RootsTech 2014


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

Monday, August 26, 2013

In genealogy, the basics really matter

Our grandchildren are starting into the years when they get driver's licenses. It has been interesting to find out that they now have spend up to 65 hours (depending on the local state laws) in supervised driving before they let them drive alone. I quickly figured out that 65 hours would mean 5 trips between Mesa and Salt Lake City, Utah or one huge trip from Mesa to Bangor, Maine. After driving for about five hours with one grandson, I began to despair that 65 hours was even possible. Once again, what does this have to do with genealogy?

Well, in talking to three new researchers yesterday, I realized that they had no training whatsoever. None. Zip. Did it help to tell them it takes much longer than just a mere 65 hours of experience and training to learn how to do genealogy in a competent fashion? I am afraid that they will dip their toes into the cold icy water of genealogy and decide they do not want to get in and swim. At the same time I was trying to help the brand-new researchers, I was also helping a researcher who was trying to find her ancestors on three different Indian Reservations in Arizona and New Mexico. I would not have helped to tell this researcher about a 5-minute Getting Started Videos.

Getting a start in genealogy is not just a matter of sharing photos and stories. The questions I have to answer almost every day, do not involve simple topics. They are serious, complicated research questions about how to find ancestors in a huge variety of circumstances and all across the world. Fortunately, the methodology for finding resources is nearly always the same, but finding the specific answers to questions ranging from Poland to Zuni, New Mexico is not a trivial or particularly fun experience. So how do we facilitate the transition from casual interest in a person's family to serious research that produces usable information?

Does it help to minimize the difficulties in doing research or is it more important to provide the tools to do an adequate job? Can you sugar coat the genealogical pill? I guess the problem I have with this issue is that I don't believe genealogical research can be watered down to the point of consumption without effort. How do we handle the transition from casual interest to serious interest and research? I have been working with some of the same people for years and I have seen them progress from frustrated, casual researchers to competent and very motivated. But that transition only happened because they were willing to learn the basics of research and spend the time necessary.

I keep going back to The Ancestry Insider's graphic example of The Chasm or as Hartley's First Law says, "You can lead a horse to water, but if you can get him to float on his back, you've got something." Some things are not easy. I am not sure why, but the consensus is growing that looking at genealogical research from the perspective of a researcher has a negative connotation. It is somehow assumed, I suppose, that if people realize the scope of the difficulties of doing research that they won't start; sort of milk before meat. But to repeat, what if there is no clear path to the meat?

One thing about sixteen year old teenagers, they are generally motivated by the desire to drive a car. That motivation led my grandson to put up with my constant instructions about where and how to drive. Can we create the same motivation to do genealogy? Yes, I believe we can and I heartily agree that stories and photos facilitate that interest. But I also know that there has be a clear path from interest to proficiency. The consequences of reckless driving may be much more serious than ignoring the basics in genealogy, but the effect on the final product is similar. Motivation to do genealogy is extremely important, but once motivated, there needs to be a clear path to competency.


  1. Excellent point. I've found one of the most useful practice is to use a checklist when I start doing research, instead of a knee-jerk reaction of diving into something that looks "interesting". I'm still working at using an online database to gather info and an offline program to "make it official". I am trying to think of genealogical "ROI"; there is pleasure in just exploring but more results in using a map!

  2. Hi James, in Victoria, Australia learner drivers need to drive for 120 hours under supervision before sitting for their drivers licence.
    The State Library of Victoria are about to pilot an online learning program for family history researchers through the Public Library network.