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

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Finding Unusual and Unique Sources: The Traits of a Great Genealogist

Poirot, Marple, Monk, Foyle, Spencer, Chan and Sherlock all have something in common. They have unusually highly developed powers of observation. They see things that others do not and can navigate their way through complex factual situations. A great genealogist has some of the same qualities, because after all is said and done, genealogy is mostly detective work. Instead of determining who did it, the genealogist determines who is it? Most of the difficult cases solved by the great fictional detectives are are either misdirected or lack evidence. Doesn't that sound familiar?

Another interesting trait of the great fictional detective is his or her knowledge of arcane information that turns out to be vital to the solution of the mystery. Great genealogists, in real life, not fiction, rely on prodigious memories and soak up facts like a sponge soaks up water.

These observations should not discourage anyone from enjoying the pursuit of genealogy. Just because there are professionals in sports does not mean ordinary people cannot enjoy playing baseball, basketball and hitting a ball around on a golf course. It is the nature of genealogy and its place in the world's social structure that genealogists are almost unknown and in some cases unknowable. Solving genealogical mysteries is not usually something noticed by other genealogists. In fact, many of the people whose mysteries are solved do not ever realize what has been accomplished.

Genealogists who are famous in the genealogical community are usually those who teach, write or speak very well. None of these particular traits are those that help solve genealogical mysteries. Some of the really great genealogists I know personally are not particularly great at teaching, writing or speaking at conferences. They will not likely be found on the stage at RootsTech 2015 next year (but they may be) and they will seldom recognize their own greatness. The societal (and monetary) rewards for great genealogy are all but nonexistent. Some of the greatest genealogists could not make a living doing genealogy because they would spend too much time on each case to make it profitable.

Most researchers will gather records (sources) about their ancestors and pile them up like old newspapers and magazines and never go back and look at them. A great genealogist will read and reread the sources, hoping to extract one more smidgen of information that will help advance the research to the next level. For example, too many genealogists find a U.S. Census record (or the equivalent in their country) and automatically add it to their pile without examination. They fail to look at the order of the names, the estimated birth dates, the occupations, the residence, the native language, all things that give clues to the identity of the parents. The same situation exists with every other record. Another example is the Draft Registration Record. How much information about the registrant's parents can you get from this record? His family? His occupation? Will you go back again, and again, and again?

The hallmark of the great genealogist is his or her ability to move beyond the mundane and find the unusual or unique record. In doing this the most prominent trait is an almost infinite patience. It is the ability to keep looking when the negative results pile up and become overwhelming to the average researcher. The attitude of greatness is that there is always another source or document waiting just around the next corner or bend in the road and that all I have to do is spend a little more time and I will find it. This persistence separates the chaff from the wheat.

Can you aspire to greatness? Is becoming a great genealogist like ending up in NBA? You are either 7 feet tall or you're not and there is nothing you can do about it. Fortunately, natural ability is only a small part of the equation. Calvin Coolidge said it well,
Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
Paraphrasing, the world is full of intelligent, educated, talented genealogists who are not great. Greatness in genealogy does not come as a result of either money, fame, education or talent. It comes from persistence and observation of detail.

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