Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Networking, Connecting and Reaching Out

House historian and professional genealogist Marian Pierre-Louis writes the kind of blog that generates discussion. Her post yesterday in Marian’s Roots and Rambles was no exception. She asked,

What is networking? And is it worth the effort?

Her main focus was in questioning whether networking actually helps genealogists and family historians—either professionals or hobbyists—attain their research goals.

I say it does.

Whether you consider the term “networking” from a traditional perspective or Web 2.0 framework, I’d say that networking does have its place in enhancing the research process. It’s just that the improvement may not be readily quantifiable—it may be downright invisible to those who come by it naturally. It’s hard to measure how something keeps you from lesser results than you might have otherwise had, especially when day-to-day genealogy pursuits are already earmarked with so many results of community efforts. And we can't acknowledge with due gratefulness what we don't perceive as the blessings sent our way through others' contributions.

My Bias: Networking in my Roots

Marian mentioned that, to her, networking was something intuitive—something inherited or absorbed by osmosis from her mom.

I owe my dad that same disclaimer: I got it from him. He was the type of guy who knew everyone—and everyone knew him. He was a musician—but also a teacher and a businessman. He mastered the art of just hanging out. He took the time to get to know people. And people thrive when they are around someone who cares. Our family used to joke that we couldn’t go anywhere without bumping into someone who knew our dad—no matter how far from home we traveled.

One day, I sat down and wrote up everything I had learned about networking by watching my dad—and by realizing all the benefits that our family reaped from his tendency to network. I actually ended up using that list as the basis of a seminar I taught at a conference.

Of course, that was before the era of widespread personal computer usage, but the rudimentary basics remain the same. It’s just the equipment that’s gotten souped up. With no cell phone, no laptop computer, no wifi, no social media, I guess you could say my dad could network with one half of our connectivity tied behind his back.

My Track Record: Being the Recipient of Networking Benefits

Just yesterday, someone emailed me to discuss a photo I had shared in a blog post nearly a year ago. It turns out the photo was a picture of her grandmother in her young adult years. I had posted the photo because a distant relative of my husband had loaned it to me to see if I could make any connections. And not only had I made those connections, but I can now point yesterday’s correspondent to other, closer relatives. While it took several months before that blog post yielded any results, as far as networking goes, I say it was well worth the wait.

Last month, one of my readers (and a blogger in his own right) found a way to obtain an old book that happened to mention some details of my husband’s Chicago family from the late 1800s. After discussing the discovery with me via email, he decided to buy a used copy of the book and mail it to me.

Holding that book in my hands, I can’t tell you how awe-struck I am when I leaf through those pages and see our ancestors’ names woven into the narrative of that story. But I can tell you that, if it weren’t for networking, I would never have received the gift of that book, for I’ve never met this reader. I know him only courtesy of online networking. Another blogger whom I’ve also never met, Far Side of Fifty, connected me with this researcher. Through Far Side’s blog, Forgotten Old Photos, I had been trying to learn how to delve into the historic details of old photographs—observing her posts religiously and commenting and asking questions. Somehow, that prompted her to connect me with this other researcher. It was a moment of networking that didn’t cost anyone much of anything—but I’m glad it happened.

I could go on and on about networking serendipity—the very fact that I now know which surname to research for my father’s elusive paternal line is owing to an unexpected tip from someone in the old FamilyTreeMaker users’ network—but I’m sure you have as many stories as I have.

I think we can hypothesize about whether networking is worth all the fuss for endless hours. But until we not only give it a try, but put some effort into making it a part of our life, we can’t do justice to the concept by our speculation. We really need to take networking out for a test drive, read the operating manual and get ourselves educated about this machine we’re about to co-opt. We need to get a rubber-meets-the-road feel for this networking operation and how it connects like-minded people and enables them to collectively achieve their goals.

The Rub: Meeting the Digital Road

When you take that ageless ability to branch out and meet others—to take the initiative to strike up a conversation and see where it leads—and fuse it with the technology we have at our fingertips today, networking has the potential to exponentially grow those traditional results. While the old one-on-one path of “getting to know you” established trust through doing face-to-face time, the newer path absolutely demands integrity in networking—yet opens the doors for the shy as well as the charismatic to participate. While the old route seemed to favor that “good ol’ boy” network, the newer way levels the playing field to facilitate meetings that might not, with the staunch gatekeepers of bygone eras, have ever occurred. The Internet Highway hasn’t really changed the rules; it has just changed the magnitude of possibilities.

And this way isn’t just “All About Me.” I see it as technology’s way of facilitating a new form of the Golden Rule. We can’t just think of networking in terms of what it can do for me. We need to be willing to give before we can expect to get. To realize that thinking about you is good business for me.

Looking for Help in So Many More Places

Genealogists and family history researchers have always pursued an impossible dream: there is always one more ancestor to find, yet one more reference volume to consult, just one more database to check. Even if we could achieve that “one more” dream, it would be impossible to attain it alone. We have to face the fact that research is really a team effort.

With the explosion of genealogical resources both online and off, there is no possible way one person could read it all, record it all, and share it all.

Without a network.

And really—isn’t it true that everything we have already found came with the help of others?

Think of those neophyte years, just learning the ropes of researching, benefiting from the experience—and sometimes the actual data—of other, more seasoned, researchers.

Think of all those queries written to far-flung genealogy societies, hoping that someone in the Perry County Genealogical Society’s newsletter—or the Harper County GenWeb, or the Pottawatomie County Rootsweb mailing list—could answer my brick-wall question.

Think of that quick and easy post on GenForum or Ancestry’s message boards, asking for a local member to do one of those Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness and perform a lookup.

Think of tweeting a latest genealogy find—“Got my DNA results back today!!!”—and adding the hashtag so everyone in the Twitterverse well-versed in #genealogy could share your moment.

And then think how easy technology has made it for us to not only stand there with our electronic hand out, waiting for someone to “gimme”—but also be able to turn around and retweet, Facebook “Like” or Google+ someone else’s insight or notable accomplishment. Every hyperlink you find in any blog post is a writer's way of sharing—read: networking—a new resource with you. The Internet was made for networking. It is a vehicle for collaboration.

Coming to a Place of Gratefulness

When I think of all those possibilities—of giving as well as e-getting—I realize what a powerful position we now find ourselves in as genealogy researchers. We can retweet, along with @marianpl, Ancestry.com’s jubilation that the 1940 census is now fully indexed—a feat, itself, that could never have happened with such speed without the connectivity of the internet and the social proofing of all those validating online friends. We networked to gather such a group of volunteers and get them on a roll. It was a matter of friends passing the word along to friends to the “sixth degree of separation” and beyond.

To merely wonder whether networking is worth someone’s time and effort is rather short-sighted in view of the powerful benefits cascading down on us as we reach out and research. Without the equipment and technology afforded us through the interconnectivity of Web 2.0 systems—the social media we’ve come to take for granted (as if we couldn’t remember a day before cell phones)—and without those rudimentary skills of reaching out and getting to know the person next to us (whether physically or by special interest categories), we could never have accomplished all that we have achieved in our genealogy research. Whether you consider this collectively (as in the 1940 indexing project) or individually (as in each researcher’s willingness to post her family tree in an online format), we have an awesome opportunity to accelerate our genealogical accomplishments by using the resources at hand that allow us to connect with others keen on pursuing those unique-yet-shared interests.

I’d say that kind of networking goes far beyond the realm of “Is it worth the effort?” To me, it’s a matter of “How could I not take advantage of the benefits.”

Photograph, above right: Agnes Dockery O'Brien, born about 1873 in Wisconsin; from the private collection of the descendants of Edna Tully McCaughey.

For the original blog post, see:  Marian's Roots and Rambles: What is networking? And is it worth the effort?


  1. Yes there is the "Cousin Bait" reason but don't forget networking with other genealogists that aren't related to your family. Like me for instance. When we "network" (java meet-up) we bounce ideas of one another to help us in our research.

    1. Good point, Sheri...and always a great reason to meet up for coffee! :)

  2. Jacqui, excellent post --- and made me think about my "loner" tendencies --- actually rethink those tendencies. Also liked Sheri's comment --- another place where I am deficient. Thanks for the nudge.

    1. Joan, I like to think it is all about the greater "Ongoing Conversation." As Sheri mentioned, a benefit of networking is bouncing ideas off one another. That synergy brings us some unexpected gifts.

      And you are networking--getting and giving input and ideas through your writer's group and critiques. The discussions that spin off your blog posts are another way.

      Of course, there are so many more ways to connect, to network, that we all could use the nudge to try those new avenues.

  3. Jacqi,
    I couldn't agree with you more. If it wasn't for networking and being able to search more and more data that's added all the time on the world wide net, we would be at a standstill on so much of our family history. I cant imagine life without it and I cant wait to see the future technology that will come.
    Great post!

    1. Thank you, Betty! And yes, it will be interesting to see what further tech developments enhance our search capabilities.

      That search works both ways, too. It also brings people to us. That way, posts like your wonderful remembrance of your mom and her artwork today will be cataloged and available for many to find in the future, too.

  4. It's truly wonderful how the synergy of networking has this ability to double/triple or even more, one's ability to find out what one wants to know.

    I find Farside of Fifty (and some of the others like WhoWereThey) have an astonishing ability to date photographs from 50 to 130 years ago. I know when I research the photos, if the person I locate in the censuses "age at the time" doesn't agree within 5 years of their photo-dating, I question who I found long before their date!

    I'm sure the person that sent your the book was most pleased to hear that it generated laughter, happiness, and a sense of awe (seeing one's name in print). Just the laughter alone make such random acts of kindness worth the doing. :)

    1. You are too modest, Iggy ;)

      I have really been so encouraged and thrilled to receive that book. It did bring smiles to some relatives I was visiting when I shared some of the quotes you sent me. It all just seems too incredible.

      I, too, am awed by Far Side's ability--as well as WhoWereThey--to pinpoint dates by historic details in photographs. Of course, you come alongside, adding your own researching prowess to the mix. It's an interesting process to follow, in my opinion. Now that's what I call synergy!

  5. How wonderful of Iggy to send you a book..he is awesome!
    I think that the more we network the more we can learn about our relatives and our hobbies..like those old photos I collect.
    I never know exactly the time frame for the photos but most of the time I can guess.. Who Were They has been a big help to me! Connections..her family originally came from Canada at the same time as my husbands relatives, they lived across the road from each other in Canada..it is a small world:)

    1. That's good to know that Who Were They was such a great help to you. I think we are all learning from each other. You certainly have been a great help to me...and yes, Iggy has been a big help to all of us :) I guess that's what networking is all about.

      Interesting story about those Canada connections. Small world, indeed!


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