Saturday, November 5, 2022

Like Riding a Bike


I just finished teaching another beginning genealogy course for a local organization. The course is a four-week series of lessons on the basics of compiling a family history, geared to use of a particular online service. It certainly is rewarding to see new people catch the excitement of seeing their own ancestors' names in decades-old documents.

Teaching such a course comes with its own set of frustrations, too—at least for me. Since students are welcome to repeat the class as often as they wish, the course is open-ended, designed partially according to results of a needs assessment interview conducted during the first session. The idea is to allow students to grow in their researching skills, no matter at what level they began the course.

Only sometimes, they don't grow. And that's where the frustration comes in: when I feel as if I am repeating the same basic concepts over and over, and yet, those concepts don't seem to be applied.

That's when I realized that "learning" genealogy is like learning to ride a bike: you have to do it, not just listen to someone talk about how to do it. It's an applied skill, not just head knowledge.

Not unlike riding a bicycle, or sewing your clothes, or making sure the seal sets just right on homemade preserves, compiling your family history requires "knowing" in a very different way than just learning dates and names in a history class. You have to get your hands on it, know how facts connect with people. More than that, you need to ask questions and discern how best to answer them.

There is no "cookbook" in the world large enough to contain all the how-to instructions for every research problem you'll ever encounter. A guide book with maps, perhaps, but the learner who wants to take the journey has to be the one who takes the steps.

Like learning to ride a bicycle, learning how to find your family's history is eventually a matter of getting your hands on it. Doing it. Falling. Getting up, dusting off. Trying again, generation after generation.


  1. I really like this post. It resonates. The scenario of failing, then getting up, dusting off, and going at it again, is spot on. But my favorite picture in this little essay? People who "catch the excitement of seeing their own ancestors' names in decades-old documents." So true!

    1. Lisa, if you've seen that response, you know exactly what I mean! Even when I've taught one-off classes at local libraries using the "Library Edition," the minute someone has the chance to find a relative in a document--even something as everyday as finding their parents in a more recent census--I can tell immediately who has been bitten by the "genealogy bug." You can see it in their eyes--sometimes their whole face lights up.

  2. I helped teach a class at a local library. My student loved telling me about her family, but I'm not sure she will work on her own.

    1. That must have been a frustrating feeling, Miss Merry! Sometimes I wish that, instead of teaching genealogy "classes," we could offer genealogy workshops. I've heard of quilters getting together for a weekend out of town, lugging their sewing machines on the retreat, and simply sewing together while they hung out. My dream is to set up a weekend getaway like that, only for family history friends.


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