Monday, February 28, 2011

The Inside Scoop on FamilySearch

The St. George Family History Expo is over and I am now in Logan, UT. I drove the first 45 minutes to Cedar City on Saturday night after my book signing. I knew a snowstorm was coming through, but I was confident I could manage. After all, I have been driving in snow for sixteen years! Well, let’s just say it was the worst driving experience of my life. About the time I got too far to turn around, the rain changed to snow – thick, blowing snow. I went 20 miles an hour the rest of the way, often barely able to see the road in front of me. I was a nervous wreck by the time I arrived. Fortunately, the five and half hour drive the next day was much smoother!

I had a great time at the Expo. One of the highlights was a fascinating hour-long conversation I had with Jim Greene, the Marketing Director of FamilySearch. I interviewed him for an article I am writing for Family Chronicle magazine. You’ll be able to read all about it in that magazine in a few months, but I wanted to share some of the highlights about the changes – and what lies ahead for FamilySearch.

First, Jim and I spent some time talking about what has changed the most at the new FamilySearch site (not to be confused with – but the new version of I hope most of you have had the chance to see the site and experiment with some of its new features. The site has now integrated the Wikis that have been in development for some time. You’ll find them under the “Learn” tab. I was relieved to learn that EVERYTHING that was formerly included in the Research Outlines, Resource Guides, Letter-Writing Guides etc. is now found here.

Access to original records continues to expand. Many of the changes that I had been hearing about for years have now been implemented in this section. In addition to adding digitized, indexed records that you can access on FamilySearch, they have also begun to implement two other models of accessing records. First, they have begun to put digitized images online that you can browse even before they are indexed. And second, you can now find searchable indexes on FamilySearch that link to commercial websites (often requiring paid subscriptions) for images of the original records.

Finally, I have been hearing rumors for years of a new, integrated Family History Library Catalogue (FHLC). In fact, I was supposed to write an article on it some time back, but the article was canceled because the new version of the FHLC kept getting delayed. But, now it is up and running – or some parts of it are, anyway. Now, when you search the FHLC, if the record is available on the FamilySearch site, there will be a link to the record. And here’s a sneak peek into the future: FamilySearch envisions a day when this will be open to the community just like the Wikis are. Anyone will be able to add links to records – and not just FamilySearch records, but any online record. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

I also learned what else the future holds for FamilySearch. Of course, more original records will be added to the site. FamilySearch has 200 camera crews working with other repositories such as NARA to digitize records. They also continue to digitize their own records. Of course, indexing lags far behind the digitization. So if you aren’t already helping with indexing, don’t forget that your help can bring these indexes online faster by participating in the program (you can learn more here).

I also wanted to know what the future was for the confusing array of sites. Now, there is which has the new facelift. From there, you can link to the “old” FamilySearch site. And finally, if you are a member of the LDS Church you can access the interactive family trees available at In the future, these will all be combined to one FamilySearch site – open to everyone. The interactive family trees will not only allow people to change and correct information as they do now, but upload original documents, photos etc. to the trees like many personal software programs currently do. When will the general public gain access to these trees? FamilySearch plans to begin to unroll it soon – but only a little at a time to make sure their server can handle the additional users.

I also asked Jim about the reception the changes have received. He was very honest about this, telling me that at first the response was overwhelmingly negative. He attributes this both to changes they needed to make and to the simple fact that is often hard for people to get used to something new. Over the past couple of months, the feedback has shifted to include more positive responses, but negative responses still outnumber the positive. He encourages anyone with specific criticisms (not the blanket “I hate the new site”) to send their comments in to FamilySearch because they read these carefully and try to make adjustments accordingly.

For more information, watch for my upcoming article in Family Chronicle Magazine.

I also wanted to post a few pictures from the conference. Author Bridget Cook was the dinner speaker on Friday night. Here she is (in the center) talking with two attendees. She talked about our genealogy skeletons in the closet and her new book, Shattered Silence: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer’s Daughter. Probably few of us have skeletons in the closet that large!

Here I am at my book signing in the exhibit hall with a distant cousin I just met. I mentioned one of my ancestors in my lecture and Joyce came up afterwards to tell me that we shared this ancestor. What a fun surprise!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Hanging Out at the Exhibit Hall at the St. George Family History Expo

I am now sitting inside the exhibit hall at the St. George Family History Expo. It’s a little dead right now since most people are in a lecture. There’s a lot of wonderful lectures, but I also like hanging out in the exhibit hall.

After my lecture in Henderson last night, I hopped in the car and drove an hour and a half to stay with my old college roommate. We stayed up until 1 a.m. (which is 4 a.m. in Massachusetts) talking and catching up – and now I am feeling the consequences of it! I wish I could find a little corner and curl up to take a nap right now!

This morning, I drove the rest of the way to St. George and gave my first lecture at the conference “Beyond Names and Dates: Uncovering Your Ancestors’ Stories.” In this lecture, I read a section of my book at the end. This section tells the story of Edmond and Eliza Harris. I don’t want to steal my own thunder, but the basic premise is that Eliza and her two small children set sail in 1855 from Australia to California. On October 4, their ship crashed into a reef – with disastrous consequences. Although my ancestors didn’t leave behind any descriptions of the event (or anything at all actually), others described the wreck in detail. It really is a tragic, heartbreaking story.

I have read this story lots of times as part of a lecture. Yet, as pathetic as this may be, I still get emotional when I read it. It’s actually kind of embarrassing. It reminds me though of how deep the personal connection we feel to ancestors can be when we do the research to “get to know them” – when they cease to be just names and dates to us and become actual people.

But, back to the conference! Why do I like hanging out in the exhibit hall so much? I enjoy wandering around all the booths and seeing everything they have to offer. There’s someone here with a “black sheep” display. He is an expert on researching criminal ancestors. He sells a book, a T-shirt, and even stuffed black sheep that he collects from around the world. I enjoyed talking to a woman from the Daughters of Utah Pioneers (DUP) here in St. George and had a nice conversation with a woman from the UGA (Utah Genealogy Association) that it turns out is the sister-in-law of my husband’s uncle – whose house I will be sleeping at tomorrow night. What a small world! FamilySearch has a large booth here as do several genealogy software programs, where people can answer your questions and help you learn to use the product more effectively.

The point here is that, of course, the main reason most people go to genealogy conferences is to attend the lectures. But, don’t forget that another one of the best reasons to attend a conference is to wander around the exhibit hall – see the newest genealogy developments and talk to people who share your interest. Often, exhibit halls are open to the public. So even if you don’t register for the conference, you might consider stopping by to visit the exhibit hall!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Viva Las Vegas

I am typing this from the Paseo Verde Library in Henderson, Nevada – right outside Las Vegas. I have begun my whirlwind trip! And I am pleased to report that I survived the airplane ride with my sixteen-month-old. I do not consider myself a wimp when it comes to flying with children. Christian flew when he was one week old. By the time my third child turned one, she had flown to all corners of the United States, across the ocean on two different round trip tickets, as well as to London, Paris, and Rome. I even flew across the ocean alone with three children – ages 5, 3, and five months.

But, I was really nervous for this flight with Christian. He is a pleasant, vibrant, charming toddler – but he is BUSY. He does not sit still for two minutes. Fortunately, we had a very patient person sitting next to us on the first flight (who didn’t seem at all phased when Christian latched hold of his shirt or threw his fruit snacks at him) and even lucked out with an empty seat next to us on the second flight. Christian hardly cried (which wasn’t what I was worried about). He climbed all over me during the first flight and slept through the second one. I was absolutely exhausted when we landed in Salt Lake City, but it was not nearly as bad as I had feared. (Of course, I still have to fly home with him….) Now, he is in Logan hanging out with my parents while I am enjoying the sunshine and 60 degree weather here!

My other three children are having a “daddy party,” as they call it, at home. I cried when I went through security because I felt so sad to leave them! I talked to them on the phone this afternoon and they seem to be surviving without too many emotional scars so far.

In a couple of hours, I will speak here at the Paseo Verde Library. Then when the lecture is finished, I will drive an hour and a half to sleep at my old college roommate’s house. Doesn’t that sound fun? I hadn’t seen her in years – I’d never met her husband or any of her four children – until this past summer. While on our marathon summer trip, we drove near her house on our way to Bakersfield, CA and stopped for a couple of hours. Now, I’ll get to see her again after just seven months.

Then, tomorrow I will join the St. George Family History Expo. I am excited! They have a wonderful program lined up. I will be blogging from there as they have internet access just for that purpose. You can check out their program here. Hopefully, I’ll be back again tomorrow with a report on the conference.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

My Marketing Philosophy

Many of my blog posts are prompted by interactions I have with other people – and this is one of them. I got an email recently complimenting me on my energy and efforts in promoting my book. As I told this person, her comment made me smile a little. I love writing and I love doing research, but – believe it or not - I do not love marketing.

Before my book was published, I had done basically zero marketing in my life. I mostly wrote for magazines. When I would finish a magazine assignment, I would send it to the editor and be done with it. I never gave a second thought to how many people were buying that magazine or how many people might read the article. That was not my responsibility.

In case you didn’t already know this, the same is not true for a book. In most cases, the author is very concerned about who is buying the book and who is reading it. And many authors feel a great deal of responsibility for it. For those of us lacking marketing experience, it can feel like a steep learning curve.

However, I think the most difficult part of marketing is not about knowing what to do – it’s about actually doing it. Most people find promotion to be uncomfortable. It was easy enough to read books with advice on how to promote a new book. It wasn’t always too easy to follow the advice though. But, as with anything else, the more I did it, the easier it got.

Let’s take lecturing for example. I speak at various events and conferences quite regularly. When I first started speaking, I would get nervous. I really don’t get nervous now – unless it’s a particularly large or intimidating (for one reason or another) crowd – or sometimes if it’s a new lecture. I just really enjoy speaking. When my book came out though, speaking took a different turn and I felt myself becoming nervous again.

The great majority of the lectures I gave before my book would come about because a society or library or other organization would contact me and indicate that they would like to invite me to speak. With my book coming out though, I needed a different approach. In order to get the information out there, I needed to speak at more places and I needed specifically to speak about my book. My book was new so nobody would know that the book existed to even consider inviting me to speak about it – unless I told them about it.

Instead of waiting for invitations to come to me, I began choosing places I wanted to speak at. I contacted societies I had spoken at in the past to let them know about my new topic, but I also needed to reach outside my comfort zone. I chose some places that I would drive through on our marathon summer trip or other trips. Then I contacted them. Of course, the least threatening way to contact people is by email. But this doesn’t always work – especially when it’s not really clear who you should contact. Emails fall between the cracks. Phone calls sometimes work better. But they can be scary. I remember calling a major library to pitch my idea for a talk soon after my book came out. I was so nervous that I had a hard time catching my breath while I was talking to the woman. I must have sounded like I had paused my exercise video in the middle to call her!

As I have thought about my marketing efforts the last few months, I have come to the conclusion that I have developed three main marketing philosophies that have helped me.

1) (This philosophy was inspired by words of advice from another genealogist.) I began to think of my pitches etc. not as attempts to sell my book, but as simple efforts to disseminate information. Although really just a shift in my thoughts, it helped me feel less pressure. I also could feel like I was doing something useful (often offering to share my knowledge) instead of something semi-obnoxious - trying to convince people to buy something.

2) I would remind myself that I believe in my book (or for you, it could be another product – your lecturing skills, your research skills etc.). I think my book has something positive to contribute. In my case, I never wrote it with sales goals in mind anyway. I wrote it because I had a story to tell that I believed mattered.

3) Rejection is part of life. Now this was not a new philosophy. This is a necessary lesson to learn if you want to be a writer at all. I would sometimes give myself a little pep talk and say, “The worst this person can do is say no. And then I will be no worse off than I am now.” I wasn’t going to risk missing out on an opportunity just because I was afraid of what someone I would never see again (in most cases) might think of me or my idea.

So there you have it. My marketing wisdom. I am still learning as I go, but I have found that having these basic philosophies in place helps make the path a little less bumpy.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My Amazing Phone Call

As anyone reading this knows, I published a book last summer called The Journey Takers. It uses the story of my immigrant ancestors to tell the larger story of the Western European immigration experience. To tell their stories, I did research for ten years. I tracked down every record that mentioned my family, every town history of any place they ever lived, and stacks of first-hand accounts of events they experienced written by all kinds of other people, in addition to reading scholarly journals and books describing the political, historical, social etc. setting of their lives. I visited the Family History Library in Salt Lake City lots of times, ordered in dusty, forgotten manuscripts from libraries across the country to the University of Wisconsin library (we lived in Madison at the time), and even trekked to archives and local churches in Germany, Sweden, and England.

In other words, I was thorough. I knew everything there was to know about the family. Or so it seemed.

Then last week, I got a phone call. This is the kind of phone call every genealogist imagines getting one day. This phone call was from a long, lost cousin (third or fourth cousin, I think) who had (are you ready for this?) original letters written from my family in the 1800s in Germany. She’s not exactly sure what they are because they are in German and she can’t read them. Maybe they are letters the family wrote to each other while they still lived in Germany. Or maybe they are letters the family wrote and sent across the ocean.


What do they say? I don’t know yet! She’s meeting me at my lecture in Provo and I’ll get to lay eyes on them for the first time – and leave the lecture with them in my possession.

I did thousands of hours of research, but I had no idea about these letters. Surprising? It shouldn’t be.

When I was in college, one of my professors used to talk about the “one true branch of the family tree fallacy.” (Note: I went to Brigham Young University which is probably the only place where college students can take classes about family history and professors develop theories such as this.)

The fallacy goes something like this: (I seem to be big on fallacies lately. I’m not really sure why.) Great-Great-Grandma Mary did not leave behind a dairy. If she had left behind a diary, I would definitely know about it (added silently: and probably even have the diary itself in my possession).

What is being implied: Something as important as a diary would be known to my family because, after all, I belong to the ONE TRUE branch of the family tree.

Logically, this doesn’t make sense of course. We can use my family as an example. My immigrant ancestors, my great-great-great grandparents came from Germany in 1880. They had ten children, eight of whom married. My great-great-grandfather had thirteen children, nine of whom married. My great-grandfather had six children, five of whom married and four of whom had children (one had 12 children). My grandfather also had six children. I have dozens of first cousins. Think of how many second cousins I have – or third cousins. If my immigrant ancestor kept a diary and passed it on to his youngest daughter (I’m descended from the oldest son), it’s very possible that I would have never heard of it. After all, I have no idea who these people are. Even if they had disseminated the information about the diary to their several hundred closest family members, I STILL wouldn’t know. And what if the person who had it didn’t realize its value and kept it in a box in the basement? (We won’t even consider the ghastly possibility that someone tossed it out with the trash…)

So, what can we do? Well, we can expand our circle as much as possible. Let everyone in the family know that we are collecting information about the family. Post information online so that others can find us that way. Contact not only first cousins, but second and third cousins if possible.

Of course this distant relative of mine contacted me because of my book. If there had never been a book, I would still have no idea about these letters.

It makes me wonder what else might be floating around out there about my ancestors!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Valentine's Day Traditions

It seems to me that holidays are all about kids. (Now maybe this is because in my life these days nearly everything is all about kids!) It’s hard for me to imagine Halloween without children. Or what about Christmas without kids? And, I even feel the same way about Valentine’s Day.

This might not be how other people feel about Valentine’s Day at all. When most people think of Valentine’s Day, they think of romance and love – adult sort of themes – not children. But I don’t find that part of Valentine’s Day to be all that exciting (maybe that says something about my marriage…just kidding!) Celebrating Valentine’s Day in our house is still a kid-centered activity – and it’s a lot of fun (a little tiring too).

I also think that holidays are about traditions. Some of these are traditions from our families when we were children that we are passing on. But often we have traditions that we start in our own families. I wanted to share a couple of our family’s Valentine traditions.

My family lives in Massachusetts. Our families (just counting parents and siblings) live in California, Oregon, Utah, Wisconsin, Maryland, and New York. Obviously, we don’t see them on Valentine’s Day. So, every year the kids make valentines and we send them to our relatives. We go shopping a few days before and choose out special Valentine’s Day paper, stickers, ribbon etc. Then, we spend a few hours creating the masterpieces. The kids have lots of fun. (I usually want to pull my hair out about half way through the project – but evidently I’m not too terribly traumatized because I still do it again the next year.) This year, while Rachel, Taylor, and Sarah Ann designed their works of art and I helped operate the glue gun and cut our hearts, George (my husband) kept Christian (age 16 months) from climbing on the table and eating their projects. Here's a couple pictures of them.

The other thing we do every year is make heart shaped sugar cookies and decorate them. Here are the girls making the dough.

The past couple of years, we have also had a Valentine’s dinner which involves lots of heart shaped and red food. This year, we invited another family over to enjoy the dinner with us. We had some heart-shaped calzones, red strawberries, and red Cherry 7-Up (and a salad – not red). Then after dinner, all six kids (Christian was banned again, although he did manage to eat quite a few m&ms) decorated cookies.There was lots of giggling at the table as the kids read the messages on the conversation hearts to each other. (What would Valentine's Day be without conversation hearts?)

And tomorrow, my husband and I will go out to dinner by ourselves and have a little of the Valentine’s Day celebration without children!

I just can't resist one more picture - especially since I don't have any of Christian here. While I was trying to get things together for our Valentine's Day dinner, this is what Christian was doing.

(This scene - of Christian and the cat standing on the table - is one that occurs about a dozen times a day at our house.)

Hope you all have a happy Valentine's Day!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

My Upcoming Utah Schedule!

So, my Utah schedule is finally in place! I am excited! I will be arriving in Utah late on February 23rd and leaving early on March 6th. In those eleven days, I have eleven lectures and six book signings. It's going to be a whirldwind.

If you live in Utah - or near Las Vegas, I hope you can mark one of these down on your calendar so you can attend a lecture or stop by and say hi at a book signing. If you have friends or family in Utah, please help me spread the word by sending them a link to this blog page. If you contact me (, I would be happy to send you a flyer or anything else that might be helpful about any of the events.

Please note that all the lectures (and of course the book signings) are free and open to the public. In other words, you do NOT have to be a member of the Cache County Historical Society to attend the lecture in Logan. They are sponsoring it, but they welcome anyone to attend.

The two conferences (in St. George and Bountiful) require registration. They will both be HUGE conferences with tons of speakers, vendors, and other genealogists - and fabulous opportunities for you to improve your research skills. The St. George conference costs only $65 if you pre-register and the Bountiful conference is free. You can register at the door for either conference.

You may notice that the only lecture with incomplete information is the Salt Lake City lecture on Friday, March 4. The location of the lecture is not yet known. If you are interested in this one, check back here as I will update this blog post when the location is known. You can check my website here also (note that it is in the process of being updated at the moment).

24 Feb Book Presentation, Paseo Verde Public Library, Thurs 6:30 p.m., 280 South Green Valley Parkway, Henderson, NV, lecture free and open to the public
lecture and book signing: The Journey Takers

25-26 Feb St. George Family History Expo, St. George Convention Center, 1835, Convention Center Drive, St. George, UT
Conference registration required for attendance
lectures: 11:30 a.m., Fri: Beyond Names and Dates: Uncovering Your Ancestors’ Stories
8 a.m., Sat: Crossing the Ocean with the Internet,
2:30 p.m., Sat: The Journey Takers: An Inside Look at Immigration Research
Book signing: 3:40 p.m. at the Family Roots Publishing booth

26 Feb Seagull Bookstore, Sat, 5-7 p.m., 967 West Red Cliff Drive, Washington, UT
book signing: The Journey Takers

1 Mar Seagull Bookstore, Tues 4-6 p.m., Provo, UT, 2250 North University Pkwy #C56
book signing: The Journey Takers

1 Mar Book Presentation, Provo City Library at Academy Square, in the Bullock Room on the 3rd floor of the Academy Building, Tues, 7 p.m., 550 North University Parkway, Provo, UT
The lecture free and open to the public.
lecture and book signing: The Journey Takers: An Inside Look at the LDS Immigration Experience

2 Mar Monthly Meeting, Cache County Historical Society, Wed, 7 p.m., Historic County Courthouse, 179 North Main Street, Logan, UT
The lecture is free and open to the public.
lecture and book signing: The Journey Takers: An Inside Look at the LDS Immigration Experience

3 Mar Seagull Bookstore, Thurs, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., 1114 North Main Street, Logan, UT
book signing: The Journey Takers

3 Mar Seagull Bookstore, Thurs, 4-6 p.m., 514 N 325 East, Harrisville, UT
book signing: The Journey Takers

3 Mar Ogden Family History Center, Thurs 7 p.m., 539 24th Street, Ogden, UT The lecture is free and open to the public.
lecture: The Journey Takers: An Inside Look at the LDS Immigration Experience

4 Mar Seagull Bookstore, Fri, 2-4 p.m., 1625 West 9000 South, West Jordan, UT
book signing: The Journey Takers

4 Mar Utah Genealogical Association, Fri, 7 p.m., location to be determined, Salt Lake City, Utah
The lecture is free and open to the public.
lecture and book signing: The Journey Takers: An Inside Look at the Immigration Experience

5 Mar South Davis Regional Family History Fair, Sat, Bountiful High School, Bountiful, UT
The conference and lectures are free and open to public (onsite registration required).
lectures and book signing:
9:20: The Journey Takers
10:40: Eight Ways to Cross the Ocean
12:00: Writing a Page-Turning (But True) Family History
book signing: 1:10 p.m. at the Family Roots Publishing booth

5 Mar Seagull Bookstore, Sat, 5-7 p.m., 316 North Marketplace Dr. Suite C-100, Centerville, UT
book signing: The Journey Takers

A Conversation with Pamela Boyer Sayre

Last week, as part the effort to share some information at the upcoming New England Regional Genealogical Conference (NERGC), I had the opportunity to talk to one of the speakers, Pamela Boyer Sayre. I have never met Pam before, but I will meet her a couple of weeks before NERGC at the Fairfax Genealogical Society’s Spring Conference. It was a fun conversation (although interrupted by my toddler who refused to nap like he was supposed to…) and I am looking forward to meeting Pam. I thought you might enjoy learning a little about Pam too – and learning a little about her “life before genealogy” and the path that led her to where she is now.

Pam has nearly always been curious about her family’s history. When she was a child, she would listen at the door to the stories of the “old days.” In 8th grade, her teacher gave the class an assignment to find out about the origins of their surname. Pam started looking into it, and before she knew it, she was hooked! Genealogy has been part of her life ever since. Still, it has been a winding path from 8th grade to being the well-known genealogy teacher and writer she is now.

While Pam was in college, she worked for a police department in New Mexico. She didn’t have good enough vision to get a job in a high profile police department, so she worked for the New Mexico University Campus Police, mostly investigating sex crimes. Pam enjoyed the problem solving aspect of her job. She liked thinking logically and reaching conclusions that she could prove – and that would stand up in court. She also honed her skills writing solid reports. After a while though, Pam began feeling restless in her job, and got tired of the focus on the negative that was inherent in investigating crimes.

So, Pam made a career change. And no – it wasn’t to being a genealogist. Not yet! First, she worked in personnel administration, first in New Mexico, then in California, and finally in Boston, Massachusetts. Here, her boss persuaded her to learn some computer programming. Pam soon became involved in technical writing, documenting software program, and seeking to make technical subjects understandable to the average person. This new career path led her St. Louis.

Pam enjoyed her job – but there was something she loved even more. Her love of genealogy had only increased through the years. She spent her lunch breaks reading family history journals and her evenings at the local Family History Center. One day, she said to herself: There’s got to be a way to make a living doing this. And there was! As Pam said, “I finally found my niche. And I was able to use everything I had learned along the way.” Pam draws on her background of problem solving, writing reports, developing proofs, and using – and explaining how to use – computer programs to be a more effective genealogist.

Today, Pam is an integral part of the genealogy community (and a resident of Virginia). She has run a genealogy business entitled Memory Lane and has been involved in numerous societies, serving on boards for groups such as the Federation of Genealogical Societies, the National Genealogical Society, and the Genealogical Speakers Guild. Pam's real passion, though, is teaching and writing. And she has certainly been busy in these fields. Pam is the co-author of Online Roots: How to Discover Your Family’s History and Heritage with the Power of the Internet and Research in Missouri, and is the past editor of the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly. She has spoken in 31 different states and has taught at Samford University, Boston University, and in many other settings.

Pam will be giving two lectures at NERCG. She will speak about “Effective Editing and Writing” and on “Maps: Where to Find Them And How to Use Them.” You can check out the entire program for NERGC on its website here. And, you can register – because you won’t want to miss it! – online here. NERGC will be held April 6-10 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Watch for interviews of other NERGC speakers being posted on other genealogy blogs this week – and get a more personal view of some of these fabulous speakers!

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.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Some Thoughts (and a little ranting) on Family Myths Or Why Original Records are MANDATORY in Genealogy Research

I have been researching and working on writing the story of another one of my ancestors’ lately (I have grand plans for it too…) and I have been running into a little problem. At first, I could just work around it. But I keep running into this problem in different forms and it is starting to FRUSTRATE me.

What is this little problem? There are just a few pieces of information floating around out there about this ancestor that some may call family stories but I am tempted to call family myths or legends. You know what I mean. I’m sure you have some in your family too. In fact, in my Journey Takers lecture, I make the statement that we all have these stories that have been passed down and passed around in our family. Exciting, dramatic, inspiring stories that EVERYONE in our family knows. The classics are that out ancestors are descended royalty, from Indian princesses, or the classic German one that I have referred to before: the-my-ancestor-was-a-noble-who-fell-in-love-with-a-peasant-girl-and-stowed-away-on-a-ship-to-come-America-and-escape-service-in-the-Prussian-military-story. Yeah, right. I don’t believe it. But I do continue to hear it after many of lectures. (Don’t worry – I’m polite when I do. I don’t just stare the person down and say “that never happened.”)

Not all of the family stories fall into these “classic” categories. For this family I’m researching now, they mostly have to do with important events in history that my ancestor experienced. This is suspicious enough. But even more suspicious is when the events themselves may well have never happened. In other words, the event may be a myth or legend itself. Now, you may be curious by now, but I’m sorry: I’m not going to share the family story here. The reason is simply that in its little niche of history it is a hotly debated item and my point here is not to take a stand on whether this event happened or not (although I have serious doubts).

For historians and genealogists, these family stories and even historical events can be problematic. The confusing thing is there appears to be plenty of evidence that the story is true. After all, as I mentioned before EVERYONE knows about it. It is in EVERY family history. So, it is easy enough to assume that EVERYONE can’t be wrong.

Yes they most certainly can. Why? Well, because everyone got it from the same place and that place was not correct. What often happens is that this story creeps into one branch of the family or into one family history – LONG after the event supposedly happened. From here, it makes it way outward. It might start out innocently enough with a comment like “perhaps Great-Great-Grandpa Harry fought in the Revolutionary War.” After all, he lived at the right time. It’s possible. But pretty soon the comment is “Great-Great-Grandpa Harry fought in the Revolutionary War.” So did lots of other people. That’s not a very exciting story. So maybe someone adds “Great-Great-Grandpa Harry fought in the Revolutionary War and risked his life in many heroic deeds on the battle field.” And since your great aunt heard that story, that’s what she writes down in THE family history that is passed around to ALL the cousins. It has become FACT- and if you attempt to dispute or question this, your relatives will stare at you aghast: How DARE you question Harry’s integrity and bravery. He is the family hero.

Myths creep into history in general, not just family history. You all probably know that much of the Pilgrim story is now disputed, including the fact that the Pilgrims first stepped on Plymouth Rock. (And how sad, because I have been to this rock – which is a disappointment in itself since it’s about as big as my pillow.) What is the problem with the rock story? Now, I am not expert on this, but my understanding is that there is no mention of it until two or three generations later. I believe the first evidence is in a speech by Cotton Mather. So what has happened, people now say, is that Cotton Mather created the story – and it disseminated from there. After a while, it is so removed from the source that nobody knows where the story came from – and nobody cares because EVERYONE knows it is true. Once again, a story has become FACT.

So, how can you avoid this in your family’s history? It’s simple. You MUST use original sources. You must go look in the records to see if Harry really fought in the war. Historians have to go read the accounts that the original Pilgrims wrote themselves to see if they mention this rock. Back to my original problem, my ancestor was supposedly at this amazing event that occurred in 1845. The problem is my ancestor wrote NOTHING, not one word. Nobody at the time wrote about her presence at this event. This story has simply been passed down. The bigger problem is that nobody at the time recorded this event happening at all. Not until a decade later did stories of it begin to pop up in people’s retelling of what happened. LOTS of people saw it happen – but none of them mentioned it in their diaries or none of the newspapers reported it at the time? (And some of the people who reported later that they had seen it happen didn’t even live in the right town…) Fishy, isn’t it?

The moral of the story is not that all family stories are false or that you should ignore all family stories. The moral is that you must not rely on family stories alone. You must see what the records tell you – even if it means popping the beloved family myths.