Now that the end of the calendar year is nearly here, and most of the holiday madness is simmering down, it seems like a good time for us as genealogists to stand back, take stock, and reconsider our goals, both large and small.
First of all, what ARE those goals? Did you start this pursuit with a concrete plan in mind, beyond finding Grandpa’s birthdate? Or unravelling the story behind Aunt Lilly’s divorce? Or learning more about the “semi-adopted” child in that family picture? Once you’ve started work, a goal can and will change, but it’s a good idea to re-examine it now and then, at least mentally.
Wandering off on unexpected paths is so easy -- that’s part of the fun of digging into family history -- but once in a while it really helps to remind yourself of what’s been done and ask yourself what your overall aim is -- or has become. Is it to publish a comprehensive genealogy of all your ancestors? To write about the events in a single family? To contribute completed family group sheets to the local genealogical society’s files? Or just to satisfy your own curiosity?
While these aims are not mutually exclusive, it is easier to plan research if you have not only goals, but priorities. So take a few minutes to think about what you’ve done, why you did it, and whether it is taking you in a direction you truly want to go.
So often people not yet in the grip of genealogy will offer excuses for their reluctance to get involved: “My aunt already did ours,” “It seems so expensive,” or, “I just don’t have time.” (Of course they may simply mean they aren’t interested, but don’t want to admit it -- poor things!)
Those of us already addicted are likely to use the same kind of reasoning to explain why we don’t make more progress. While we know “Aunt’s book” is no excuse at all (more likely, it would be a great starting point), we can add a few more justifications, such as “I don’t have enough room for my stuff,” or “I can’t travel to all those courthouses and cemeteries.”
I’ve already written about how to do genealogy on the cheap (“Deep pockets not required,” June 1, 2011), but what about the other supposed constraints? Time is a big factor, and I am certainly as guilty as anyone of squandering it, but being organized and having a plan really helps. An hour of focused research, background reading, or chart creation can be more productive than a whole day of drifting from one website to another, with no particular intent. Next time you have 20 minutes, write down a research question (now that your goals and priorities are firmly in mind -- aren’t they?) and outline how you might work to solve it. Then, when there is a free hour or so, determine to zero in and follow it up -- instead of letting yourself be distracted by the latest email, newsletter article, or Facebook message.
Space is another problem, but not an insurmountable one. Actually, the more space you have, the more it tends to fill with clutter -- and distractions. I am fortunate to have a small bedroom for my “office,” but sometimes have to take my work out to the kitchen table just to avoid all the potential diversions in that tiny room.
In the pre-computer age -- you remember that, don’t you? -- a couple of notebooks or a handful of file folders were all many of us had. And these days we don’t really need much more than that right at hand in order to get work done. Documents and photos can be scanned into the computer for immediate reference, and the originals safely stored away.
As for not being able to travel to see at firsthand those important records -- it is regrettable, but need not be a deterrent. More and more cemetery data is available online; for instance findagrave.com has many volunteers who will provide photos of individual headstones, if they are not already posted. There are books recording graves in various localities, and many local historical/genealogical organizations have extensive files, some online. As for courthouses -- it is always a great idea to visit them yourself, but, again, volunteers can often be found who will do the legwork for free or for a small fee. Finding fellow researchers and/or family members in the area may provide the information you need. I’ve mentioned this before -- joining a genealogical or historical society in your region of interest is probably the next best thing to being there yourself. A good source for this kind of information is the USGenWeb Project.
So, no formal resolutions for the New Year, but give yourself a pat on the back for all the accomplishments of the past twelve months, look again at your large and small goals, and take the time to outline some practical plans for the coming year’s research.