t have to work so hard to do it.”

    Maybe the ancestors who could have passed down my family history were murdered in the Holocaust. Maybe the ancestors who could have passed down my family history were stolen from their home and sold as property on another continent. It’s pretty presumptuous of you to assume that something worth remembering is easy to remember.

  14. check out microhistory…principles and practices..U. Iceland….Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson….an end point and conceptual framework for genealogists….a reason for the research. Ask Gates if his genealogy work is a hobby…I’m sure he gets paid for it..and all those folks on TV…at the the NEHGS and more….all professionals. There is a reason beyond finding your family and personal satisfaction. check out the microhistory network… reason to take sides…every level is important to ferrett out bits of information that might be meaningful….modern drugs have muted obsessive complusive behavior and that’s a shame

  15. Nell Tousaint says:

    Librarians are great — or at least I have been fortunate enough to encounter some really wonderful ones in my information seeking adventures.

    As for my “hobby” — it reunited 3 different individuals with their birth families. Guess that’s something you didn’t expect. Oh! Here is another … I had a total of 67 clients and made six figures last year.

    Bet your really annoyed now.

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