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

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Starfish of Genealogy

All my life I have heard a series of stories with "moral lessons." This type of story is always told with the intent of producing an emotional response in those who hear the story. Because of this emotional response, these stories get told and retold regularly, sometimes with new twists or variations to meet the needs of the teller. Sometimes the stories reach parable status or even started out as parables. One such story involves starfish. This particular story has been the basis of whole books and movies. I find hundreds of thousands of references to the story online. This particular story actually originated as part of a 16-page essay of the same name by Loren Eiseley (1907–1977), published in 1969 in The Unexpected Universe. The Star Thrower is also the title of a 1978 anthology of Eiseley's works (including the essay), which he completed shortly before his death. See Wikipedia: The Star Thrower.

In genealogy, we have our own starfish throwers. These are people that save dying collections of genealogy produced during the lifetime of another individual.

These genealogical starfish come about as a result of the death or incapacity of a long-time researcher. For whatever reason, it seems that many genealogists, perhaps because of the solitary nature of the persuasion, have made no plans or accommodations for the preservation of their lifetime work. In some cases, an obsession with ownership has blinded the researcher to the need to share their work with relatives and others and as a result the heirs, if there are any, of the researcher, upon their death, throw the entire collection into the trash bin. In other cases it is merely neglect.

Some of these collections, quite frankly, are not worth saving. But others consist of material that may contain documents and information that is irreplaceable. From time to time, I hear stories of such collections being snatched right from the dumpster. During the researcher's life, it seems almost impossible to save the dying collection. During the past few weeks I have met such researchers who were antagonistic to the point of anger at the suggestion that they share their work to preserve it. Many insist on keeping their work either on paper or on "their own program on their computer."

The tragedy of these genealogical starfish is that they are so short-sighted about the need to preserve their own work.

Fortunately, there are sometimes genealogical starfish throwers who manage to save a very few of these collections. One such person is Arlene Eakle. You can visit her website and see her monumental efforts to save these collections. For this purpose, she has established the Genealogy Library Center, Inc. at 62 West Main St. Tremonton UT 84337. You may wish to read our own "starfish thrower" story on the pages of her website.

We really do need to be vigilant, as a genealogical community, to the loss of research caused by these stranded stars. If you know of someone who is in danger of losing their research, please take the time to kindly attempt a rescue. There are many places that good and valuable research can go. You may wish to contact a museum, a genealogy society, a state archive, a university special collections library or some other institution, but in the end, you may also need to take the time to preserve the collection yourself as Arlene has done over the years.

1 comment:

  1. It is not just private genealogical collections that end up being thrown out.
    There is one fairly well known private archive here in Yorkshire that has numerous records and manuscripts saved from the trash skips of the official archive. These records and manuscripts were thrown out due to space restrictions in the 1970s and 80s.