Confessions of a Rabbit Hole Genealogist: In Defense of Inspired Genealogy
This post has been brewing for at least a decade. It won’t be long that I will be celebrating a half century of pursuing genealogy. I have learned much over these many decades but still I feel guilt every time I read an article about how to do genealogy “properly.” What finally brought this to the fore was a post in January of 2019 by Paul Chiddick, “Top Ten Sin’s of a Genealogist“. I am certainly guilty of Sin 2: “Not noting every search” and Sin 5: “Adopting the scattergun approach”. More on these later.
So here is my confession, I don’t think I ever shall do genealogy “properly.” I do not disparage all of you who do manage it quite well. Those who follow the rules and proper protocols and carefully document based on the Genealogy Standards of the Board for Certification of Genealogists. (And yes I do have a copy and do endeavor to cite properly), but let’s face it, some of us are just not cut out for always following the rules. It’s not that we don’t know how to color within the lines, or stay on task…we do. But we just can’t be depended upon to always do so. We start off on one path and before you know it we are following rabbits down holes hither and dither. Even our most carefully constructed research questions might take a U-turn and we end up somewhere completely unexpected.
Ah, but before I lose you dear reader I want you to know I am not disorganized. Far from it. When I go to the The Family History Library in Salt Lake City or any Archive for that fact I peruse the catalogs before going and have very organized checklists of all the resources I want to consult. Generally when I am limited for time I grab all the books off the shelf I can mange in a certain section, take them to a table where I bookmark pages for photocopying or scanning and then proceed to scan or in some cases photograph. I do not stop long to evaluate what I am copying if I will be there for more than a day—that’s what night’s are for! I always start with the title page and copyright pages. For printed pages I do very well with keeping them together and filing them (eventually) but digital files are another matter. Sometimes it can be months or years before a file gets named and put in its proper place. I should be better but I am not. And I have come to the sad truth that I am not likely to change for the better.
There are plenty of books and blog posts to keep you on the straight and narrow. They will urge you to stay on task, and they may be right to do so. What I want to explore with you is that inspirational and unconventional approaches to genealogy may be just as fruitful and may be more in tune with your natural style. I just finished a Zoom genealogy research session and when faced with a given question the four of us went out searching in different directions and what happened is those different directions and ways of doing things offered new perspectives and new bits of information. Had we all done the same thing the results might have been less rewarding. When we drive home the exact same way we miss things that we might have seen had we taken a different route or saw the world anew from a different perspective.
I am not a cook but I do like to bake. If you are given a recipe you can follow it precisely or you can be innovative and try different ingredients or experiments. They may improve the final product or they may not, but the experience definitely informs your future baking. It is as much art as science. The same can be said for genealogy.
This came up in our Zoom today. The forgetting of a resource we had visited before. Remember Sin 2 above: Not noting each search. I still have a dozen pages or more of my first few years of noting my searches on Research registers. It’s a great idea in concept—but practically speaking—it would take me more time going through all my previous searches and determining whether I had looked there before than doing the search again. And here is the benefit of doing the search a second or third time—we do so with more experienced eyes. Not to mention the originals may be enhanced or give a better reproduction. Maybe when I searched the 1800 census back in 1975 at the National Archives branch in San Bruno I got excited after scrolling through pages and pages of microfilm when I finally found who I was looking for. Maybe I didn’t look at the rest of the town for others that might be related to my family—but maybe in 1995 I would check the indexes for other related families. And perhaps if I searched on Ancestry, Family Search or My Heritage today I might spend some time just perusing the pages looking for anything that “caught my eye”. I have found that going on instinct and revisiting past searches almost always yields more bountiful information and understanding. When we start out in genealogy we don’t know what we are looking for and often collect too much or too little. When we go through our binders or folders, or online files with fresh eyes we see things we missed years ago. Or sometimes we re-remember them. We chide ourselves for ending up here again. Oh I already copied that. I already decided that was not my family, etc. But then there are the aha moments. “Well, will you look at that, she was married to John Smith before she married his brother Abel.” Or, “Oh dear how could I have missed that she died before that child was born, she can’t be his mother.” What is obvious to you today may not have been obvious to you then. So who cares how many times we retrace our steps, if every now and then we find something new?
So what is inspired genealogy? It’s going to be different for each of us. It is the instinct or imperative to follow our nose, to explore a subject more fully, to chase the elusive clue. Sometimes we end up far afield from where we started. Some find this approach terribly distracting and annoying. I love this sort of research. Rather than think of it as lost time I always feel it inspires me. Many is the time I have been looking for one family and just by happenstance ran into an unexpected record of another relative from a completely different part of my tree. I liken it to when you are expecting or a family member is, and suddenly you see expectant mothers and babies everywhere. Some one hands you a ring of keys. Two of the keys you know where they fit but the other 3 you have no clue. So do you throw out the keys? Not me. Fifty years and I periodically look to see what chest, door, cupboard or record they may unlock. I depend on some inspiration or intuition to remind me to check the key at the proper time. This is my own version of the scattergun approach. The throw the spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks. Cast a very wide net. And I never stop trying—especially with those brick walls. I know you have tried the key before but when you go to try it again you might see something you missed the ten previous times.
My deepest dives in a subject, are the inspired ones. They are the questions I ask to explain the why of the story. Why did the shoemaker and his brothers and sister from a small village in Germany immigrate to Philadelphia? Why did my great grandmother marry at 14? What were the circumstances of my two 2nd great grandfather’s Civil War service. Asking those questions means lots of contextual research. It can lead you to forums, ebay searches, books and documents you never would have consulted otherwise. Yes, this leads down rabbit holes. The truth is you aren’t going to find the richest records and the best maps and the most interesting stories without the willingness to go down dead end streets and ’round corners where you lose your way. I am writing to say this is okay. If you are like me, and enjoy a good hunt down the rabbit hole, celebrate your perseverance and inspiration. It’s okay to do genealogy any way that works for you. I am at times sloppy and inconsistent. I have decided nearly fifty years in—this is how I work best. Below is a photo of a corner of my bulletin board which illustrates my recipe for genealogy: 1 part chocolate, 1 part chaos, 1 part reality. Find out what feeds you and do it. Don’t spend another minute playing could’ve, would’ve, should’ve. If you manage to resurrect one lost story, solve one inexplicable riddle, or straighten out out one tangled part of your tree, then celebrate the journey that led you there! If you took the long road whose to say who had the better journey?
Book Recommendation: Bringing Your Family History to Life through social history by Katherine Scott Sturdenvant. Copyright 2000.
Kelly Wheaton Copyright 2021. All Rights Reserved