Genealogy: Why family research?

Genealogy: Why family research?

What are your reasons for pursuing your ancestors across time and space? What motivates you to gather information and preserve it for the future?

Nearly 1,400 individuals responded to a study of genealogists and family historians as a sociology professor undertook a survey of the membership of the Ontario (Canada) Genealogy Society.

Although Professor Ronald D. Lambert – of the University of Waterloo – undertook this study in 1994, its results, I believe, are just as relevant today as they were then.

In addition to questions on age, sex, national origins, marital status, employment, income, religious affiliation and other details, he asked two questions about researchers’ reasons for doing genealogy and what value they found in that pursuit.

One question sought to rank 25 reasons we pursue genealogy. Respondents marked the statements as important, fairly important or personally irrelevant.

The three reasons considered most important by respondents:

  • 79%: “To come to know my ancestors as people.”
  • 73%: “For posterity (for children, grandchildren, nephews or nieces).
  • 80%: “To learn about my roots, about who I am).”

The next five most important reasons:

  • 55%: “To restore forgotten ancestors to the family’s memory”
  • 46%: “Because one likes to solve puzzles.”
  • 36%: “To check a family story.”
  • 35%: “Because one enjoys being the family historian.”
  • 32%: As a way to study history.”

Lambert writes:

“Beyond the past and the future, there is the family historian role itself, performed and enjoyed in the present and among the living. It is this role which ties together many of the reasons for doing genealogy.”

He notes the importance of solving puzzles, enjoying the role of family historian and the feeling of competence associated with performing the role.

The role of family historian encompasses learning new skills, the research process, the wonder of discovery, learning about history and geography, writing family histories, serving as the family expert, sharing knowledge and helping others, attending genealogy conferences, creating sources for others, meeting long lost relatives, travelling to ancestral locations and many more.  

Lambert says that genealogy and family history deeply engaged the respondents in terms of personal identity, self-esteem and motivation. These are part of the “mysterious appeal” that this research has for those who are retired or “whose work life can accommodate its many seductions.”

While some critics of genealogy and family history say that this pursuit is followed only by those who are looking to attach themselves in some way to famous ancestors, Lambert found that only 6% of respondents said that finding a famous ancestor was important.

The genealogy world has been divided in the terminology of genealogy and family history. Some claim that genealogists are only interested in collecting names, dates and documents proving those various records, while family historians tell the stories of their ancestors. Personally, I believe that without the constructive framework of those names and dates, there is nothing to hang those stories on.

So what did Lambert’s study indicate? Some respondents said they were collectors, but it was ancestors – not statistics – that they collected. One survey respondent wrote:

We are all collectors of something – coins, stamps, shells, buttons, heirloom snuff boxes or pictures. Genealogists collect ancestors! We find them in the most interesting places and times[, a]s we search back through generations of ancestors to discover their station in life, their trials, their losses, their triumphs and their loves. We see these people as actual persons not just names on paper. … As genealogists we are collectors of relatives but also of each letter and piece of paper with dates, names, places, connections and events which in turn leads us to collecting books about people, about places at different times and in turn may mean we are collected because of letters we have written, indexes we have compiled and histories we have written.”

Follow these links to read the four articles on the study: Part I reveals who genealogists are. Part Two studies what motivates people to pursue family history. Part Three examines factors of the researcher’s interest in genealogy, while Part IV reveals what family historians indicated was the scope of their active research, investment, practices, accomplishments and identities. Read the comments by participants in each part.

What do you think?

Why do you pursue your ancestors? What’s your motivation? What’s your reaction to a that respondent’s description of “collecting ancestors” ?

We are really interested in what you think, so please comment below. We look forward to reading your opinions.


The email address is kept private and will not be shown

  • Scott Phillips

    November 6, 2011

    I have always been blessed to live in an inter-generational home. As a child this had a strong impact on me and connected me with the older generations of my family. I loved their stories, their language and accents. I always was asking questions and wanting to learn about their lives and my extended family.

    Now as a genealogist, I can learn far more to augment those stories and histories that I heard as a boy. I can go farther back in time and learn what forces forged my ancestors and, in my case, brought them to the shores of the States.

    I also love how I understand myself better as a result of my genealogical studies. A side benefit, but one that grows stronger each day is that this heritage now will be available to my children’s children’s children (apologies to The Moody Blues).

  • Anita Greaves

    November 6, 2011

    I began my family tree after hearing stories of my mams family who lived in South Shields.Ive found out many things good and bad and its been a wonderful journey of discovery.Ive also met relations I never would have met.

  • Jannie Berthou Hedetoft

    November 7, 2011

    Jeg har længe ønsket at nedskrive min families aner, men har ikke haft tid før nu. Det at kunne lægge strenge ud til fortid og nutid er fantastisk. Jeg ved gennem fortællinger fra de ældre i min familie at der ligger fantastiske fortællinger og venter på at komme frem. Jeg håber at jeg kan være medvirkende til dette blandt andet for mine efterkommer, mine børn og andre der måtte finde det spændende at se sin lille familie blive omfangsrig.

  • Schelly Talalay Dardashti

    November 8, 2011

    For the benefit of our English-only readers, here is a translation of Jannie’s comment above:

    I have for the longest time wanted to write down my family’s ancestry, but I have not have had time until now. It’s fantastic to be able to put the links from the past together with those for the future. I know through stories from the seniors in my family that there are amazing stories waiting to come out. I hope I can participate in this, for my children and for the next generation’s sake and that they will find it interesting to see their family tree grow.

  • Del Muise

    November 14, 2011

    Hi: I am a co-investigator of a project designed to update Ronald Lambert’s study of Ontario Genealogists. His work was pathbreaking and he has written extensively about the survey results in the sociological literature. It is great that you are bringing it forward again. The new survey is an on-line one aimed at all Canadian oriented genealogists. It has been active for the past three months and will remain available on-line for another two weeks, when it will be closed to permit us to undertake some analysis.
    Over two thousand genealogists have already undertaken the survey and we are always anxious to have more do so. We are asking questions about why people have begun to undertake genealogy; but as well have a number of other open-ended questions that allow respondents to discuss their ongoing practice as well as the imprtance of genealogy in their lives.
    The survey, which is being conducted by myeslf and a colleague, Leighann Neilson, at Carleton University is available at: ; we are also blogging about the survey as we go along and aare currently preparing a series looking at the responses to the open-ended questions. The blog is available at:

    • Schelly

      November 15, 2011

      Hi, Del

      thank you for informing our readers about the current survey. I encourage our readers to participate!
      with best wishes