Friday, February 18, 2011

Bound to Repeat

George Santayana, who, in his Reason in Common Sense, The Life of Reason, Vol.1, wrote "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" could have been speaking about genealogy. During the time that I was reviewing my Great-grandmother's genealogical research, I found that she had repeated her research, over her lifetime, at least three times. She was a careful researcher and had extensive notes but the sheer numbers of people that she encountered in a research overcame her ability to keep track of what she had already researched. Although she lived a long time before computers became available, I firmly believe that she would've embraced them with enthusiasm. However, she lived a very hard life and work nights cleaning offices to support herself on a meager income and died long before computers became available.

Although today we have tremendous technological advantages and opportunities to support our research, we are still faced with the challenge of repeating research unless we keep adequate records. Yesterday, at the Mesa Family History Center I was once again reminded of this fact when I spoke briefly with one of my friends who was sitting at a table sorting documents and trying to figure out what she had done in the past. Upon talking to her, I determined rather quickly that she had no genealogical database program, not even Personal Ancestral File. She was relying entirely upon handwritten notes, family group records and miscellaneous copies of documents.

This may seem like an extreme case, but it is all too frequently found among genealogists who have ignored technology or simply not had the opportunity to become acquainted with what is available. In my friend's case, fortunately most of the information which he had originally compiled, was probably preserved online in the New FamilySearch program. But without reference to the online source and without using one of the easily available genealogical database programs, she would likely have to reproduce and repeat all of her early research efforts. I was on my way to teach a class, and could not spend a great deal of time helping her but assured her that she could contact me at any time for further help in getting her original work organized into a computer database program.

In a recent post, Randy Seaver of Genea-Musings divided the genealogical world into three categories: the traditional genealogy world, the online genealogy world, and the technology genealogy world. He estimates that 85% to 95% of all self-proclaimed genealogists still live in the traditional genealogy world. Although I may not agree with this high percentage, certainly agree that there are a large number of people involved in the genealogical process who are only vaguely aware of the technological resources available. It is also my experience that even technology savvy genealogists may be unaware of resources that are readily available on the Internet. But like my Great-grandmother, my friend, unless she takes the time and effort to computerize her investigations, may be doomed to repeat much of her previous work.

In contrast, to my friend, at the same time there were other patrons in the Mesa Family History Center, who were actively searching online and although they have been doing research for years, were finding new leads and  answering questions in their pedigrees after having had a minimal amount of orientation to current online resources. Technology appears to be a challenge based on background, education, personal inclination and aptitude. I would not go so far but Donald Lines Jacobus in his book Genealogy as pastime and profession included the following quote from William Bradford Browne, who states that genealogy is a science "which requires years of preparation, and is only successfully acquired by a person naturally adapted to its study, and to whom its drudgery is pleasure and not work. It means the power to read or decipher ancient records, to understand their meaning, to read them with the understanding of obsolete meanings. It means a knowledge of law, sufficient to understand the why and wherefore of papers of a legal nature...It requires the intimate knowledge of towns, counties and states, so that the genealogist knows where certain records are at stated periods, and how these towns and counties have been divided and at what times...It requires the knowledge of the changes of the calendar from the old arrangement to the new."

The issue of background and capabilities goes to whether genealogy is inclusive or exclusive. Mr. Jacobus and his friend Mr. Browne obviously feel that genealogy is exclusive, reserved to those who have the native capability to ingest and analyze documents. Contrary to that viewpoint was the one expressed during the Devotional (Question and Answer Period) at the recent RootsTech Conference that would decidedly inclusive of anyone having an interest in and concern for their ancestors no matter what their degree of sophistication.

I think that there is a mid-road where both points of view can be accepted. Genealogy truly is difficult. It requires a large measure of experience and ability to research original source documents. For example, there is no question that in order to read an old will or deed you must have experience reading the handwriting, deciphering the law and understanding the cultural conventions of the time in question. It is understandable the the novice will view this ability as either difficult to obtain or not necessary. But we are a nation of immigrants and those who aren't didn't speak English either and it is almost inevitable that by going back in history you will finally get to something foreign to your own experience. In genealogy we are all beginners if we keep doing research. The only researchers who can claim comfort are those who specialize and do work for other than their own lines.

I think I better quit on this topic for a while. I could go on and on. By the way, part of this post was entered by speech recognition software, can you tell which part?

1 comment:

  1. If you've proofread and corrected, there is no way to tell which part(s) might have been dictated and which were typed.