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

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Thoughts on the Process of Becoming a Genealogist

"Rothenburg ob der Tauber 2011 St Jakob 002" by Tilman2007 - Own work. Licensed under
CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
This past week, I helped out by teaching a class of about ten year old Cub Scouts about knife safety. Their next class was going to be an activity where they would do some simple soap carvings and they had been hearing about knife safety for some time. I can remember doing exactly the same thing when I was much younger. I took several of my knives and two swords for demonstration and to give them something to look at and not touch. This activity got me thinking about wood carving. My own efforts were confined to a very crude Boy Scout neckerchief slide. I have always been fascinated by the process of carving wood and some of my friends, over the years, have been experts. Nothing like the piece shown above, but still, very impressive.

What would it take for me to move from my casual interest in woodcarving to become proficient? First, I would have to learn some basic techniques, but I would also have to purchase and learn to use some basic tools. Here is an example of some of the tools I might need to buy:

"Carving tools 2" by Aerolin55 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
Even if I purchased the tools, I would have to spend years of constant effort (and have some native ability and skills) to produce anything that approaches a finely carved object. In fact, my carving project would probably look a lot more like this:

"WoodBlock" by っ. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
From the standpoint of a casual observer, genealogy or family history (or whatever you want to call it) may have the attraction of finding out "interesting" stuff about your family. There is no doubt that the stories and photos part of family history can be engaging, inspiring and intensely interesting. But at some point, if a casual interest matures into a desire to find out more, the reality of doing genealogical research basically changes the whole aspect of the pursuit. Just like woodcarving, genealogical research is a skill that can be acquired over time.

I have seen hundreds (perhaps thousands) of examples of fine woodcarving, but I am still an absolute novice. I even have gone so far as to acquire a set of woodcarving knives, but that still does not get me past the level of a non-participant. Why didn't my interest in woodcarving mature beyond a casual interest? Perhaps, I saw the amount of time and work it would take to become proficient?

Along with my casual interest in woodcarving, I have also been interested in the more general area of woodworking. I had a couple of "shop" classes in grade school and learned the fundamentals. Over the years, I have acquired a lot of sophisticated tools and my most recent successful project was a quilt stand for my wife that came out quite well. This is a skill where I am adequate but not expert. Some of my early projects are acceptable but not perfect. I always have a project in mind, but seldom spend the time to actually make something. Right now, I am focusing on building a balsa model airplane.

When does a "hobby" like woodcarving or woodworking become more than a hobby? Is it the skill or the time involved?

Now, when we say that we want to "research" our family history, the skills needed are not nearly as obvious as they are for a pursuit such as woodcarving or woodworking. In addition, to be quite frank, not too many people think of sitting in a library or researching online as a leisure activity. Any pursuit that moves beyond the casual stage, begins to look more and more like real work. For that reason alone, most people who have "an interest" in their family history, never get beyond the neckerchief slide level of investigating their family.

Can we attract a lot of people to the pursuit of their family history? Well, we can design computer programs that will lessen the "work" part of the activity, but there are still some skills that cannot be replaced by computer programs. Going back to my model building activity.

Again, when I was much, much younger, I built a balsa and paper tow-line glider. It was a fairly complex project for a teenager. The problem I had when I got through was that the plane would not fly well. My current interest in building balsa models is to see if I can, in my old age, correct the problems I experienced with my very early efforts.

I have now spent nearly half my long life doing genealogical research. I am still learning new things almost every day. I am still trying to find out how to do my work more efficiently and with more accuracy. Why didn't I reach this level of involvement with woodcarving, woodworking or model building? Probably because my native skill set is skewed more towards libraries and books than manual dexterity.

When I look back on the time I have spent doing genealogical research, I am convinced that it would take a similar effort by anyone else to gain the skills I have. Of course, there are people with a lot more natural talent, but talent alone is not nearly enough. You have to spend the time and effort. Can we make genealogy so "attractive" that anyone can and will want to "do their genealogy?" Well, so far, we haven't hit on the right combination and the proliferation of online family trees shows the results of our attempts to do so. Maybe we need to find the very few people who can do genealogy very well and focus on helping them do their work, instead of focusing on the very large group of people who have no interest in doing genealogy in other than a very casual and superficial way?

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