14 March 2011

Genealogy - The Dirty Little Secrets

compiled by Teresa Martin Klaiber
March 2011

I am going to tell you a dirty little secret.  Professional genealogists start out doing genealogy at square one with a four generation chart just like you.  Some are a little more savvy about proper citations, some have better filing systems than others and some have educational backgrounds that help guide them into new research territory.

It also depends on when any given genealogist starts on their journey.  You see if you are just starting the journey you have much better tools than say this old bird that started in the early 1970's.

Another dirty little secret is that professional genealogists tend to be like the cobbler who let his son go without shoes.  They put their personal research on a back burner to assist others in their quest.  They end up grabbing a bite here and there while concentrating on another genealogical problem.

Thus a forced sabbatical has turned into a reality check for this seasoned [better word than old] researcher.  I have dusted off an old notebook of one of the earliest family lines I worked on to scan the documentation and check my citations. [The word scan in the 1970's simply meant to search the horizon and had nothing to do with our documentation.]

These 1970 photostats are not in nice acid free sleeves.  Yes, holes in each page.  The next page is a bit yellowed, slick, crackled and fading.  A wonderful development in copy machines that did not last.  [A quick scan and enhancement have saved the day on this one.]  Let me remind you that at the time these were the recommended ways to keep your documentation. 

So let's investigate this same notebook a bit further. Did you know that highlighters were a great new "tool" but that if you used a copy machine they left a huge black line. Highlighters were invented by the Japanese in 1962.   It was some time before the problem with copiers and the fluorescent ink showing as a black line were corrected.

The book  with the highlighted pages was not easy to track down in the 1970's. I had to travel to another state to view a limited edition copy.    Today I found the same book on-line in less than two minutes and reprinted clean pages. [On-line in the 1970's might have meant you still had a party line on dial up telephone.]

This wonderful research notebook includes cherished photographs of tombstones and holds memories of wonderful cemetery trips.  The photographs are Polaroid instant pictures.  The color in those pictures are faded.  Luckily even then I took both Polaroid and 35mm photographs, keeping the negatives.  Today our digital cameras replace all need of films.

Mind you, this is still good research and contains some very valuable materials.  Before copy machines, researchers would create a list of questions to mail out to family members across the country.  All hand written, over and over again, with the hopes that the family would mail them back with answers.  A copy of questionnaires from the 1930's is nestled in this research notebook, donated by an earlier [still a better word than older] researcher.  Everyone that filled out those hand written forms are gone now.

I still give myself an A+ for citing each source, providing title pages and keeping the materials in such a manner as to make my scan project easy.

Today we are encouraged to digitize our materials and to keep abreast of new media to transfer our records.  Besides scanning these old materials, I have also been transferring cassette tape interviews to digital .wav files.  My office also contains old 8 mm films that were first transferred to VHS then to DVD.  If you are just beginning your journey you will begin by digitizing your research as you get it.  You have "how to" guides to tell you about archiving your materials at your finger tips.

But there is another reality.  Good research is just that - good research.  The next generation can pick up this notebook and know  that the citations are correct for this particular line.  Hopefully the next generation and the generation after that will continue to care for the now scanned materials and share the now digitized photographs of tombstones that may no longer be standing as they were in the 1970's.

I must say that this particular notebook does not include staples nor paper clips.  Another no-no.  But then the researcher that shared those valued hand written forms had them held together with rusty straight pins.

We now organize our materials in databases designed specifically for genealogy instead of handwriting family group sheets over and over again.  I remember my first computer like it was yesterday and the first time I saw a demonstration of a scanner I was in awe.  Today I sit surrounded by computers, scanners, mp3 players and e-book readers.  My cell phone is on the charger and I have memory sticks organized on a hook.  I wonder what my ancestors would think of all this?  I wish I could visit the future to see where this is all leading.  I am a techie.

But honestly, the real dirty little secret is that no matter how you trace your genealogy or how you save your files,  it is the journey that is important.  It is the joy of learning about your family and then sharing the stories, pictures, and artifacts with  the next generation. 

Clip art compliments of


  1. Absolutely a 100% accurate recap of what genealogists who started somewhat "earlier" in their research went through. I used to ask my children to give me a roll of first class stamps for my birthday and Christmas presents. My husband set me up with a personal checking account and kept it funded so I wouldn't be writing so many $2 and $3 checks on our regular account for copies of vital records. (He hated to mess with them in reconciling our monthly bank statement). I stopped watching early TV sit-coms because I preferred to take a run over to the library to do a bit of research after I got home from work and cooked dinner.

    It was a different way of doing genealogy. Very very different from today, that's for sure. Thanks for the memories, Teresa!

  2. I've shared the "Lovely Blog Award" with you. Stop by Genealogy Frame of Mind to pick it up!

  3. And remember sending away for census records and waiting forever to get them back? You had to hope you had the right information because if you didn't, you had to try another angle and send in another fee, hoping for the best this time. Now all you do is spend some time on Ancestry.com!

  4. thanks for taking me back. i am very thankful for all the research and papers that my great-grandmother organized back in the day. it gave me a great jump start when i started on my own research in the 1980s. today i am amazed at all that is available with a few clicks of a mouse.