As a professional genealogist, Janice M. Sellers works with individuals who wish to learn about their family history. In this interview, she describes her work process and points out some typical mistakes to avoid.
Please describe your background. What brought you to become a genealogy researcher?
My name is Janice Sellers. I have a genealogy research company called Ancestral Discoveries. While I have several specialties, my particular focus is on Jewish and Black American research as well as forensic genealogy, which is genealogy with some kind of legal ramification, and newspaper research. I am a jack of all trades, I do all kinds of research.
I’ve been doing genealogy research for 45 years. Like most people, I started with my own family, and I’ve been doing it professionally for 15 years. Previously, I was primarily an editor. I also do translation, indexing, and some publishing. My university degree was in foreign languages, a French major with Spanish and Russian minors.
Interestingly, all the different areas I had worked in came together really well to become a professional genealogist. Languages are very helpful once you start getting outside the United States. The fact that I’m a professional indexer makes it easier for me to understand how an index is put together and be able to use it more effectively. On top of that, I’ve always been interested in history. Without knowing history, it would be very difficult to get anywhere in genealogy.
You can’t just magically figure things out without knowing whether you’re in the right place and the right family, because the details matter a lot. I’m a detail-oriented person, which also helps tremendously.
Lately, with the rising interest in DNA and the direct-to-consumer tests that are available, I’ve added DNA to what I do with genealogy research, including in my own family.
Put briefly, my job is to figure out if people are related and how they’re related by looking at how much DNA people share and where they share it. I try to determine whether a possible relationship that I am researching is reasonable based on the scientific information.
What’s the difference or the connection between genealogy and genetics?
The word genealogy has to do with the direct lineage, and it’s related to genetics from the same root word. It’s the physical part of your ancestry, as far as the genetic material you received from your mother and father and their parents as well, who contributed genetic material to them.
That strict definition of genealogy is one part of your family history, but family history, in a broader sense, is everything that brings you together. It is more than just blood; it’s who raised you, who passed on values to you, and whose traditions you learned. If you’re living with adoptive parents or a foster family, or if your parents died and your aunt and uncle took you in, the genetic connection between you and them is not the same as if you were their biological child, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not family or that you’re not part of each other’s family history.
What kind of insights can genealogy research uncover about one’s life?
If you expand genealogy research to the concept of family history, you find out not only about the genetic connections between you and other people, such as your biological parents, grandparents, and siblings, you’ll also learn where people were living, what they were doing, and how everything came together to produce you as a child of your biological parents. If you have an extended family, how do those people interact with each other? How did they meet? What was the context that they were living in? What time period did they live in? How did that affect things? That’s the genealogy side of my work.
Then there is pure genetics, where you find out who is biologically descended from who and create a timeline to explain what your family was doing in that place at that time. How did your parents, biological or adoptive, meet each other? How did you end up being raised by those two people?
Genealogy research puts all that into context and helps you see how that family works together. In some cases, it’s more about who you ended up with. If you were adopted, how did you end up with those people? And that’s the broader concept of family history. You do that by researching.
I’m obsessed with genealogy. I will look for any information about family members, newspaper articles, little scraps of paper that have somebody’s name written on it; It could be an article in a newspaper that says your grandfather had a historic vintage carpenter’s tool collection. Every little factoid can tell you something else about a family member and give you a broader picture of who that person was and who your family was.
While genealogy platforms are rising in popularity, some argue that they violate user privacy. What are your thoughts on this?
Certainly, in some ways, it could be considered an invasion of privacy because you are physically connected to other people genetically. Particularly that’s come to people’s minds because of things like genetic investigative criminology, where they’re using genetics to try to track down who might have committed a crime. The fact that you are genetically related to somebody is not something you can control. A lot of people are worried about someone invading their privacy to use their genetic material to be able to find someone who committed a crime.
There’s a lot of discussion about that and a lot of disagreement. Some people consider it perfectly fine. Other people are horrified that their material might be used, even if it does help catch somebody.
We’re still trying to find our way through that. Just because the information is there, some people argue that it should be used to its best effect, while other people say that that’s personal information and would not give anyone permission to use it.
I don’t know which direction we’re going to end up going eventually, but right now, it’s still being discussed and a lot of people are trying to find a path, arguing for the greater good versus individual privacy rights.
At some point, we will probably come to a balance, but we’re still working our way toward that right now. We’re not there yet.
Which trends or technologies do you find to be particularly interesting these days around your line of work?
One of the most interesting trends is the use of DNA in genealogy and family history because it changes people’s concepts of themselves when they discover, for example, that the person they grew up with as a father is not their biological father.
They find this out in their thirties or forties, which is why it’s probably the most important trend. It’s very useful, but you have to be careful about it because a lot of people aren’t prepared for the answers that they find. I routinely tell people, if you don’t want to know the answer or if you’re afraid of it, you shouldn’t ask the question, particularly with DNA, because it can’t lie.
Whatever story you were told or whatever you grew up believing, if the DNA says something different and you’re not prepared for that, it can throw you into a loop. The DNA will remain neutral in the equation.
It’s a fascinating trend in that respect because there’s no misinterpreting if you are related to somebody or if you aren’t. The DNA says that very clearly. I think often people prefer ambiguity. I don’t think a lot of people adequately prepare themselves for the answers that they might find when they jump in and take that DNA test. I think we need a lot more education about that so people are better prepared for what the answers might be when they find them.
The other big trend, which has been going for a while now, is the digitization and ready availability of so many records. On the one hand, that’s a positive thing because it’s a lot easier to sit at your computer at two o’clock in the morning and find lots of records. The flip side is that there are so many records available that people very readily assume they have found the person they were looking for if that person happened to be in the right place at the right time. But there may have been three people with that name in that place at that time.
On one hand, if I picked the wrong guy for my third-great-grandfather, realistically that’s not going to hurt anyone. But in those instances where there’s some kind of legal ramification or an attempt to find your family health history, you want to make sure you have the right person.
A lot of people tend to grab the first person who looks vaguely right. They don’t take as much time to check the details and they don’t put enough effort into validating their findings. That makes it too easy for people to get things wrong.
What do you think can be done about that?
People could learn more about genealogy before they start doing it, but that’s not how it’s being marketed. It’s being marketed as something very immediate, where you go to Ancestry.com and find your family with the click of a button.
Years ago I read about a man in Scotland who sued Ancestry for false advertising because all of their marketing said you could find everything you wanted about your family there, and at the time, they had no records for Scotland. So he bought a subscription, found nothing, and sued them for false advertising, but I never heard what happened next, and technically, I don’t know if it really happened. It could have been an urban legend kind of story.
You really should learn about what you’re doing before you jump into it, but because they’ve made it so easy, I can’t think of any way to effectively “force” that. You could say that there has to be an opening page on Ancestry.com with lots of warnings saying this is for entertainment and if you’re not careful, you might go down the wrong path and find the wrong family. Basically stating that they can’t control that and that you have to make the effort. Of course, they’re not going to do that because how many people are going to buy a subscription with a warning like that? It’s not in their interest to alienate potential customers like that.
Most of the time it’s being done for entertainment. If you pick the wrong family and you find that you’re descended from royalty, does that make you happy? if that’s the only reason you’re doing it then fine, you have a good time. That’s really what most people do it for.
How do you envision the future of geology as a field?
Some of my colleagues have suggested that the way it’s going to develop is we won’t be doing research so much anymore. What people will be hired for is to help people navigate the sites and figure it out for themselves because it’s available.
So far, I have not seen that. I’ve had a couple of people ask me about that, but most of the time, they’re still asking me to do the research for them. A lot of it comes down to time versus money.
Does the person have the time to do it herself? Is she going to enjoy going through Ancestry and MyHeritage and other sites, and finding the pieces, or is her time more valuable to her for other things? Maybe she wants to know about her family but she doesn’t want to do it herself or doesn’t have the time and she’ll pay somebody to do it. That’s what I’m seeing more of.
A lot of people, they’re interested in it but they have other things that they are prioritizing, so they’re willing to pay to find the answers.
I have tutored some people on how to use the genealogy sites and how to try to figure out which person is the right person, or what to do if you have three people with the same name and you want to know which one of them you’re related to. So I’m seeing some of that.
I think a lot of people are engaged with doing it themselves for a while. When it becomes more difficult and they get stuck, they decide to pay a professional researcher, because they don’t have the time for it anymore and they would rather pay someone to give them the answers.
What would be your number one tip for independent genealogy researchers?
Look at all the details. It’s amazing how many times someone picks an incorrect person when there was already some reference in the record that could have led them to conclude that it was not the person they were looking for.
What a lot of people do is focus only on the name, age, and place of birth. There could be between 12-20 discrete pieces of information for that person on one document, but they blow past all of them. Perhaps three or four of those could have indicated this person was not the correct one. So the most important thing is that whenever you have a document, read it thoroughly, get every piece of information you can from it, and analyze it. Cross-check your findings with the rest of the information you have and validate it to ensure you’re looking at the right person. And if you’re not sure, keep researching.