Saturday, September 22, 2012

Genealogy Alone

If you are reading this Saturday morning, September 22, you will be considering these words while I am ensconced with 42 others at a local Genealogical Society event in my city. What brings me to town—to the library, precisely—is an attempt by the local genealogy group to interest others in the pursuit of researching their family roots.

Not that I’ve been long at it—this collective pursuit. Although I’ve been charting my own ancestry for decades—remember, I’m the one who claimed interest in genealogy as a birthright—for the most part, I’ve been doing the work solo. I must confess, I haven’t been among the kind that prefer to gather together to revel in their passion.

I am determined to amend my ways.

The situation I am observing—in others as well as in myself—may have been brought on by the burgeoning supply of online resources. Who needs to spend nearly four dollars a gallon to drive to some cold office building in what might be a crime-ridden neighborhood, just to do with others what can be done just as handily (and probably faster) at home?

From what I’ve read, there seems to be a continental divide between those who do and those who don’t:
                       Research in public settings
                       Learn new research techniques through group sessions
                       Discuss research findings in groups

Considering that polarization puts me in mind of the landmark book written by Harvard sociology professor, Robert D. Putnam: Bowling Alone. That 2001 publication—predating the September 11 debacle, incidentally, which itself eclipsed even the societal changes the author cited—charted “grievous deterioration” (as Publishers Weekly put it) of the “organized ways” people “partake in civil life” here in these United States.

In other words, civic and community organizations have been on a long downhill slide. Perhaps—though the author didn’t outright say it—that would include genealogical societies.

On the flip side, there are those who never venture beyond taking a peek at the online portals of genealogy monoliths such as or—never once seeking the myriad online possibilities that could enrich their genealogical endeavors. Nor considering there might be another way to come together over their queries and quandaries than through their monthly society meetings.

Admittedly, some people just need to get with it and enter the twenty-first century.

On the other hand, face-to-face could use a face lift. Six degrees of separation in reverse. Instead of the asynchronous relay race of connecting with each other serial style, we can find ways to come together. To network. To share. To learn. With others who share the same interests in the same place at the same time. There is nothing like the personal touch—especially when long-established institutions seek to pass the torch to the next generation of enthusiasts in their specialty.

We need an interface between two extremes: a way to blend the best of both worlds. And a way to include others and encourage them to discover this passion over genealogy as we bridge these two worlds.

And so, I find a way to heft myself out of my comfy chair in my cozy carpeted home office and exchange the steady gaze into a bluish-lit screen for the sun-softened reality of a chat with real people who share my interests—or at least who wish they could learn how. While a virtual reality may never interrupt or ask questions we cannot answer, it doesn’t allow us to reach out and touch real people in any lasting way.

If we are to share our passion for genealogy with others, while online efforts are remarkably effective research tools that move us farther along our own path, they don’t address building the networks that really matter: the networks of face-to-face contacts with those who wish to learn how to enter this fascinating world.

Bowling alone may perfect one's game, but it doesn't breathe life into the activity. Genealogy alone is no different. It's the people who can transform an exercise into an energizing, purposeful event.


  1. 42 people attended the workshop? That is a record attendance! I wish I could have been there. I am home now. Please email or call me and tell me how the day went.

    1. Sheri, actually it exceeded all expectations. There were 42 registered for the event. I did an informal head count and came up with 55 in attendance. Of course, there were several volunteers there from the Society, too. But that was a great turn-out. I think it qualifies as proof we need to do this more often!

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed the social networking! :)

    1. I think the general interest in genealogy seems hidden because so many people do it online. But offering a non-virtual-reality chance for people to get together drew throngs out of the woodwork! Such a rewarding experience--and vital reminder!


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