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

Monday, January 2, 2012

Mean Spirited?

I had a very interesting and thought provoking comment to my post about my top ten worst practices in genealogy. I certainly apologize to anyone who was offended by the post. But I might say that offense was and is predictable.

I can remember one experience I had when I was helping a person with Personal Ancestral File. The person was having a great deal of trouble understanding how to enter information into the fields. I had spent a considerable time trying to help short of taking over and doing the work myself. After making one suggestion about how to enter the information, the person turned to me and said, essentially, "I want to do it my way, not your way, I don't want to know anymore." Is it mean spirited to simply decide that you are not longer welcome to help? My comments concerning the different problems I encounter are and were, as I clearly said, specifically given for didactic purposes.

I recently had an erstwhile genealogist tell me that he refused to learn computers and would not listen to me try to help him. He said he was a mechanic and had quit his job when he had to learn about computers to fix cars.  Was it mean spirited to take him at his word about not wanting to learn how to do computers for helping with his genealogy?

The commentator is right in many ways, one of which is that I am not well suited to help with certain types of genealogical problems especially when the person in question does not want to learn and will not listen to an explanation at any level. I have dealt with people who come into the FHC with the same problems day after day, until they have talked to every single volunteer more than once and have never either listened to what was told to them or changed in any way.  

One time I was helping a patron with his "brickwall" problem in North Carolina. He carefully explained to me that he and his family had been searching records for years without results. I asked him where the person lived and when they were supposed to live there? He had a name, a date and a place. I suggested looking to see what county the town was in at the time in question. He did not know the county. I looked in the Redbook, (Eichholz, Alice. Redbook: American State, County & Town Sources. Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2004. ) to see what the county was at the time in question and told him that the records were likely in several different counties depending on the time period. He began to argue with me, saying he did not need to look in those counties because he already knew where the town was located. This discussion went on for some time while I tried to help him understand that the county boundaries had changed and that the records he was looking for might be in any of four or five different counties. He simply refused to listen to anything I had to say on the subject and went away without bothering to write down the counties or even to look at the resources we had in the library. Some people cannot be helped no matter how patient or helpful you wish to be. 

Some of the problems I encounter are not limited to those who are not "experts" and some problems resist both education and patience. How do you approach a person who sincerely believes that they have traced their ancestry back to Adam? I am not asking this question in a sarcastic or mean spirited way. Some people have specific background beliefs that, as a genealogist, I am not going to address. The issue of whether or not accepting books like Burke's Peerage and Gentry is one thing, but extending your ancestral lines through a traditional connection to Biblical passages is not genealogy as I define it. Strictly speaking, this is not a genealogical problem at all, but a cultural and historical one.

The commentator used an example of helping a child learn to walk. None of the issues I set forth in my post are really comparable to helping a child to learn to walk. I don't get the connection between learning to walk and tracing your genealogy back to Adam.

When I was operating a retail store, we used to have customers who came into the store and started out by asking, if the price we had on the products was our lowest price? Would we negotiate the price? Have you tried this recently at your local grocery store? Try going into the store and asking if the price they have for milk that day is negotiable? Can I predict the reaction from the store manager? Try going into an AT&T store and try negotiating the price of an iPhone.

Genealogists are the most inclusive, patient, kind and helpful community of which I am aware. But there are really a certain class of challenges peculiar to genealogy that are more or less, beyond help. As I repeat, some of these problems are addressable by education, some are not. They are all commonly encountered by the average genealogist trying to conscientiously do their genealogy and help others. 


  1. Let me just say that I enjoyed your initial post and identified with many of the "worst practices" you identified. I don't think you need to apologize in any way. I enjoyed reading your clarification in this post, too. You are right that some people just can't be helped.

  2. Those are probably the same people who repeatedly ask their pharmacist "What can I take?" instead of "How can I prevent?"