Genealogy as Pastime and Profession: comments upon reading

Jacobus bookI have been doing research in vintage genealogy journals and have run across several articles by Donald Lines Jacobus. These have intrigued me for a couple of reasons. Mr. Jacobus was an early advocate and is considered an icon of the movement in genealogy to raise standards to a scholarly level. Milton Rubicon in the introduction to the book and an icon in his own right, describes Mr. Jacobus as “the ‘father’ of scientific genealogy.” And who can resist reading the words of the author of an article titled “Confessions of a Genealogical Heretic”? [1]

To satisfy this curiosity I read Donald Lines Jacobus’s Genealogy as Pastime and Profession, originally published in 1930. [2] As a tribute to its appeal over the years, the book was revised in 1968 and reprinted in 1971, 1978, and 1986.

Let me allay your fears — this is a very readable book. Jacobus himself describes the advent of the the book — “I can still recall sitting before my typewriter one of the hottest evenings of that summer,….clad only in jockey shorts, and with an electric fan playing on me, pecking out a chapter in two-fingered style…” [3] I can feel the heat of that day!

The book is a combination of great wisdom and excellent examples. While the book is east-coast and colonial centric (e.g. “Early Nomenclature” only describes naming patterns of New England settlers), the examples are as topical today as the were 85 years ago, pointing out how creative thinking and wide knowledge is necessary for successful genealogical outcomes. [4]

Jacobus organized the chapters in the reverse order one often sees in other books professing to initiate the individual into genealogy. While the stated goal of the book was to provide a “readable introduction to the topic,” the chapter titled “How to Trace Your Ancestry,” was the last chapter of the book and only five and a half pages long. The earlier chapters prepared the reader to begin their own familial investigation and introduced some of the complexities associated with genealogical research. These lessons are not lost on any genealogist of today.

Mr. Jacobus did not suffer genealogy fools well. Scattered throughout the book are unflattering references to those who leap too quickly to an undocumented answer, accepting another’s word, written or otherwise, as truth. He discounts those who seek out only the famous in their family lines as he recognized that the rogues are often hidden from our view. He also recognized that most ancestors probably fell into the category of “passably good citizens, mediocre and common-place.” [5]

We have all heard the quote:  “Genealogy and chronology have been called the hand maids of history.”  That was penned by Mr. Jacobus. [6]

Here are the characteristics of a good professional genealogist:

  1. Enthusiasm
  2. Ability to grasp and retain an infinite amount of detail
  3. Imagination
  4. Special knowledge
  5. Accuracy
  6. Not opinionated [7]

These are true today. Thank you Mr. Jacobus.

Donald Lines Jacobus was born 1887 and died 1970. He was the publisher and editor of TAG and its predecessor for 43 years. He was the first person inducted into the Genealogy Hall of Fame and a Fellow of The American Society of Genealogists.  The Donald Lines Jacobus Award is awarded annually to the individual who best exemplifies the high level of scholarship which Mr. Jacobus encouraged and practiced his entire life. [8]

Happy Hunting (and reading)!


What I have done since the last posting:  Spent 10 hours of my life on a plane and 10 hours driving in Chicago traffic!  I attended a conference for University Architects (I used to be one) and had a great time; drafted two blogs including this one; met with William Briska, historian, from Elgin, IL who kindly gave me a tour of the Elgin Historical Museum and the Elgin State Mental Hospital where Dirk resided for 27 years.

[1] a blog about this article is coming.  Stay tuned!

[2] Donald Lines Jacobus, Genealogy as Pastime and Profession (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, Co., 1930, revised 1968, reprinted in 1971, 1978 and 1986).

[3] Ibid, 5.

[4] Ibid, 76-88.

[5] Ibid, 18.

[6] Ibid, 27.

[7] Ibid, 42-44.

[8], search for “Donald Lines Jacobus.”



3 comments on “Genealogy as Pastime and Profession: comments upon reading

  1. Terri says:

    I so agree with you on this book. I’ve read & re-read it several times — looks like it’s time to pull it out again. Thanks for the reminder!

    • jkmorelli says:

      Terri, I am glad there is another follower! Our Genealogical Society was having a 1/2 price book sale and this was in the bin at $.25! I got it for $.13. You can see the cover is a little ratty. I wished it was the 1930 edition but I will take what I can get (for $.13)!

  2. Kristina1025 says:

    Cannot wait for my copy to come in the mail! I am new to genealogy and want to read as much as I can.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s