Lucky for me, someone else already did my genealogy
I’m really am interested in my family history. But lucky for me…
…Great Aunt Doris already did that side of my family tree so I don’t have to worry about that.
…Cousin Jason has all the family history stuff in a box at his house, so its safe.
…My uncle Gary, has a copy of that book that our great-great-grandma Virginia did that has all of our family history in it, so I know that’s all done.
…Mom’s Aunt Nancy, has been working on genealogy for years, so we can get it from her.
…Dad’s cousin Jeffery has our family history on the computer. He’s a real computer whiz.
I wish I had kept track, over the years, of how many times I heard statements like these.
As a family history addict, I cringe a little. I know that most of the friends, relatives, and colleagues who spoke these words were trying hard to connect with me on my favorite topic of genealogy. I know, too, they all probably had at least a tiny bit of curiosity about their heritage and really did figure that their relative had it covered. I also know that genealogy isn’t for everyone – probably not even for most. But, if you have even a slight interest in genealogy, or think that you may want to know more some day in the future, you may want to beware, heed my warnings, and take a little action now towards getting some of that family history into your own hands.
The Family History is Done
“The family history is done,” said no genealogist ever.
That Great-Great Grandma Virginia who wrote that book on your family may have died decades ago. So, there is a good chance that there will be some work to do to bridge between the people you know and the people she covered in her book. You may find that you need to talk to your parents, aunts and uncles, and other older relatives to figure out where your family fits into what she has written. Even a book written a few years ago, by a relative close to your same age, will need updates. Babies are born, people marry, and people pass from this world as the circle of life rolls on. Who is keeping track of all the updates between when the family history was done and present time? Will you even be able to figure out exactly how you are related to the people in Great-Great Grandma’s book?
Rodents and Floods
While you are reading this, a family of mice may be feasting on that old family history book that your uncle owns and has stashed in a box in his attic. Someone in the family may have family treasures in their possession, but that doesn’t mean that they are safe and will still be around when you get around to asking to see them.
Countless family treasures have been lost to basement flooding or cross country moves, to tornadoes and house fires. I often wonder what kinds of things I might have if my grandparent’s house hadn’t burned down when my mom was a very little kid. I especially mourn for the photos that I might otherwise have in my hands right now. Disasters can happen. It is so much safer to get copies of things made and distributed throughout the extended family rather than relying on one dependable old family historian to keep it all safe.
Technology (or lack thereof)
That aunt who worked on genealogy for years, might have done all of her work on floppy disks that can no longer be read on a modern computer. That tech-savvy cousin Jeffrey, who talks about spending all of his time on the family tree, may be using old software, or worse, he may have written his own programs for managing the family data. Hooray to him for having the skills and passion to write his own code, but are you going to be able to know how to find the information you need? And even if he was using state-of-the-art tools, what are the chances that you are going to be able to get access to his computer or know his passwords to be able to access all of the information once he is no longer around?
Landing in the Wrong Hands, House Cleaning and Disappearing Artifacts
“I’m so mad that Aunt Evilone <a fictional name> won’t let me borrow Uncle Dennis’s photo albums. She doesn’t care about our family, but won’t let any of us see any of them.”
Those valuable genealogical assets of your family may not necessarily end up in the hands of someone who realizes their value to the rest of the family. I have heard more than a few tales of family disruptions that put “all the family history” into the hands of a family member with no interest in family history and/or no interest in playing nice with the rest of the family. And sometimes, the person who inherits the pile of stuff from the previous family historian just doesn’t have the time or energy to sort through it and share it with everyone else.
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” It goes the other way too.
“My sister just threw out all those boxes of information that Mom had collected over the years. She didn’t think anyone would want any of it.”
When the family home is sold so that Grandma can go to the nursing home or move to a retirement villa somewhere warm, or because of the death of a relative, there is often a mad scurry to clean out the house. Unfortunately, this is also when family treasures often transfer ownership. There isn’t always a lot of time to know who is getting what or even what there is to get.
“My cousin Nick got those old pictures that came from Great-Grandpa George’s house and I just found out that he sold them all because the frames were worth a lot of money.”
With the advent of Craig’s List and eBay, it is easier than ever to sell your old stuff for cash. When I look at an old photograph, I don’t even always notice the frame because I am so interested in the people in the photo, but that is because genealogy is my passion. Other people likely see the beautiful old frame first and don’t even think much about the old faces in the picture, especially if they have no idea who is in the photograph. Whenever I go to a restaurant that has antique family photos on the wall, I’m sad thinking that those pictures should instead be in the hands of their families. But again, that is because I’m so interested in family history. Don’t assume that the person who ends up with the family pictures will really have an interest in them. You can’t fault cousin Nick for wanting to make some cash, but it sure would be nice if copies were made of the photographs before they left the family.
“Boy, I wish I’d gotten copies of that stuff before Grandma died.”
It is pretty common to have siblings and cousins and other relatives who have just as much right to family treasures as you. When cousin Val stops by Grandma’s house and comments on how much she has always liked the family picture from when Grandma was a girl, it is Grandma’s right to tell Val, “Oh, why don’t you just take that.” You and others may never know that exchange has happened. Things disappear.
If you want to make sure that you are going to ever see the work that Aunt Nancy did or the photos that so-and-so collected, you need to talk to that person before they and their treasures are gone.
Content, Quality and Completeness
“Oh no, Great-Great Grandma Virginia’s book just traces back from one of her grandparents. It doesn’t say anything about the other three.”
Even if Great Aunt Doris, Cousin Jason, Uncle Gary, Aunt Nancy and Cousin Jeffrey are all willing to share everything they have on your family, you may be disappointed.
“Oh great, Aunt Nancy has a lot of names on a family tree, but she doesn’t say where she got any of her information. She didn’t cite a single source.”
You might find that a lot of work went into the pursuit of the family history, but the results are not well documented or organized.
“None of those photos in the box that Cousin Jason has at his house are labeled. I sure wish we’d looked through it when all the aunts and uncles were alive.”
You might find that it takes some work to sort through the collection to even know what you have. It will be a lot easier to do that sorting while you still have the expert around to help you understand what they have.
“I thought she had kept track of the family history, but all she had was a box of random papers.”
If you wait until you desperately need family information, you may find that the keeper of the information doesn’t have anything useful. Okay, it is probably far-fetched to think that you will have a genealogy emergency headed your way, but many schools do require kids to do a family history project as part of a high school history class, so wouldn’t it be nice to have something available to get your kid started? And, there are rumors that the genealogy bug can hit you fast and hard once you are exposed to a little knowledge about your family, so you don’t know when you might need a dose of information. And very seriously and sadly, sometimes it is at the death of the family historian that you realize that the torch has been passed to you and that you are now the only one really interested or capable of keeping your family’s story alive.
Call to Action
Don’t Wait! Get started now!
Get your hands on some of the family history that has supposedly been “done” for your family. Do it now! You might not plan to spend any time on genealogy until some date in the future, or maybe you just want something to pass down to your descendants later, but doing something now will ensure that you actually get to see some of the work that your relatives have done and things they’ve collected. Contact your family’s family history nut and bug them to share with you. Get copies of things! Buy a copy of their book if they’ve published one. See if your family historian can print you a pedigree chart, an Ahnentafel report and descendant reports (you’ll sound so smart asking). Ask questions. Say “thank you.” See what you can collect!
P.S. If you are really lucky, you will find that you do indeed have a serious genealogist in your family. But wouldn’t it be good to know that now rather than later?
How can Family Past Expert help?
If you need some help… Family Past Expert can assist you in sorting through the treasures that you collect. And, as always, Family Past Expert can help you get started with your family tree and do research for you. Contact Family Past Expert today through email or purchase a services estimate to begin your family history journey.
“Popular Baby Names By Decade,” Social Security, Web, 9 Jan 2017, https://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/decades/. This is the interesting site where I found names for most of the fictional characters in my tale.