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

Monday, March 11, 2013

Don't Panic

I had this topic on my list of subjects and then saw that it was Douglas Adams' 61st birthday, so I decided to take the time to write this post. For those of you who don't immediately know what I am talking about, "Don't Panic" is on the cover of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a comprehensive reference containing information about everything about the galaxy. OK, so you are saying, what has this got to do with genealogy? Here is one explanation of the term "Don't Panic"
The novel explains that this was partly because the device "looked insanely complicated" to operate, and partly to keep intergalactic travellers from panicking. 
See Adams, Douglas (1979). The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Pocket Books. p. 27. ISBN 0-671-46149-4.
Now a lot of things in genealogy look "insanely complicated" but unfortunately, there is no universal guide that will prevent the genealogist from panicking. No, I am not going to write the Hitchhiker's Guide to Genealogy, but I am going to give some thoughts about the insanely complicated parts of genealogy.

In their rush to acquire customers and users, the online genealogy companies emphasize how "easy" it is to do your genealogy. Even those who should know better, in trying to attract younger participants, dwell on the "simple" tasks that can produce a stellar pedigree. Somewhere here there is a serious disconnect with reality. Genealogy is extremely complicated and has a high degree of difficulty. But what most people don't realize is that so are many other activities we participate in every day in our society. Have you even thought about how complicated it is to go to a store and buy food? You might, if you were like my daughter and her husband and their four small children who have been suddenly transported to Vienna, Austria when none of them speak fluent German.

Complicated should not have a negative connotation. I have said it before, that if genealogy really was simple and easy, I would not have any interest in it at all. In fact, I would have "finished" with it years ago and moved on to something more challenging. Do we really want to sell people on how easy it is to do genealogy?

Let's face it, families and their interrelationships are complicated. So how could the study of family history not be complicated? Multiple marriages, adopted children, divorces, untimely deaths, immigration, emigration, estrangements, family fights, movements across the country, criminal acts, all sorts of things make genealogy interesting and a challenge. Ferreting out information in a thousand different kinds of records across the world, this is supposed to be easy? Not likely.

Yesterday, I had a discussion with a relative of a friend who explained how he had been interested in genealogy, but had stopped because it was so complicated and no one was able to explain to him how to proceed. How many budding genealogists are there out there that have gotten to that point? How much help is it to them to go through the same "basic" course in genealogy over and over again? This is the first and fundamental complication of the world of genealogy. (By the way, I don't really think that changing the name of genealogy to "family history" is much more than a cosmetic face-lift. No matter what you call it, it is complicated). In the case of the relative of my friend, what he lacked was the idea of searching for a record to find a missing date or information. He needed to see me look for a record online and find it.

Think of the challenges of common surnames and people with the same name in the same place at the same time. Think of the complication of probate, military service, land records, microfilm, library cataloging systems, research in German, Swedish, Russian and a hundred other languages, all of these are insanely complicated.

Is there a solution? Not really, but I suggest that we, as genealogists, bite the bullet and come to grips with the idea that what we do is complicated and not try to sugarcoat it for the non-initiates and maybe I will start to write that hitchhiker's guide after all.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad to see this discussion. I have ADD, a crummy short-term memory, and senior moments, so the complexity of 1) genealogy research and 2) genealogy software is a daily battle. Nevertheless, I've kept at it for 16 years, the only subject that has ever held my interest for any length of time.

    It will be great if we genealogists can learn to help one another through the complexities without judging or assuming the rules are sacred. Where's a good place online to offer and receive help?