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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Don’t Expect Your Children to Read Your Life Story

Genealogy has always been part of my life. From the time I was a young child, I have heard stories about my ancestors. When I was very young, these stories centered around those ancestors who were "pioneers" and crossed the Plains to the western part of the United States. As I grew older, the stories became more specific and I learned about a series of books that had been written about various ancestors. I usually date the beginning of my genealogical research from the time I actually began looking at pedigree charts and adding and correcting information which was much later in my life.

I am certainly not claiming that my family and my specific set of ancestors is in any way representative, but one thing I do know is that unless you are "interested" in genealogy or family history in more than a casual way, such as when I was much younger, you really aren't that aware of the codified stories of your ancestors. I used to give short tours of the Mesa FamilySearch Library that included looking at the huge collection of "surname books." The people on the tours we almost uniformly surprised to learn that there could be a published book about one of their ancestors.

Over the years, I have observed that very few people outside of the active genealogical community are even aware that their ancestors may have left a record of their lives or that some descendant compiled a history or pedigree of an ancestor's descendants or progenitors. What is more interesting is that even if these people outside of the genealogical community have a copy of a book or manuscript, it is highly likely that they have never looked at it or read it.

Even among the active adherents of genealogical research, there is a commonly held belief that "surname books" are unreliable sources for genealogical data. Likewise, biographies and autobiographies are also suspect.

So why are genealogists so intent on either compiling or writing family histories? The reality is that these compiled histories are extremely valuable. The genealogists who compile such documents are personally the greatest beneficiaries of the process. Those who find the books and other records years after their publication also benefit from the effort. But what is usually the case, those who are directly related to the author usually do not have enough interest to even read the entire work. The main interest lies in those who are more distantly related; grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on.

If your only motivation in compiling a personal history is to benefit your immediate family, you may be disappointed at the results of all your work. But if you realize that your work will only become appreciated over time, you will see how that work will affect future generations that you may never have a chance to see or meet in this life. If you focus on your more distant descendants and families, you will not be disappointed at the lack of interest shown by your closer relatives.

From my perspective, a true genealogist is not motivated solely by what others may think or how they may benefit from his or her work. A true genealogist is motivated more by involvement with the search and the pleasure of discovery rather than the expectation that someone will be benefitted.


  1. James, you are so right! My mother gave me the itch of genealogy, but I have no family or cousins that have it. Maybe some day they will but probably not in my lifetime.

  2. Interesting perspective! It can be the start of an interesting discussion (or perhaps a keynote address?) Thanks!