Saturday, January 5, 2008

Wanted Dead, But Not Live (for the most part)

At what point did it become acceptable to pass off live people-finding search services as "genealogy" and "family tree" resources? I'm thinking it is mostly an Internet phenomenon. I'm talking about web sites on which you look for living people through searches in databases with things like phone books, reverse phone directories, address directories, directories of names of living people, criminal background checks, court records, utility records, property records, etc.

Yes, genealogists and family historians with any level of experience or expertise enjoy meeting cousins and finding long-lost family members to help fill out branches on the family tree. Especially when they are also interested in genealogy and can shed light on an ancestor. But, searching for live people isn't the main purpose or objective in family history, is it? Aren't we looking backward, generation by generation, to figure out who and where we came from? Or am I alone in thinking that is why we are all in this obsessed hobby?

A quick look at a dictionary for definitions of the word genealogy:
  1. a record or account of the ancestry and descent of a person, family, group, etc.; a record or table of the descent of a person, family, or group from an ancestor or ancestors; a family tree.
  2. the study of family ancestries and histories; the study or investigation of ancestry and family histories.
  3. descent from an original form or progenitor; lineage; ancestry; direct descent from an ancestor; lineage or pedigree.

That has always been my view of genealogy. I do document the cousins and their children as I find them, but I don't go actively searching them in online resources. It is hard enough to find time (and money) to look for the dead ancestors, much less the thousands of live cousins spread around the world.

I started this thread tonight after receiving a new link submission from a site labeled as genealogy and described this way: "Find help for building your family tree and finding lost ancestors." However, it only had a search form and links that point to databases for finding living people, such as those I described in my first paragraph above. This isn't the first time I've received such link submissions. And it isn't the first time I've wondered about these types of sites. Why do the owners and/or visitors of these sites consider this genealogy? I worry that people who are new to genealogy will waste their time, money, and energy on sites like these before they learn where to really begin with their research. I worry that the descriptions on sites like this mislead people. It bothers me. I work hard to help people get pointed in the right directions in their research. I don't ever want to lead them astray with misleading links.

All that said, I do have a Finding People category on Cyndi's List where I link to individual phone books, people-finding services, etc. for those people who are looking for a living cousin. But that is only 191 links out of more than 260,000 total. And the links point to web sites that are all titled and labeled for what they are and what they do. None of them claim to be genealogy when they aren't.


Anonymous said...

I differ on this subject (for the most part). I have used these services to find four living cousins, who were totally lost to me when my mother died in 1978. I do not think genealogy stops with ancestors, it never stops, it goes on and on and on. Today's living relatives will be tomorrow's ancestors.

I have used all of genealogy's records in order to find the above mentioned cousins; death records, census records, and a will for the girls who married and I didn't know their husband's names. But, I still would not have found their states of residence, addresses, and phone numbers without the help of sites like "People Finders".

I am really grateful that these sites exist because I am really enjoying getting to know my cousins all over again. The pictures and stories which they have contributed to the family tree are great; but, they, themselves are even greater!

One would think that you should never lose contact with your first cousins. How could this happen? Well, my mom had all of the addresses and telephone numbers in her head. When she died, they went to the grave with her. So, you never know when something like this might happen to you.

When I found my cousin, Paul, I found out that one of his sisters had become lost to him when he was in the service. He is in his 70s and imagined that she was dead.
Last Valentine's day, I was able to find her and put the two of them back in touch with each other. She was alive and living in California.


Hugh W said...

I do Family History not genealogy - I believe pedigree is for domestic animals not humans.

All the people finder services are too expensive for my shoe-string budget, but by sharing my data distant cousins regularly find me and give me additions and corrections to my trees.

I basically work broadly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Born in 1936 I knew people alive in 1881 who talked of their parents and with my love of steam age technolgy and traditoonal craftmanship I can picture older life styles.

For me genealogy is an obsolete word to do with the inheritance of titles and land as in the heraldic visitations.

If my descendants want to go as far back as possible they will have a good starting point in my work.

Anonymous said...

When I found my g-g grandparents posted on line I became interested in genealogy. I wondered who had put them out there. When I got into it, it was partly because I wanted to update the six generations that have occured since then. I love all of it living and dead.

Anonymous said...

T agree with you. You are "dead on" in your assessment.

Anonymous said...

Right on, Cyndi.

Unknown said...

Cyndi, I’m sure many will agree with you. However, “genealogical research” for many of us would be better termed, “family history research.” DNA testing has revealed (among other things) that somewhere around fifteen percent of births in the past were non-paternal events. This does indeed cast a new light upon the validity of the long lineages that many have spent years “proving.” As many of us get older, ancestry more than three or four generations back only seems relevant when it uncovers fascinating stories or insights into history, or for some of us when it presents a tangled puzzle that grabs our fancy and challenges our skills. We tend to value very much locating someone who can add to the family lore or provide the missing photographs that did not come down our line, let alone provide for us the clue we were hoping for. And so we search for cousins, even when it occasionally costs money. This is only my (albeit aging) opinion. I do note, however, that of the several hundred queries I have dealt with this past year for the California Genealogical Society, close to half have revolved around either unidentified grandparents or missing first or second cousins. Sometimes public records which are not easily accessed are the only resource that will lead us to these people.

Nancy Peterson

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that living-people-finder mechanisms should not be labeled "genealogy" mechanisms. However, there are times when looking for living people is necessary to advance genealogical research; and people-finder mechanisms should not be dismissed as being not essential to genealogical research.

As an example: For Jewish and other researchers whose families may have been torn apart by the Holocaust or other devastating events, finding living persons who may be related is often the only way to find information on the history of the family, what happened to family members 60+ years ago, and who/where they might have been before that time. If I had not found "probable" living cousins with whom I have collaborated over 12 years, we would not have established the links (some going back earlier than 1850) showing that we are indeed related. Without that approach, our large family tree would not exist today.

In many cases, historical circumstances dictate what mechanisms one must use ... whatever the mechanisms are called ... in successfully researching a family's history.

(... and we are still trying to link up some very probably branches for which the links exist somewhere in the early 1800s ... :-)

Bobbo Ben Bobba said...

I agree with you 100%, however, I must admit that I have used this service to my advantage and found a daughter that I had "lost" 50 years earlier. So, I guess there is some genealogy use.

Cyndi Ingle said...

Hi Cyndi,

This type of search engine can be helpful now that so many people are using DNA testing to prove/disprove their genealogical research, and presently living direct line family members are needed for that testing. When used for this purpose, wouldn't it be considered associated with genealogy?


Cyndi Ingle said...

Hello Cyndi,

Read your new blog entry and 100% agree with you. If you really are asking the question of Why... it's a simple matter of Dollars & Greed... in the form of truth in advertising (specifically the lack of).

As a marketing executive, I have worked on SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and have done keyword studies for my own website,, and Genealogy is one of the highest of ALL ranked keywords that get a click-through response even when the word has absolutely nothing to do with the actual content it leads to ... and so anyone who has the most distant of relationship to anything they mistakenly think genealogy is or could be about will use & abuse the keyword because they know it gets click-through results. As I'm sure you have found on those bad sites, they are covered in blinking banners and ads and requests to join and pay to use them.

Those who are actually genealogists, amateur or otherwise, just have to sift through the muck that's out there to find those sites of value... like your own, and trust what they find there instead of doing careless, general and useless searches that go nowhere. That's why my site has links to yours and others that I personally have used and know to be of value to help researchers find the good ones.

Also -- so sorry to hear of all your computer troubles. The computer has become such an absolute necessity and yet sometimes the biggest source of aggravation at the same time. Technology is wonderful... when it works.

Carolyn Rutherford
Milwaukee, Wisconsin USA

Anonymous said...

I told my uncle ( 80+)that I would try to locate a branch of his father's family who somehow had "vanished" from his life. Many years , dollars, research hours later, I found them in Michigan and NJ and PA, but living in MA made it difficult. They were probably happier at being "found" than I was at finding them. It has been a very interesting time for me, seeing cousins who resemble your relatives and observing traits in them that mimic your own family's. Obtaining pictures of relatives from the past was probably the biggest joy outside of fulfilling my uncle's wish to find these relatives.
The trips to get reaquainted have begun, one 82 year old cousin drove from Michigan to Massachusetts to meet the east coast family.
I highly recommend searching for not just your ancestors but for the relatives who have somehow become disconnected.
I have just started a new search on my husband's side and find myself getting discouraged , mostly with the attitude of the city halls and church rectories where records are kept. If they only knew how happy this find of missing relatives made so many elderly relatives.
Mary D.

Francis Lalonde said...

I know the feeling. Every once in awhile I check for it's 'genealogy' software, and probably one-third (a guess) of the items are person-finding services. Granted, I may actually use one of those soon, since I'm trying to track down a half-sister. Still, I get annoyed at how broad the genealogy label can get. Anyways, that's just my 2 cents worth.

Anonymous said...


Whether it's called "genealogy" or "family history research", the bottom line is that we want to know where we come from, who are family members are as people. In that sense, I find both the words "history" as well as "ancestry" too narrow because they limit us to thinking it's just about the past. If we can all spend as much time learning about and recording information about our living relatives as we do about ones who've passed, then future generations will not be scavenging for information about us. While we suffer from information scarcity about past generations, I worry that the information overload about those of us living today would make it just as difficult for future generations to get to know us as people.