In the beginning the tree is incredibly easy to climb, and the information almost seems to fall from the sky into your hands. But as you climb further, the distance between the branches grows, the leaves begin to thicken, and suddenly it’s difficult to assess the best direction to continue your climb. At this point is seems better to give up, rather than risk making a mistake and damaging the information you have already so carefully gathered. Perhaps it is better to pass the information along to the next generation, and they can begin the climb where you left off with a clear mind and fresh exhuberance.
Heavy genealogical research can often lead to fatigue and frustration. Having worked on my own family tree for years now those magical moments of discovery become few and far between. Finding a new fact, or adding a new ancestor to the tree, requires a great deal more time than it used to and to be honest it can get very tedious. As a genealogist you will spend a lot of time alone, digging through repositories, libraries, ancestry websites and message boards. So for the last couple of months I took a little hiatus from heavy record hunting to rediscover the original reasons I picked up researching long-lost ancestors. I learned some valuable lessons that I want to share with other experienced genealogists who may be stuck in a similar rut.
Somewhere between learning the names of my great-great-great grandparents and discovering that one of them was a foundling I forgot that one of the best parts of genealogical research is to listen to the people who are still alive. It’s so easy to get carried away with information that can be found in records, about people who have been long gone, that the purpose of genealogical research can be forgotten.
Building the story of your family should always be most detailed with the people that you knew personally. Your siblings, your parents, your grandparents, and all those connected to them, have endless stories to tell. Why are you wasting your time prowling through records on Family Search when you could be interviewing your mother about the time she left the place she was born, got on a boat, and went to a country she had only ever heard people talk about? We are so lucky to have the internet, and books that it’s easy to forget that mass international travel and immigration is a very new novelty in the history of humanity. Purchasing all of our groceries rather than growing them in our backyard is another.
While I am guilty of not spending my time wisely I have learned, and continue to be aware of the fact, that I have gaping holes in my research. My family history shines best in the number of names it bears, but not in the details of the lives behind those names. Those of you who have followed my blog will probably question this because I have published a few posts about my ancestors’ immigration movements and travel. These are great to have, but I think they still fall into a category of detached research. Much of the information I have gathered did not come from the original source. Unfortunately I do not have access to my mother’s parents, because they died before I was born. I do, however, have access to many other people who have experienced the journey from Italy to Australia and it is their stories that should fill the pages of my family history book.
My goal from this day forward will be to listen carefully to the stories I am told. I will also put my journalism skills to good use and interview the people that have stories to tell. (Everyone!) And to tell anybody who hopes to embark on the ancestry research journey to begin with interviewing before they try to delve through records.
(Warning: People may experience the same event in the same place, date, time and position as another person, but that does not mean that they share the same memories. Sometimes it’s just a different interpretation of events. Other times we forget things, and fill these memory holes with imagined details. It can be funny, but it can also be dangerously misleading for your research. Take on the detached demeanor of a journalist and question everything. Just because your cousin thinks your great-aunt is an illegitimate love child because she is the only one in the family who had red hair, does not mean that your great-grandmother had an affair and bore an illegitimate child.)
Obviously there is only so far that you can go to obtain first-hand information. The frailty of our human condition dictates that we only live for a short amount of time, and in that time, usually encounter only two generations before us. So, once you have interviewed everybody that you are related to, how can you fill your family history with more than just names, dates and places?
I may have taken a break from record searching but that doesn’t mean I stopped reading! It did, however, mean that I had more time to open my mind to other researching possibilities. In these things called history books there are countless tales and first-hand accounts of events and living conditions in the very places where our ancestors lived. If, like me, you don’t have scandalous, criminal, educated, rich or royal ancestors, you will have to be satisfied with information recorded by other people’s ancestors. We may never know what our great x6 grandfather was thinking when he moved from one small town to another, but we could learn that he may have done so because like others at the time there was a lack of work in his town of birth, and a new farm in the new town.
Look far and wide for these books. They don’t just reside in your library. In fact, leave your local library as your secondary source, and look on google books first. You’ll find information about places that you never thought would have been on the map, let alone worthy of an entire chapter in a book written in the 1600s.
Organization & Citation
One of the things that you learn once you have accumulated a lot of records is that you are bursting at the seams with screenshots on your desktop, family trees at various stages of your research are published on several ancestry websites, and you have more photos of documents than photos of your ancestors. You also have absolutely no idea how to organize everything and why don’t they make family tree books that let you put information on your great x10 grandparents? I haven’t solved the issue of organization, but I do know something that I wished I had known at the beginning of my research: You must CITE everything!
I know I can trust my information and dates because I have gathered them, and I do not wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to genealogical facts. I have, and probably will again, realize that the ancestors I thought were attached to my tree, in fact do not belong to me and are actually just people with the same names as my true ancestors. I will not keep fake information just because so-and-so’s record shows that they had an amazing 10 children and lived in a castle. But what if people who come after me try to follow my line of research? And come across the same mistake but assume that my un-cited but carefully researched information is wrong, because they too make the mistake of thinking that so-and-so is our ancestor? I will not be around forever, but I hope that my research will continue onward into the next generation. I would hate to make them waste time correcting my mistakes, or worse still, taking my research for granted and assuming that all I have recorded is 100% correct. The only true way to prove to my descendants, and others, that my research is trustworthy is to cite my research as if it is being graded and published in a literary journal. Citations are boring, but they are about as important as a birth record, if you don’t know where it came from, how do you know it’s legitimate? Cite, cite, cite, then double-check that your citations are easy to read, accurate and searchable. If you can’t retrace your steps nobody else will either.
Take a break. Have fun.
I really don’t want to end on a boring citation mantra. Genealogy research is a profession, but for most people it’s just a hobby. Whether you earn money researching, or just want to learn some fun facts about the origin of your family, have fun! The more time you spend on it, the harder it will get, but the driving force behind the research is a thirst for knowledge and the satisfaction of finding out the truth. In the end, we are all made of flesh and bone and our descendants went through hardships and joys to bring us to life.
This was written and brought to you from a cabin in the woods at 4am.