Friday, April 5, 2019

What Makes the Genealogist Tick?

I've had enough library patrons come to my drop-in beginners' genealogy workshops to now understand that there are almost as many reasons to begin the search for one's roots as there are curious bystanders. Many people want to know more about their ancestry, but their reasons aren't necessarily all the same.

Many check out this pursuit merely as a curiosity. They've seen the ads on television, or watched an entrancing episode of a show—it really doesn't matter which one, even—and the take-away, for them, is that it's a quick and easy proposition to span multiple generations in a convenient half-hour or so. They want to know about their heritage...sort of. The work they are not necessarily interested in investing.

Another group I'm aware of, however, is willing to be invested in the process—but it's the process, not the content, that allures them. These are the merit-badge seekers, the class assignment overachievers, the ones on a mission. They've received an assignment from an instructor or a group, and they don't want to let down the organization which commissioned their mission. For them, the true prize is a job well done—even though every real genealogy lover knows a family tree is never "done."

Somewhere between these two extremes lie the rest of us. Some more invested than others, we have all been bitten—smitten—by the bug. It was love at first sight—of a document with a great-grandfather's signature, or a passenger list revealing an ancestor's childhood passage across the sea to a new home in a new land.

When I walk newbies through the paces of using, say,'s library edition, and pull up a document which likely includes the learner's ancestor, I can spot it when the bug bites them. There is this magical realization that hits. It's a visceral reaction. Emotional. Just seeing the ink on that hundred-year-old page—doesn't matter that it's now digitized—evokes a visible reaction, and then a moment of thoughtful silence. Sometimes, it's followed by a reflective comment, like, "I didn't realize she...." It's a moment of connection with someone far back in my class attendee's memory, or perhaps a remembrance of a family member that learner never even got the chance to meet.

Now that I've come face to face with my own roadblock, I find it helpful to recall what sparked my first desire to search for ancestors. I can't even say, really, what it was that got me started—I just always knew I wanted to learn more about family—but I do remember being transfixed, once I got the chance to delve into the history of my family. Perhaps the impetus was that my family was so small—something I've mentioned here before—or that my father's side of the story was cloaked in mystery. Whatever it was, the push was enough to propel me through episode after episode of discoveries. I need to go back to that first spark and let it re-ignite.

I'm sure you can recall the first spark that caught your attention and pulled you into the search. Was it strong enough to keep you coming back for more? And not so far out of reach that you gave up in frustration? I'm feeling the need to retrace my steps to that Square One and let it work its magic on me again. Therapeutic, regenerative—call it what you may, but I hope it includes being re-enthused with the search.


  1. My mother dragged me along to help her do some research at a FHC. I didn’t get excited by what we found because it was just names, possibilities. My first real find on my own was a land grant. Then it was cool! Now I can’t quit.

    1. It's funny to see what snags each of us as genealogical researchers, Wendy. Interesting that yours was a land grant! It's really amazing, when I'm teaching beginners, to see that "gotcha" moment. I can see it in their faces when it dawns on them the significance of what they are seeing in a document. I would have loved to watch you as you pulled up that first land grant document!!!


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