Friday, September 2, 2011

The Situation of Family & Genealogy

Don’t you get tired of that look? That glazed-over look? That blank stare? You know, the look you get when, in response to a family history question from a family member, you start explaining in great detail how you were able to find that small (And I mean, small.) village in what is now Poland, but once was a part of the Prussian Empire, where your great-grandfather was born.

And what I have to say next is going to shock and even dismay you. So sit down and get comfortable before reading any further. Ready?

  • They could care less about how you successfully – after years and years of searching and pulling your hair out – found the name of that small (And I mean, small.) village in Poland that your great-grandfather was born in.
  • They don’t care that your great-grandfather no doubt repeated several times for the clerk the name of that small (And I mean, small.) village so that the clerk could phonetically spell it on his declaration of intent to become a citizen of the United States.
  • They don’t care that you spent days and days closing your eyes and sounding out the name of the small (I mean, small.) village trying to come up with possible spellings.
  • They don’t care that you spent days and days Googling those silly spellings.
  • They don’t care that you stared at his passport application and that blob of ink, that should have correctly identified that small (I mean, small.) village, did not once morph into perfectly shaped letters.
  • They don’t care that you went through all the towns and cities that begin with the letter “G” listed in an index of a current European atlas hoping you can find one that sounds like the one phonetically spelled out on his declaration of intent.
  • They don’t care that there are, like, a gazillion towns and cities in that index that start with the letter “G” or that you are practically blind now because of how small the type is in that index.
  • They don’t care that you have spent countless hours poring over old maps online and offline looking for that small (I mean, small.) village.
  • They don’t care that you bought a subscription to an historic map site so you could find that small (I mean, small.) village.
  • They don’t care that you absolutely must have the name of that small (I mean, small.) village in order to go back any further.
  • They don’t care that you queried on Twitter with a Twit Pic a Photoshop-enhanced copy of his passport application hoping that someone could see what you had not.
  • They don’t care that you only received 2 responses, one of which was a good-hearted person from Germany who was unsuccessful at identifying that small (And I mean, small.) village.
  • They don’t care that the second response led you to a site that led you to another site that had a database that allowed wild card searching of names of current and former cities and villages of the former Prussia and what is now Poland, where that small (And I mean, small) village was found.
  • They don’t care that that village is so small (And I mean, small.) it probably only exists today because it’s an archaeological site.

Basically? They don’t care about all those details. And let’s face it. We do what we do because we love those details. We don’t just live in those details. We revel in them. For us, the difference between generations is in the details. The difference between failure and success is in those details.

And our loved ones? What do they care about? I’ll tell you what they care about.

  • They care whether this same great-grandfather’s son, Big Paw Paw, fathered any other children with his many mistresses and/or wives.
  • They want to know the details of Big Paw Paw’s will, and why he wrote it the way he did.
  • They want to know why, if she’s still living, you haven’t contacted Big Paw Paw’s last mistress. (Awkward, much?)
  • They want to see Big Paw Paw’s photos, and, wow, wasn’t he good looking?
  • They want to know every last detail about each of Big Paw Paw’s divorces.
  • They want to know why Big Paw Paw sued his sister.
  • They want to know why Big Paw Paw was kicked out of his family.
  • They want to know why Big Paw Paw was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

That’s right. While you’ve been carefully crafting research work that would (in your dreams) be worthy of The History Channel, your loved ones just want to know how the family compares to an episode of Jersey Shore.

So what to do? Don’t force the details on your family. [Yes. Give them ‘Snooki’ and ‘The Situation.’] Give them what they want in the format they’ll appreciate. Give them the stories, the photos, and give them a chance to add to all of that in a way they can understand. By engaging family members in a non-technical way, you’re more likely to get their input, their stories, their rumors, their secrets, and – dare I say – their details that may be just what you need to find the parish your great-grandfather was more than likely baptized in near that small (And I mean, small) village ~ all without that glazed-over look in their eyes.

Are you going to the Federation of Genealogical Societies conference (FGS2011) next week in Springfield, IL? Join Thursday morning, Sept. 8th at their Engaging Your Family in Genealogy breakfast panel. I’ll be in attendance, but if that doesn’t do it for you [grin], D. Joshua Taylor (Co-chair 2011 FGS Conference), Dear Myrtle (Pat Richley), and Jonathan Good (Co-founder 1000memories) will be on the panel. Space is limited and you must RSVP. For more information please visit the blog.



  1. Funny and so true. It takes a special kind of person to be willing to lose their eyesight over the details. And other kinds of people only care about the stories and the photos, the juicier the better.

  2. That's why the World Wide Web is so great. You can reach out and share with lots of people who DO care about how you found the name of that small (And I mean, small.) village in Poland that your great-grandfather was born in. People like me :)

  3. Sigh ... so true. I brought my in-laws a binder full of copies of death certs, immigration papers, probate papers, and much more. My mother-in-law loved the picture from Google Maps of her grandparents' house. My father-in-law said, "I'm glad you are interested in and can follow this stuff, because I ..." (and here he shakes his head). That's one of the reasons I write a blog. 'Cause you guys understand.

  4. And they don't care even when you try to make a beautiful website filled with photos of family members--living and deceased--linked to their family group sheets with citations linked to images of the documents also tagged and linked to the family group sheets of other people mentioned in the documents, and all of the locations mentioned in any of the records were linked to Google Maps showing all of the events in each individual's life, including exact addresses where possible...

    So I stopped trying to interest any of them. I stick to my blog and Twitter and mailing lists.

  5. Of course there's a catch-22 here. We can't share the stories unless we know the details but don't expect 'them' to care how much time and stress we put into finding them.

    I think the next generation is going to take all this utterly for granted,(even more so) clueless about the grunt work that it took to put it together.

    The moral of this sad tale: Enjoy it for what it is, not for what you hope other people get out of it.

  6. That was laugh-out-loud funny, because I can completely relate. I'm detail oriented (can't help myself), so I've had to tell myself several times "they" don't care about the details or how I found whatever-it-is; just give 'em the story/juicy bits.

  7. So true. I remember giving a presentation last year at the family reunion about my great grandfather and before giving it, one of my cousins, who was the MC, said we just want to know the juicy stuff. Luckily, I had already consulted with a few of my online geneabuds, and had geared it toward that.

    There weren't any big bombshells, to me, but they were definitely excited by the fact that great granddad had been married before he married great grandmom, etc. They definitely didn't care how I located that info.

  8. I just did that recently. Finally tracked our ancestors to a small (I mean, small) village in modern-day Poland. And everything you said is true.

  9. Thanks for commenting on my blog post pointed this way! Just enjoyed re-reading this, again! ;-)

  10. Thanks y'all for reading and relating. Sometimes we just have to see things from their point of view and get them interested any way we can.


  11. Great post! I know "the look" followed with the rolled eyes.


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