Monday, April 22, 2013

The Perceived Problems with Genealogy

I was helping one of my friends with some research recently, who was looking for some record of a birth in Pennsylvania. The problem was that the ancestor was supposedly born in 1822, long before birth records were consistently maintained. Of course, I showed her the FamilySearch Research Wiki with articles on "United States, How to Find Genealogy Records," "United States Birth Records," and the helpful "How to Find Birth Information in the United States." We also looked at the Family History Library Catalog on the specific county in Pennsylvania, Westmoreland, where her ancestor likely was born. There was a long list of resources.

We also checked the Newberry Atlas of Historical County Boundaries to make sure the county boundaries had not changed since the event occurred. This was done to see whether or not the information she was seeking could be found in some other county. As a matter of fact, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania had the same boundaries in 1822 as it has today.

That was it. Informational overload. She simply shrugged her shoulders and admitted that she could not image looking all those places. There is a perception out there that you can magically click on some link online and find whatever you want to know about your ancestors. Apparently, she was expecting me to solve the problem of finding her ancestor in a half an hour or less excluding commercials.

So one of the major perceived problems with genealogy is simply this: it is not as easy as people would like it to be.

In the case of the Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania relative, my friend kept saying how her ancestor's name was so "common." Well, yes, people do have the same surname. That can actually come as a shock to some people. Oh, and guess what? The surname can be spelled a few different ways. As we started to look at records for Westmoreland County, we immediately found people during the 1822 time period with the same name. I suggested she may want to record each of the people with the same surname, in the same county, at the same time her ancestor was supposed to be born to see if any of them or all of them are relatives. She looked at me as if I had suddenly lost my mind. The thought of doing research on more than one person was overwhelming. What if it turned out that there was really only one family of the suspect surname in the county and everyone with that name were related? She protested that if she searched all the records I was suggesting it would take a lot of time and might not produce any results.

[Side note: Sometimes my conversations with people I work with that I report in this blog are embellished to some extent for teaching purposes. However, in this case, the conversation is pretty close to reality. I try hard not to identify the people involved so they are not embarrassed if they read the posts and only very rarely has anyone felt like I was talking about them.]

I suggested that she may wish to make a list of microfilms and books that might contain information about her ancestor in the county at the time of his birth so that she could check each one. I further suggested she might want to compile this list and plan a trip to Salt Lake City, Utah where she could do the research in the Family History Library. She dismissed that as impossible. So then I suggested she make the same list but look for copies of each of the records in the library in some other repository. As an example, I took one of the Tax Roles on the list of sources for Westmoreland County and found that the Arizona State Library in downtown Phoenix, right next door, had a copy. Even that effort seemed excessive to her. My suggestion was simple, put each source listed in the Family History Library catalog into WorldCat.org and see if a local library had a copy. For those that showed copies in more remote libraries, I suggested Interlibrary Loan.

Now, I really don't know if she will take any of the suggested actions. What I do know is that her reaction is very, very common. Patrons at the Mesa FamilySearch Library often have the same exact reaction. Disbelief that finding an ancestor can take such time and effort. In our "have it now" me-centered society, they just refuse to believe that their problem cannot be solved immediately.

Guess what? All of us had to pass through this same experience. In every case, we have to come to grips with the reality of genealogical research: it isn't easy and it may take huge amount of time to find an answer.

My first brush with reality came in the FamilyHistory Library in Salt Lake City when I was researching my ancestor, Jens Jensen from Denmark. I asked for a microfilm roll about my ancestor and was given a role with probably 20,000 names on it where every single person had the name Jens Jensen. I began to realize that this was not going to be as easy as I thought.


2 comments:

  1. I can relate - not as simple as 1st timers would like to think and also why so many family trees on ancestry.com and else are SO WRONG.
    -too many PASTE/COPY folks out there..who has the biggest tree award?
    -not wishing to see/verify/work for correct docs - and the TIME and COSTS&MONEY to be correct!
    GJ

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  2. -Also have Johansen family from Denmark - might as well be a Johnson in USA - a "popular" name, I do not use the word "common" :) :)

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