Saturday, February 5, 2011

Life Before Genealogy - And How It Shapes Our Genealogy Paths Now

I have had some interesting conversations lately that have gotten me thinking about the paths we all take to genealogy – particularly those who are deeply involved in the genealogy community either as volunteers or as professionals. I love to hear about people’s “lives before genealogy.” Of course, we each have a different path that brought us to genealogy. And I think this is wonderful – and important. Because we come to genealogy from different directions and backgrounds, we bring different skills and experiences with us. That means that we each have something unique to contribute.

The first conversation that got me thinking about this was an interview I did with Pamela Boyer Sayre. I’ll post the interview next week – so be sure to check back then. She talked about her life before genealogy working as a police detective and a computer programmer. I’ll write more next week, but you can imagine the skills that she brought with her to genealogy. The second was an interview my friend, Marian Pierre-Louis of the Roots and Ramble blog, did with me. As we talked about genealogy research and my book, The Journey Takers, I thought about how I got where I am – and then where I want to go in the future.

I have wanted to be a writer, specifically an author of books, since I was five years old – long before I had any idea what a genealogist was! There has never been a day since then that I didn’t want to be a writer. My interest in genealogy didn’t get sparked until years later. That’s a story by itself – maybe I’ll write another post about that.

In college, I was a history major. I studied at Brigham Young University, probably the only college in the country where it was actually possible to major in family history. But I didn’t. I actually considered it, but my advisor said that since I planned to go to graduate school, I would be better off with a straight history major. I focused on German history and on social history. In fact, I had a minor in sociology. One of my favorite college courses was a class called “Social History” taught by Dr. Kathryn Daynes.

In some ways, I only had a short life before genealogy. My first job out of college was working full time as a professional genealogist, tracing other people’s German roots. Still, my interest in writing and social history has continued to impact my genealogy path. I don’t take clients now. Instead, I write for genealogy magazines. I do not see myself as a genealogist who likes to write. I see myself as a genealogist and as a writer. In other words, writing is not simply part of my genealogy identity. It is an identity of its own. I have never written exclusively for genealogy publications. I have also published articles in straight history magazines on topics like colonial etiquette and Henry Hudson and in other publications on topics not really related to genealogy at all such as indigestion in pregnancy and on a program that helped narrow the racial achievement gap in Wisconsin schools. I have also hoped that The Journey Takers can reach beyond the genealogy community to appeal to people who relate to its story as mothers of small children even if they don’t relate as genealogists.

As for what the future holds, I hope to continue combining writing, social history, and genealogy. To me, they are so intertwined that it is impossible to separate them. I hope the future holds another book or two too! (A small confession: my “dream job” for the future would also combine being a professional traveler – but I haven’t figured out a way to get paid to go on vacation yet. I’m still pondering this…)

I’d love to hear about your “life before genealogy” or your "life outside genealogy" and how that has shaped your course as a genealogist – what skills you have brought with you or what skills you continue to focus on now because of your “other” interests.


  1. This is an interesting question - life before genealogy. That was so long ago. My interest goes back to around 1990 and was inspired by my grandmother.

    At that time my husband and I were busy raising kids and I was volunteering in the school and community and working in medical research (arthritis and immunology at that point). Kids are now grown up, I am retired and I have more time to indulge in my passion for genealogy. Life is busy and full :)

  2. I've always wanted to be a travel writer too. Seems like the perfect job!

  3. I started doing genealogy research before the Internet opened up, in 1988. I was still working, and went to the FHC every Saturday as I gradually discovered my ancestry.

    It wasn't until retirement in 2002, and again in 2006, that I really started writing and speaking, and now it's a 8-10 hour a day "job" it seems.

    I was an aerospace engineer, conversant in FORTRAN and MSWord and MSExcel and loved to do engineering research and analysis, so picking up the genealogy research rope was right up my alley, so to speak.

    There's life outside of genealogy? Who knew? Where? Why? I don't have time...

    Cheers -- Randy

  4. Before I found genealogy in 1985 I was a software engineer for Digital Equipment Corporation having achieved my BS in Mathematics in three years. I also worked for two other computer companies before quitting to be at home with a baby. Genealogy was how I then filled the nap-time hours. It was logical and an empty form that needed to be filled in. I wanted to update a family history written in 1893. Still working on that!

  5. In late 1994, before I became a genealogy addict (er, I mean researcher), I was doing the same job I am now -teaching English on the secondary level. Three events coincided to "stick me with needle." My uncle died and my cousins were together for the first time in many years so I had a chance to fill in some basic charts I had made, we purchased a computer with internet access so I found the chat rooms of AOL and Compuserve, and a trip to my dad's hometown of Allentown, PA produced a cemetery where every Alexander buried there was a member of our extended family. I was hooked! Now I continue to squeeze any available free time into this passion.

  6. Great post! This made me realize how I reached this point. Like you, I wanted to be a writer since age 5, completed my journalism degree with minors in history, political science and English. Photojournalism was my side avocation for years. In journalism school, our punishment for typos or fact errors was to write obituaries on famous (living) people. After 3 obituaries my first week, I didn't make any more typos!

    I've been doing web sites for more than 10 years, public speaking and training. All of these experiences are finally meshing together in my genealogy work. At last, how I got here all seems to be a perfect progression and it all makes sense.

  7. Foreign languages are my vocation and genealogy is my avocation. Foreign languages didn't exactly lead me to genealogy, but they did provide some of the research skills that come in handy for genealogy. It isn't enough to know the languages to be able to translate competently, it is also necessary to know something about the subjects being translated and to be able to find out more information about specific aspects of a subject.

  8. Great post! I stumbled into genealogy in 2003. Then (and now) I was an accountant with several years of auditing in my work history. I find that I'm happy to spend hours sifting through data, building spreadsheets for common surnames to find the elusive ones that "belong" to me. I'm also comfortable with evaluating the evidence - looking at the balance of probabilities, and in English "auditor-speak" seeking a tree that shows a "true and fair view" of my family. Twenty something years of accountancy have clearly given me skills that can be applied outside of work!