Genealogy: Not JUST a Hobby!

Family History is a significant and growing hobby. An article appearing on the Voice of America web site in 2013 highlighted this fact when they observed:

“Genealogy, in fact, has become a global phenomenon.

A market research firm, Global Industry Analysts, says there are more than 80 million professional and amateur genealogists around the world. It projects the market for genealogy products and services will reach $4.3 billion by 2018, nearly double from last year.

Sounds like there’s a fascination behind tracing one’s ancestry.” [1]

Unfortunately, many decision-makers attempting to address privacy concerns and the growing threat of identity theft regard genealogy as a mere hobby. This perspective contributes to a tendency to resort to “quick fixes” driven by an almost reflexive belief that the best or only way to thwart ID thieves is to close the records that they might have used. This approach carries with it the unstated assumption that vital records (and others) can be closed without harm or costs.

But many genealogical efforts undertaken by both professional and amateur genealogists go well beyond satisfying a hobbyist’s curiosity. RPAC has identified at least six areas of research effort for which delayed access can cause significant harm:

  • Assist Department of Defense in repatriation of remains[2]
  • Assisting medical examiners & coroners re unclaimed persons[3]
  • Forensic Genealogists – locating missing and unknown heirs, estates, trusts, real estate quiet title actions, oil, gas and mineral rights[4]
  • Tracing heritable medical conditions[5]
  • Repatriating stolen art and artifacts[6]
  • Benefits for American Indians, Native Alaskans, and Native Hawaiians[7]

Any delay or denial of access to essential records can threaten the success of any of these efforts. The adverse impact on other legitimate historical users of those records such as medical or economic researchers will be the subject a future RPAC Blog post.

It would, however, be a mistake to minimize either (1) the societal benefits that flow from the efforts of family historians, or (2) the costs of denying or delaying their access to the records needed to document their research.

Author Bruce Feiler provided significant insights into possible benefits in a New York Times column entitled: “The   Family Stories that Bind Us.”[8]

He observed that . . .” the last few years have seen stunning breakthroughs in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, work more effectively.”

Feiler describes in some detail the research of Dr. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University who had been asked to help explore myth and ritual in American families.

“There was a lot of research at the time into the dissipation of the family,” he told me at his home in suburban Atlanta. “But we were more interested in what families could do to counteract those forces.”

Around that time, Dr. Duke’s wife, Sara, a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities, noticed something about her students.

“The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges,” she said.

Her husband was intrigued, and along with a colleague, Robyn Fivush, set out to test her hypothesis. They developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions.

Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness. . . .

Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.[9]  

His entire column is well worth reading as Feiler describes a parental resource and valuable approaches we all could use as we attempt to strengthen our families. He is offering insights that most of us would not normally fully appreciate the value of until becoming grandparents.

While the Genealogical Community is prepared to be supportive of measures that actually protect us from identity theft, our analysis of numerous proposals to close records thieves might have used concludes that that is rarely the actual effect of closure. The unintended consequences of closure typically have a significant adverse impact on legitimate historical users while barely inconveniencing possible identity thieves.   In our experience, most thieves are far more likely to exploit the products of a breach of a large commercial data base than to abuse vital records.

We assert that records closure should be a last resort rather than be considered the best or only approach to the prevention of identity theft. Further, we welcome a substantive dialogue between the genealogical and vital records communities in an effort to strike a proper balance between developing effective preventative measures and ensuring appropriate access.

Updated:  Author Bruce Feiler further developed the theme of his column  in his keynote address at the 2016 RootsTech Conference:  RootsTech 2016 | Bruce Feiler (Keynote) – YouTube

Posted by Fred Moss  [Updated 27 March 2019]

Updated by Fred Moss  Citro Health Research



[1] ( :accessed 9 Mar 2019).

[2] ( :accessed 2 Feb 2023).

 DPAA Agency Video – YouTube 


[3] ( :accessed 9 Mar 2019).


[4] ( : accessed 9 Mar 2019).


[5] The U.S. Surgeon General’s Family History Initiative — The presentation which launched this initiative is found here:  Family-Health-History-Presentation-002


[6] ( : accessed 9 Mar 2019).


[7] ( : accessed 9 Mar 2019).

( : accessed 9 Mar 2019).


[8] ( : accessed 9 Mar 2019).

[9] Ibid.

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Legal Advisor to Federation of Genealogical Societies; Former Associate Dean, Texas Wesleyan University School of Law; Colonel (retired), JAGC, USA

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