Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The intimidated genealogist?

A fellow blogger recently introduced me to the idea that discussions of advanced genealogy might scare off beginners. The idea came as a surprise, but it sure made me think.

* I reflected on my experience as a one-day attendee at the 2006 National Genealogical Society conference in Chicago. I attended a talk and walked around the booths and asked some questions. But I just didn't process most of the stuff I didn't understand. I wasn't discouraged, but I didn't learn a whole lot either.

* Intimidation might be a factor when I think I know something (or how to do something) and it soon becomes clear that I really don't. Sometimes I choose to dive in and learn more. Often I choose to back off -- either to focus on other activities; or to save time, money, and exasperation; or both. (That was my lesson in do-it-yourself car repair!). We can't all be good at everything. But in order to make the decision we need to know that there is more to learn.

* In the course of events I do a lot of driving. I have no interest in professional driving of the NASCAR variety, and if I ran into one of their professional discussions it wouldn't intimidate me or make me quit driving.

* To take a humbler but topical example, shoveling snow. Here I was a very slow learner even though I was exposed to better. Our neighbor is an expert. But it took me a decade or more living in a snow belt to appreciate the value of a simple tool she used: a snow scoop rather than a snow shovel.

* Arguably a bigger problem may be that beginners aren't exposed enough to advanced material. I "did genealogy" for most of a decade before I realized there was anything more advanced. I think of the story Tom Jones tells in the introduction to Mastering Genealogical Proof, in which he almost quit genealogy -- not because he'd been intimidated, but because he had not been exposed to advanced work and believed that his family's brick walls were insurmountable.

[FYI: tomorrow is this blog's 6th birthday; according to Blogger, this is the 1306th post.]

Harold Henderson, "The intimidated genealogist?," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 22 January 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Madaleine J. Laird said...

Harold, I think you're onto something with "beginners aren't exposed enough to advanced material." That was the source of my frustration when I got serious about genealogy, and I definitely felt more frustrated than intimidated. I would occasionally pick up one of the popular genealogy magazines at the newsstand (many of which have ceased publication by now), but a lot of the "tips and tricks" they offered seemed . . . what's the word I'm looking for . . . basic? obvious? Something along those lines.

An article about going on a research trip, for example, advised readers to "dress in layers," because sitting in air conditioned repositories for hours on end can get chilly. I lived in Southern California at the time I read that article, in an area where microclimates could vary by as much as fifty degrees within thirty miles. Dressing in layers was already part of my routine, so that bit of advice didn't resonate with me the way it might have with another reader.

Most of the articles in the popular magazines seem to boil down to, "Hey, did you know that you can find information about your ancestors here?" I guess I just caught on quickly to the idea that sources created and maintained by people would contain valuable information about <> people, and once I understood that concept, which still seems pretty basic and obvious to me, I didn't need to read endless variations on the same theme. This is when I started thinking that surely there must be more to genealogy.

I started going to a local genealogical society's meetings, hoping that people who shared my interest could tell me more. At one meeting a member triumphantly announced that she'd been "doing genealogy" for forty years and had finally found the elusive ancestor she'd been searching for. Poor woman, I thought, horrified. She's been looking for that guy for as long as I've been alive! Then my horror turned to bewilderment. Exactly what had she been doing while she'd been "doing genealogy" for the past forty years? Had she been doing it wrong all that time? If so, why hadn't this organization put her on the right track? I'd already sensed that "doing genealogy" involved more than searching and finding, but I still couldn't figure out what that "more" might be, or why no one in the local genealogical society was talking about it.

That society was the only game in town, genealogically speaking, so I kept going to meetings and hoping for more, and one day I happened upon an old issue of NGSQ on the sale table. As soon as I turned to a page that contained more footnotes than text, I realized that scholarly journals were the "more" I'd been looking for . . . and I'd never seen any reference to them in the popular magazines. Within a year of finding that copy of NGSQ, I was off to Samford . . . and I'd never come across a reference to IGHR in the popular magazines either.

I'm not sure how people in other fields discover that there's more to learn. I don't know, for example, how a shutterbug gets serious about photography. Maybe he/she joins a camera club, or happens upon the work of Dorothea Lange or Ansel Adams while flipping through a book or walking through a museum. I do know that I never happened upon the work of a FASG member while reading the popular genealogy magazines. Perhaps I was reading the wrong issues at the wrong time, or maybe I gave up on them too soon, but I think it's more likely that there's just a very wide gulf between popular and serious/scholarly genealogy. If the connection were stronger, I can't help thinking that surely that poor woman who'd been "doing genealogy" for forty years would have covered a lot more ground in a lot less time.

Harold Henderson said...

Wow. Thanks, Madaleine!

Geolover said...

Madaleine well describes a gap that needs to be addressed by genealogy-interested/centered organizations, bloggers, and ?whoever else.

One approach would be more concerted mentoring at conferences and within organizations which do outreach. What you lacked, Harold, at the NGS conference, was immediate conversation about what had been presented by the speaker, and opportunity to apply it to what genealogical work you already had done and planned.

The RootsTech conference in this sense may be doing something backward, with its youth day last. It should be first, and mentors should be offering guidance on what further sessions that would be helpful for each person's research plan development.

So small-group mentoring sessions could be held after each major presentation, and large organizations' conferences should have mentoring centers where people can go for research help, further insight on session presentations, and that personal-contact benefit that can really spark understanding of the depth of possibilities.