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

Friday, November 15, 2013

Dialogue with a Researcher

Warning: The following conversation is entirely fictitious, except for those parts that are verbatim quotes from actual conversations. The names and other details of the conversation are purely imaginary. Any relationship between any actual person either living or dead is intentional.

Location: An entirely fictitious FamilySearch Library in a major metropolitan area.
Date: Very recent
Researcher, a fifty-something lady with no children at home who has been "doing" genealogy for several years.
Volunteer, a sixty-something balding senior who has a "colorful" background. His only claim to genealogical fame is having read Greenwood's book from cover to cover.

V: [ Sitting down next to R who is visibly agitated]. "May I help you with something?"

R: "I can't seem to get a copy of this U.S. Census record onto my flash drive. Do you have any suggestions?"

V: [Looking around] "Hmm. Where is your flash drive?"

R: [Looking annoyed] "In my purse. Where else would it be?"

V: "Maybe I could check for you to see if you have all of the documents you copied today?"

R: [Rummaging around in the bottom of a very large purse] "Here, you take it. I am absolutely sure all of the documents are on the Thumb Drive, I double checked myself."

V: [After inserting the flash drive into an adjoining computer] "How many documents do you think should be on this drive?

R: "Oh lots, I keep all my correspondence and all of my Facebook messages as well the photos I have of my grandchildren on that drive."

V: "OK, it looks like you have six new documents today."

R: "How is that possible, I only looked at two documents."

V: [Checking the documents] "You are partly right, you have three copies of one document and two of yet another and another single copy."

R: "Well, that must be a miracle. I only looked at two documents. I am trying to see if this is the right father to my ancestor." [Showing a computer screen with a family in's Public Member Family Trees]

V: "What time period and place are we talking about?"

R: "He was born in 1840 and lived in New York and then moved to Chicago and then to Michigan."

V: "Do you have any idea why he moved""

R: " No, why would that matter? All I want to know is if this is his father? I do know that he ended up in Delta County in 1860."

V: "Let's see where he went and take a look at Delta County. [Opening Google Maps and tracing the route from New York to Michigan and then looking at street view of the town in Michigan]

R: "You are wasting my time. Why do I care where he lived or what it looked like? All I want to know is whether or not this is his father?"

V: [Opening up the FamilySearch Library Catalog on an adjacent computer] "Here are some possible sources for that county and for Michigan. Perhaps you can look for a probate file since he died in the time period covered by this source."

R: "What is a probate? All I want to know is whether this is his father."

V: [After explaining probate and checking the date of creation of the county] It looks like he arrived very early in the county history. Maybe you should look for a history of the county. [Searching on Google Books and finding several county histories] "Here is a county history and you may also want to look at some land records"

R: "I don't have time for all that. I am merely wanting to know if this is his father?" [Pointing to the Public Member Family Tree showing a father and mother for the ancestor]

V: "By the way, how are you related to this family and who are they?"

R: "I don't really know anything about them, I just want to know if this is his father?"

This type of conversation takes place regularly. The patron is ready to copy the Public Member Family Tree but feels some vague uneasiness about the about of "proof" that the family is related. All she really wants is for the Volunteer to tell her to copy the name, so she can move on to the next generation. Talk about maps, migration, histories, probates, and land records simply bounce off like water on Teflon. The single-minded purpose of extending the pedigree one more generation does not include any interest in the family "as individuals" at all. All that is important is a name, a date (any date) and some place (any place).

I have been writing about the acceptance of genealogy as an academic pursuit. This sort of attitude and unwillingness to look at the surrounding information is one very good representative model of why genealogy is considered a mere hobby and not considered worthy of serious attention by historians.

The individual Researcher in this example is not at fault. No one has ever taught her how to do research. She is compelled by whatever motive to document her family line, but cannot see the utility of adding the "nonessential and extraneous" details that she does not find interesting. There is nothing about stories or photos that will motivate her to move off of the task of finding names and dates.

The danger, of course, is that without substantiating details and analysis, she may simply choose to follow a user generated family tree with no support and add to the huge collection of copied trees. There is nothing particularly dramatic or unusual about this conversation other than the fact that it is an example of one that takes place almost every time I help someone in the FamilySearch Library. I am always hoping that I will be able to help the person broaden the scope of their inquiry and begin to the see the larger picture of families acting on the stage of history and not as numbers and names.

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