Sunday, September 08, 2013

The joy of sleuthing

“Perhaps the most satisfying task is to assemble in chronologic order all those bits and pieces of information from all those varied sources and watch a life appear before our eyes...”

This anonymous quote from an old genealogy newsletter really resonated with me. It is a satisfying task (and can be nearly endless if you let it).  We never can really know all there is to know about another person, especially one who is long gone, but, oh, the fascination in seeing a personality develop from a complete blank to a recognizable image. It may stay somewhat faded and fuzzy around the edges, but does gradually come to life, like a photograph in a darkroom bath.

Another source of satisfaction comes in working on a specific puzzle. Sometimes, when the very “dailyness” of daily life just gets to be too much, it’s a pleasure just to sit down and tackle something completely different, like the question of whether Uncle Wally really had six wives, or who that mysterious person was in Grandma’s household, circa 1880.

And it’s so much easier to find answers now! You must have seen those endless ads for cable TV, with kids harking back to the “old days” when you couldn’t record four programs at once while watching something else. (My question is -- who on God’s green earth thinks there are that many programs worth watching, much less recording? But I digress.) We researchers of a certain age could do them one better, reminiscing about our “old days” in genealogy, when there was no internet, doing research in books often meant waiting weeks to get them from distant libraries, and one had to be a detective to even discover where specific public documents or books were likely to be found.

My earliest experience in trying to learn something about an 18th century ancestor came when I received, on inter-library loan, a book from San Francisco’s Sutro Library: The Calendar of Kent County, Delaware, Probate Records, 1680-1800, compiled by Leon de Valinger Jr. How thrilling to find an abstract of Thomas Cain’s will, made 20 October, 1799! Being such a newbie, I didn’t feel compelled to look for the original document until years later, but the book’s entry did give me some very helpful information, and confirmed much of what my grandfather had written down about what was his great-grandfather’s family. 

It was a thick old volume, so fragile I couldn’t take it home, but had to use it in the library.  Now, paperback reprints are available, and the work has been digitized so it is fully searchable online. Not only that, but an index to the original probate files can be examined at the Delaware Public Archives website, as an aid to obtaining copies of the original documents.

Carping about the so-called tribulations of early television-viewing  makes me snicker, but when I recall what it was like to do family history research just a few years ago, I am truly grateful for modern technology.

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