Monday, April 25, 2016

Standing on the Shoulders
of Those Who Have Gone Before

It may seem a strange project to select—the one I mentioned yesterday about transferring genealogical data from my antiquated XP-driven computer to my sleek, updated version. I mean, why not just start from scratch? Why not just rely on what can be obtained through the online resources so handily at our fingertips now? It does sound like an unnecessarily messy project.

I have a response to such an objection, of course. And it may sound somewhat like the reasoning behind utilizing those hundred-year-old genealogies still languishing on some library bookshelves: there is the possibility that we may learn something while benefiting from the hard work of those who have gone on before us. If nothing else, a project to reconcile an old fashioned research project with the multitude of resources now at our fingertips might yield a better product: a corrected version, now complete with documentation, that blends the work of the past with the insights of newly digitized records of the present.

There is, however, another reason I want to plod through this tedious process. And that "reason" has a name and a face. Not to mention, a story. Whenever those elements get added to a research project, for me, it heralds a turning point in the level of interest and investment of effort. It makes the whole thing more personalized.

Explaining all this will have to take me through a history lesson of online experiences in genealogy—albeit a brief history as, after all, we are only talking about a process which evolved from the 1990s onward. The explanation will also require that I introduce you to a fellow genealogical researcher who was quite thorough in her approach to discovering as many descendants as possible of the one family line we both shared. And all that will unfold, as we make our way through the upcoming week.

Any time you share a deep fascination in a specific topic with a friend, it makes for a special relationship. In genealogical research, it also supercharges the effort to find those missing family members of bygone generations.

Now that I'm going back and reviewing all those research notes I and this researching friend had exchanged over nearly a decade, I'm realizing what a gift that cooperative effort really was. And yet, as online friendships tend to be, it had its illusory side, which sadly manifested when the incorporeal and intangible could not possibly provide the connections one would expect in a face to face relationship.

And so, when a sudden health problem engulfed this researcher's life in a crisis, while her family rushed to do what was necessary, all I could tell, from my end of the ether, was that my emails were no longer being answered. After an interminable months-long silence, a very weakened friend did send a reply to tell me she had suffered a stroke—but assured me she was on the mend.

We "talked" a bit more, in that online way of sending and receiving emails and files, but after several months more, there was another long silence. This time, there was no message at the end to assure me she was still there.

Of course, my researching friend may still be there—somewhere on the other side of the country—but too ill to carry on the work that was the delight of her retirement years. That, however, I tend to doubt.

In retrospect, I realize what value there was in the material that was shared, and often wonder whatever became of all the multitude of files of raw data still waiting to be transformed into usable form. While I hope this woman's family didn't just chuck the material, like so many pages of scratch paper, I realize I have been gifted with much of this researcher's work. Even in the segments still requiring much fleshing out with verification—and in some cases, having only the bare bones of an outline of some parts of the family line—I have at least a smattering of what had been uncovered.

I realize I can build on this gift, even if I no longer have a connection with this talented and thorough researcher. As my husband is so fond of saying when he cautions young people not to just toss aside the insights of older generations, I can stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before me. While this researcher's work didn't come to me in the polished format of a hard cover volume, her work was just as thoroughly crafted. It is a gift—but only if I utilize what I've been given.

Despite the old format in which that gift currently resides, transcribed onto an antiquated version of Family Tree Maker on a computer built to run on a far-outdated version of Windows, this woman's work is still a viable contribution to the genealogical community—not to mention, to this particular family line. Transferring it to an updated version of genealogical software, plus verifying what may be done with digitized documentation available to us now, online, is the most reasonable way I can think of to honor those whose work has been of such benefit to me.

When I think of all the emails that passed between us, I want to go back and review them in light of what can be accessed online today. Maybe a reminder of past brick walls will prompt me to see what new material has come to light that will help skirt the research impediment of previous decades.

And when I remember that this was not an isolated process, this exchange of research ideas with one researcher, but was multiplied several times over with several family lines, I realize I've built my own archives of research history—a resource that may yield rich results, if only I can systematically review the holdings, and then put those findings to good use.

While it seems there has never been a better time to begin one's quest to find our roots, for those of us who didn't begin with this season's genealogy commercials, we can also lay claim to a treasure trove of research hints in our own rights, in the body of shared files and communications with like-minded genealogists. Just like benefiting from a legacy, we can only reap these riches if we recognize what's already in store and analyze that material with fresh eyes—and today's more powerful research tools.  


  1. This post makes my heart ache. I had a very similar experience. After years of sharing and working together, suddenly silence and then the email explaining a health problem and then more silence. In my case, I was able to find an obituary and I wept with the knowledge she was gone. As you expressed, I was so grateful to be able to build upon what she knew and work together, and hope to continue to do so, but I ache over the loss.

    1. Michelle, just reading your brief account here, I know you know what that was like. It is just as real a loss as if we had known those people, face to face over a lifetime--not just that detached sense of just reading words that happened to show up in our in-box from time to time. We were working together, and that made a difference that has turned out to take us by surprise.

      I'm glad you were able to build upon the work shared with your online friend. In a way, it's a legacy she has left behind, for which you have found a way to add value with your contributions.

  2. It wouldn't be quite so bad if these distant, computer connected folks, didn't just "disappear" ... Perhaps someone could create a service that is like a registry and informs the other(s) when someone passes on?

    1. That is a point, Iggy...and, at least for Facebook, I believe someone has come up with a solution like that.

      Still, of all people, we who love genealogy would be considered prime examples of those who are equipped to ferret out the proof of one's disappearance. And this case, I can't find a word about it. Makes for some melancholy moments. Funny how attached we can get to "mere" cyber-friends.


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