Why Did You Get Started in Genealogy?
By: Carolyn L. Barkley
I think that curiosity motivates genealogists. Remember the adage, “curiosity killed the cat?” I recently read an extension of that statement, written by contemporary fantasy novelist, Holly Black: “If curiosity killed the cat, it was satisfaction that brought it back.” The interplay between curiosity and the satisfaction realized in ferreting out a challenging bit of genealogical knowledge drives my research. I looked for other views on curiosity, to see how else it might relate to my work (aha…curiosity about curiosity). Samuel Johnson stated, “Curiosity is one of the most permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.”Albert Einstein believed that “Curiosity is more important than knowledge.” (Perhaps that fact is what sustains us when there is no apparent answer to a research problem.) Finally, Charles Baudelaire wrote, “I set out to discover the why of it, and to transform my pleasure into knowledge.”
My consideration of curiosity and its place in my love of genealogy led me to wonder how any of us might have gotten started in this field, whether hobbyists or professional researchers. Watching television programs such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” might have inspired some of our first genealogical steps; someone who is already a genealogist might have sparked our interest; or family experiences might predispose us to a love of family history.
In my own case, I was destined to be a genealogist. I spent my summers in a household with three older generations–the oldest member having been born in 1865–and my mother had known an earlier generation. This exposure to earlier generations provided first-hand information and stories that would foster my love of history beginning at an early age. In addition, my grandfather was a city clerk for fifty years and instilled in me a love of records and the need for their preservation. One of my earliest summer memories was tramping around the woods of Hampshire County, Massachusetts, with my grandfather and my parents, looking for old cellar holes, and comparing them to land ownership maps in a county historical atlas. During holiday visits, I was able to spend part of a day in my grandfather’s city hall office, thumbing through all of the vital record file drawers (these files still exist and I was able to see them while on a trip to Springfield, Massachusetts, last April). When I was a teenager, he introduced me to land records, and together, we traced the ownership of the summer property he owned. My future as a genealogist was never in question, and I became the designated genealogist/historian for the family. That status has continued over the last forty years, despite my erstwhile unsuccessful efforts to interest other members of the family in my growing passion for genealogical research. My husband initially was interested in my work on his family, but lost heart when I hit a 1750s brick wall. My son would listen to information on his paternal line, but I think he was just being polite. I began to eye my three granddaughters, weighing which one might be the one to assume the family’s genealogical mantle in the future. Then, last fall, a single event changed everything.
I was spending the day in Roanoke, Virginia, with my son and his family. His wife, adopted at birth, was interested in seeing if some individuals she had found on Facebook might be members of her birth mother’s family. She and I did some searching on Ancestry.com, and based on what information she did know about her birth family, we were able to determine that these Facebook folks were indeed related to her. The next day, I had been home again for just a few hours when my son called. Apparently the two of them had spent much of the time since I had left searching for more information not only on her family, but his as well. And…they were hooked, just like that! Later, it was very rewarding to discover that, when we were dividing up some family silver, he knew who I was talking about when I commented on the monogram on a bread tray.
I worked for many years in a public library with a wonderful reference staff who, like many librarians, would have happily slipped out the back door when genealogical customers asked for help. As I was both a librarian and a genealogist, I provided training programs on how to best serve these customers. While well-received, no one was really excited until, for reasons still unknown to me, a training on the about to be released 1930s census seemed to light a fire under many of the staff. The palpable excitement resulted in several field trips to the National Archives where staff worked on their own family history and began to understand more fully “what those people were doing in their library.”
In all fairness, for some library staff, these trainings did not represent their first exposure to family history, nor the seminal moment that started them on the genealogical pathway. One individual relates, “From the time I was a toddler, my father walked me through the graveyard at the church one of my Revolutionary War ancestors founded in Albemarle County, Virginia, introducing me to my ancestors.” A second shared the following story:
“When I was just starting school, my paternal grandmother lived with us part-time. As she was not pleased with my printing skills, every night after dinner, she would sit down with me to practice. I would sit at the table with a big primary pencil and a sheet of lined paper and ‘Susie’ would give me a name to write down. Each name was an ancestor. After we got the spelling and printing properly executed, ‘Susie’ would tell me a little story about the person: an immigrant from Scotland who supported the Pretender; a great-grandmother who was killed by lightening; a World War I nurse in France. Even when I had no understanding of the events surrounding these stories, I was convinced that the history of the world was advanced due to the efforts of my ancestors! My father (her son), who at best thought her obsession was ancestor worship, and at worst, compensation for lost glories, went so far as to borrow a huge blue-printed family tree from a distant cousin. It was so big that he had to lay it out on the living room floor, and he and I crawled around the edges pointing out people!”
She also tells a story about her nephew, who “when he was about 10, spent spring break with my parents. As he didn’t live in Virginia, my parents drove him around to all the family homes, historic sites, and cemeteries they could cover in a week. When he wrote his school report, ‘What I Did on My Summer Break,’ he included the memorable line, ‘I know more dead people than any other kid in the fourth grade.’”
It is particularly gratifying to see others take part in an activity we love. The individual whose writing skills were honed by practicing family names today teaches Genealogy 101 classes to Virginia Beach Public Library users. Sometimes staff members attend this class and become curious about their ancestors. One newer staff member emailed me to say that “I got started in genealogy to find out more about my father’s family [about] which, out of six children in my family, no one ever thought to ask any questions. As a result I took [the] Genealogy 101 class at the Central Library, and have traced the…family back to the early 1800s.”
Curiosity is the foundation of genealogical research. It is as satisfying to learn personally as it is to inspire others to do so. Best of all, I have discovered that my youngest granddaughter (age 10) likes taking pictures in cemeteries. I think I’ve got another convert!