Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, October 8, 2012

When was the last time you asked for help?

When I started investigating my family, it never occurred to me that I could ask for help. I was totally unaware of classes or mentors or anything even vaguely similar. I was also unaware of any books on the subject of genealogy. Now, there is a plethora of resources aimed at the "beginner." You could, in fact, write an entire book about resources for beginners, without ever getting into helping beginners at all.  But does all this "beginner's help" really help?

I had a couple of things going for me despite my lack of any formal introduction to the genealogical community; I had a strong research background and I was motivated to find out about my ancestry. In this pre-computer time, where would I have gone for help? I didn't know any other person who was interested in genealogy and wouldn't have known who to ask in any event. I certainly got no support from my immediate family. All of the relatives who were interested in genealogy were either dead or unknown to me at the time.

So why did I persevere in learning about genealogy to the point of actually being able to find family members? Of course, a major part of the reason was my religious belief. But many people with similar beliefs do absolutely nothing about genealogy. So what made the difference. Well, I am stubborn. I don't easily give up when I have decided to do something. I do not look at obstacles as reasons to stop, but only as challenges to be overcome.

The first time I remember anyone helping me was when I ran into an old acquaintance from graduate school at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was a "professional" genealogist and helped me begin looking at Danish records. From my perspective today, I didn't know enough about what I was trying to do to even begin to ask questions.

So why do we think that beginners today need so much "hand-holding?" We seem obsessed with the idea that no one can learn genealogy unless they attend a class or go to a conference. Now, in retrospect, if I had gone to a genealogy conference early on in my life, it would have had a profound effect on my genealogical maturity. Many of the mistakes I made early on, could have been avoided and some easily avoided, had I had the opportunity to attend a conference or even knew about one.

But what we seem to miss in all our angst about helping beginners is that genealogy is basically a personal, individually motivated, solitary pursuit. In contrast to my early beginnings, we do have a huge opportunity to interact with other genealogists, who no longer have to be in close physical proximity. We can also find relatives, interested in research, who we previously would have had no contact with. But genealogy is not a group activity. It could be and I have seen a few very successful cooperative genealogy projects but I am still faced with my huge pile of documents and research without the slightest possibility of any cooperative help.

Many accounts of starting out with family research I have heard over the years, includes contact with an older relative. I have heard touching stories about how people learned about genealogy helping their aged grandmother record her research or something like that. Just because I did not have a similar experience does not mean that this is not a valid way to pass on genealogical information, but so far, I see no similar situation developing in my own elderly years. I do not live close enough to most of my grandchildren and they are so busy with school and etc. they never had time to sit and watch me work.

Sorry if this post sounds like a complaining old geezer, but I think there are some fundamental issues here. My own Great-grandmother did genealogy for most of her life and not only had no help from her family, but faced active and bitter opposition to her research efforts from her immediate family. Another Great-grandmother, who spent her later years accumulating family history, had nearly all of her work lost or totally neglected by her children and grandchildren. I do not think this is an unusual situation.

Right now, I am waiting for boxes of genealogical research from one of my relatives who died, while her children can't seem to find enough time in their lives to pick up the boxes and drive them over to my house. I have been waiting for almost six months now. The boxes are being stored locally and all they have to do is drive over, put them in their car and drop them off at my house.

Meanwhile, I will continue to help people one at a time if they are willing to listen and learn.


  1. I think it is the state of the country in general. We really do have a "Nanny" state. No one is allowed to fail, and heavens you would have to do something by yourself.

  2. Are you still waiting? Maybe you should offer to pick them up!