Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Genealogy Holiday Sales Announcements and New Year’s Resolutions

If you read as many blogs as I do, you will no doubt have been amazed (and somewhat annoyed) with the many sites that, over and before the holidays, going back to the American Thanksgiving period, passed on advertising and promotions to readers – informing them how they could acquire all manner of genealogy-related products and services. We are used to being bombarded with commercial ads from local department stores and electronic outlets. I was not quite prepared for the barrage of entreaties from bloggers and commercial genealogy suppliers doing the same thing.

If there was any doubt that genealogy has become a business, then the emails of the past couple of months has dispelled that notion.

There are/were some good deals out there but was there really the need to send out daily messages (actually multiple messages daily by some people) to remind us of our good fortune? And why does everyone have to wait until a special occasion to offer people a deal. I found a few promotions pretty much the same as what I receive on a regular basis, with free days to search certain databases of commercial sites or special prices on publications. Which begs the question, how is it then a Special Deal?

What annoyed me was the profusion of messages from serious bloggers, whose ideas and comments I generally enjoy and learn from, strongly oriented to sales pitches. I suspect they make a few dollars if readers click on their links and buy something – and that’s ok, I’ve looked at the idea myself – but – People – enough is enough already!

Now, seemingly, everyone lately wants to get on the New Year’s resolution bandwagon to stimulate researchers to (re)organize their files and renew their resolve to work in more orderly or effective ways. I think that message gets out regularly. At least, I often see it come up in blog posts throughout the year. It’s why I read so many genealogy blogs. January is just another month. The idea of doing good (or better) research never gets old. We don’t need to have a special day (January 1st) to finally take the bull by the horns and improve our ways.

If you need to make a resolution to lose weight or stop smoking then it likely won’t be very effective. The same applies to genealogy research. Helpful ideas about research methods – normally provided in abundance by most bloggers – are the most effective ways to help people. And those are appreciated on a continuing basis, not through being incentivized to purchase the latest software or book or scanning tool. 

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

In the beginning...

This past week, being the end of one year and the beginning of a new one, there have been many blog posts and other online comments about starting again, or at least, if not actually starting anew, then beginning with a new purpose and strategy to find out about all those elusive ancestors. None of us are going to begin our research again – we have too much already accomplished – though we might take a crack at reviewing how we have been doing it or resolve (there’s a nice New Year’s phrase) to be more attentive to the sources we use as well as look at alternative methods of finding pertinent information.

Everyone seems to be gung ho on discovering new data or ways to find new data. I suppose, in a way, that is a beginning of sorts. But it is not like we all weren’t doing some good work during the past year or that it was all in vain. January 1st just seems like a good date to reflect on past genealogical activities and renew efforts to do even better during the next 365 days to find the people who began our families, assuming that is possible.

In terms of human evolution we don’t really know when the beginning was. The species Homo sapiens (and thus the families of this group) emerged from Homo erectus about 300,000 years ago. Sapiens is the Latin name for "wise" (Home sapiens = wise man, deduced from his apparent intelligence compared to previous species) and was introduced in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus.
Schematic representation of the emergence of H. sapiens from earlier species of Homo. from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_sapiens
Homo erectus rose from the genus, Australopithecine, in Africa some 2.5 million years ago. So human families go back a long way, not to the beginning of the Earth, over 4.5 billion years ago, but still quite a significant time period. DNA studies pretty much confirm this historical line making us all related in some sense. The time of humans on Earth is miniscule compared to its total history and I discussed in a 7 February 2017 post, Keeping It All in Perspective.

For many if not most genealogists the “beginning” might date only from the Protestant Reformation, in the early 16th century. Around this time many if not most countries in Europe (the Modern World of the time) began diligently keeping records of births, marriages and deaths (BMD). I wrote about that in a post on the Pharos Blog, titled Your Oldest Document. We can really only define the beginning of our own families on the basis of written text showing the names of our forebears. And we can really only properly identify those as our forebears through continuous records extending back from present day.

There may still be some BMD records kept in Catholic Church archives (or in the repositories of other religions) possibly in individual parish churches, but few go back any further that the protestant registers. They were either destroyed in the many conflicts between states over the centuries or left to rot in the basements of churches or civic buildings. Some researchers believe that there are medieval-aged records that can or might identify people but tying them to specific families is problematic.

So are we beginning again in 2018? Not so much! Are we taking stock of how we do things? Probably! Can we find the very first family in our line? Nope! Hope springs eternal that we will get further back in our ancestral parade in the coming year, though.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

So what is the point of genealogy?

The Oxford dictionary says genealogy is the “study and tracing of lines of descent.” That is really kind of a dull-sounding subject. I actually find exposing the roots of my family quite entertaining.

Anyone reading this post is likely involved in family research activities – like me possibly extensively. We kind of take it for granted that everyone should be interested in the history of their ancestors and we are usually a bit disappointed when all we meet are glazed-over expressions when the subject comes up.

The results of genealogical studies have no commercial value, unless you are trying to publish and sell a book about an event your ancestors might have been a involved in; they are not part of any production of goods or services that others want or would pay for; they certainly don’t help to alleviate any ills of society. The money we spend, though, does support various commercial entities and archives that provide employment, so in that respect they do contribute to the economy.

I have discovered a great deal about where and how my ancestors lived by sifting through thousands of pages of parish records (Now that can be dull!), working as a volunteer to assist others find their ancestors (That can be rewarding!) and in researching data for articles I have written (That can be educational!). I have also participated in many courses, as well as webinars and conferences related to genealogy. They were all enlightening and valuable to my learning how to search for information in old records and to meeting other interesting people engaged in similar pursuits. And I have published a lot about our family's history in articles, on this blog and in a book especially assembled for family members.

I think my understanding of general history is better having found actual people related to me who were alive during important events of the past few hundred years. I have also been able to combine my geological expertise with my genealogical experience to appreciate what and how physical conditions affected the lives of my ancestors. That has resulted in even more things to write and talk about.

In reality, no matter how much work we do or what sources we investigate, our studies of past family members can only take us back so far. We are lucky if we can find information on ancestors in records prior to the 18th century (notwithstanding the many people who insist they are descended from Charlemagne!).

We may have had relatives who fought with Lord Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805; there may have been family members who are listed as victims of the Great Plague in 1666; perhaps an ancestor was a carpenter or mason who came to help rebuild London after the Great Storm of 1703; or maybe there were people related to you who made the long and arduous voyage to America in the 17th and 18th centuries to pursue new opportunities and a better life. These would be very interesting stories if we could uncover the details of those individuals’ involvement and experiences.

Most of us find it exciting if we come across some distant cousin who was in trouble with the law. It’s like falling into a new James Paterson novel only we have a personal connection with the perpetrator (hoping, though, there was no homicide involved).

Now there are ways to analyze DNA. Who does not aspire to find a direct physical connection to some noteworthy person of history, perhaps even royalty? Or be able to trace their way back to the beginnings of the human species in Africa and see definitively what paths their ancestors took that resulted in their families being where they are today. All of that seems tremendously exciting, as well as in tune with complex technical aspects of the society in which we live.

The main point of genealogy for me, I guess, is just in satisfying a curiosity about my family’s history and where I come from. Equally important, it fills many hours of my retirement that would otherwise be empty. That would be very dull, indeed! We should certainly be thankful for those thousands of people who have gone before us to record information and make it available in print or online so we can read it, otherwise we would not have such a pastime to enjoy at all.

The period that includes the lives of my ancestors encompasses but a few grains in the sands of time of human history. We cannot trace our specific familial origins back thousands of years even though we know we had direct ancestors who lived that long ago. So is the exercise really all that significant?

I think what I am saying is that we should not take it all very seriously (unless, of course, it’s your business). Our research will not add much, if anything, to any documentation of historical events but really only satisfy some of that curiosity I mentioned above. Not that we should not approach it with the idea of doing it right and demonstrating the connections we uncover are true.

Family history studies, I believe, are supposed to just be about enjoying the experiences of discovering stories about people to whom you may be related, especially if you can learn whether you have shared similar experiences, interests or abilities, however far apart in time they might have been.

So – are you having fun – reading obituaries and other similarly exciting tales?

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain perpetually a child. For what is the worth of a human life unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?

~Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 BC