RootsTech 2014


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

Monday, June 17, 2013

Time Constraints?

We all die. This is neither a very original or insightful observation. But it does impose some absolute time contraints on our genealogical research. Here is an interesting comment received from my dear
friend Anonymous (one of my most frequent commentators):
I have focused on the direct family lines in my own research for a simple reason: it results in a more manageable # of people. Though I have generally kept the names and birthdates (and sources) for siblings, my trees and summary documents leave them out. It's a difference of about 1,000 person (direct line) versus 10,000 people (siblings)... or many more if you get into the siblings' children. 
I do see the value in recording everybody. But time constraints require tough choices.
Does this mean when you find a family, you skip recording the children because of time constraints?

I guess my point in commenting about researching individuals as opposed to families was completely lost on this person. We all make choices based on time contraints but it is the value of those choices that is important. One saying, handed down in my family, was, "If something is worth doing, it is worth doing right." In genealogical research, is the goal to accumulate as many names as possible? Or perhaps the goal is to get as far back in time as possible? Obviously, our goals, expressed or unexpressed, determines how we view the time we spend on any project. As genealogists is our goal to "manufacture" our product as cheaply as possible? Or are we crafting museum quality products that will last forever? Is our product the disposable and biodegradable packaging or the high quality contents? Yes, time constraints require tough choices.

My point as simply as I can express it is this, families should be the goal of genealogical research. It may be emotionally satisfying to "prove" your relationship to some famous person or enable joining a genealogical society such as the Daughters of the American Revolution or the Mayflower Society, but the real value in doing genealogical research is in the families you discover. Who imposed this time contraint on you forcing you to ignore family members in favor of pushing back your "direct family." The whole idea of a direct family is based either on our artificially imposed idea of a surname family line or on an even more destructive idea that only male ancestors count. Why is your "direct line" more important than any other part of your pedigree?

In my own family, I never knew my paternal grandparents. They both died before I was born. I grew up knowing, visiting, talking to and staying with my maternal grandparents. One of the ancestors I saw most frequently was my father's mother's mother, my Great-grandmother. For reasons unknown, our family never associated closely with anyone in particular from my father's family. The two genealogists in my family were both on maternal lines. As I have written before on occasion, the amount of material transmitted to me from my family is enormous. Talk about time contraints, it takes me a whole day or more just to back up my files, which I am doing right now and the two hard drives have been running since yesterday. But given that background and many other factors, I have spent a huge amount of time on my "collateral" lines rather than just focusing on my direct lines.

Most of my research has been in correcting the errors that have accumulated over the past 150 years or so. Filling out the families is a top priority.

Focusing on families and their background, history and culture is not just more satisfying, it is also essential to discovering additional information about more remote ancestors. The most common situation I encounter in helping people with their genealogy is that they are trying to find a remote ancestor without knowing anything at all about that ancestor's descendants or family. In many cases, they have no documentation at all about the children who are the connection to the ancestor. How do they know they are researching the right person?

Let's re-evaluate our goals. We all have time constraints. Let's jointly craft museum quality research rather than throw-away, disposable research that will have to be redone in the future by someone else (like me).


  1. I agree with most of what you say here. But I also agree with much of what "Anonymous" said.
    I work with collaterals a lot, and they have been invaluable. And following all can help with the following of direct line. I fill in lines whenever I can, and have found great connections in doing that.
    But I can also understand the following of just the direct lines, if this is possible. *Not* just the surname, or the male line, but the direct lines.
    Some genealogists are focused on filling out large families. Others are more focused on finding out, working to *know*, where they came from, so they can pass this on to their own family, particularly if they are the oldest or only child of a line. Different focus doesn't mean slipshod work, or just wanting to connect to "someone famous".
    You said:
    ""Who imposed this time contraint on you forcing you to ignore family members in favor of pushing back your "direct family." ""
    Maybe age? Illness? Limited resources?
    You may have been a bit hard on this one more "Anonymous"....

  2. A different Anonymous here.

    You asked, "Why is your "direct line" more important than any other part of your pedigree?"

    Because they made me.

  3. I generally agree with Linda.

    Rarely, I ignore the collaterals almost entirely. I'm more likely to do so when researching early ancestors. Because early records are often more scarce/limited and more complex, sometimes one may only be to prove the direct ancestor's parentage and perhaps one or two siblings. Researching other potential siblings would require a phenomenal and very time-consuming research effort, is more likely to be unsuccessful, and even if successful, often would be unlikely to provide much more insight about the family unit as a whole than what is already known.

    More typically, I quickly review the collaterals and give them some basic level of attention, and I focus on them more heavily only when:

    (1) researching ancestors who lived in time periods when the collaterals' lives are more likely to have had a profound impact on the direct-line ancestors. The best example is families from the Civil War era, since the death of a collateral ancestor is a fairly common event and could have tremendous impact on the direct-line ancestors' lives thereafter.

    (2) stuck on a research problem. Closer inspection of the collaterals may help solve the problem. This occurs often.

    (3) one of the collaterals was a prominent/notable member of his/her community (e.g. a pastor). I don't care so much about their prominence, but these collateral ancestors are more likely to have left behind extra records, newspaper mentions, etc. that can illuminate the family as a whole.

  4. I guess we al do things for different reasons. I keep track of collaterals for several reasons. It helps me know how my ancestors live. My wife's siblings died young, leaving children. Is it not my responsibility to maintain what I can of their other parent's family?

  5. I don't look at any of this as 'responsibility.' This is something i like to do. If i like to chase off after a given line, even the line of someone who married into my lines, i do. I do not feel a burden to go back farther or anything else. I just find this a fun thing to do. Now, i can appreciate that you may have a responsibility. There may be many reasons you feel that burden. Just don't try to lay your burden on me. My motivations may not be your motivations. Anyone who does genealogy and leaves behind some tracks, perhaps documents publicly the existence of a family Bible and what is in that Bible is increasing the body of information available to those who come later. Maybe a person just likes adding to Findagrave what he or she knows about a family. That person finds satisfaction and is going to be helping someone down the line after she or he is dead, perhaps. No one can stipulate what the motivations (and thus practices) of others must be. Grandpa Landmeier and i are on the same page, i guess, to a degree. - b

  6. Original Anonymous here (figured out how to login this time). Thank you for the thoughtful commentary by all, including especially Mr. Tanner. I felt obliged to at least muster an answer to one question posed:

    "The whole idea of a direct family is based either on our artificially imposed idea of a surname family line or on an even more destructive idea that only male ancestors count. Why is your "direct line" more important than any other part of your pedigree?"

    I'm not sure that the direct line is more important, but it happens to be more interesting to me. I should probably clarify that in my case I think of "direct line" as both paternal and maternal. That is, I record and research each person's parents, but do little with siblings (e.g. I keep the census records with the whole family, but I don't explore the siblings' future families). In any case, I view my (hopefully well-documented) direct line as a structure that others can build from. Maybe my 4th cousins can pick up the slack from there ;)