Archive for the ‘Genealogy vs. Family History’ Category

What’s Your Genealogical Superpower?

Friday, January 1st, 2010

Genealogy Superhero

At some point in our genealogical endeavors, we’ve probably all wished for some sort of superhuman enhancement to our research skills. If not the ability to leap brick walls in a single bound, than perhaps we’ve longed simply for x-ray vision so we can figure out what occupation the census-taker had in mind for our great-great grandfather.

While preparing for a series of posts in which I’ll interview some of our lookup providers, I brainstormed some questions to ask them. One question on my list got me particularly excited:

Do you have a genealogical “superpower”? (i.e., a unique research ability or technique that helps you track down records or assemble conclusions that others can’t?) If so, what is it?

I’ve pondered how I’d answer the question myself. My research skills are hardly superlative, but I think I possess a few qualities that help me succeed (and have fun!) where others struggle and get frustrated:

Seeing My Ancestors as Real People

Though I’ve stared forlornly at my share of empty slots on pedigree charts, I’ve never had a problem thinking of genealogy merely as a process of checking off boxes. I’ve always been blessed to approach it from the perspective of getting to know my ancestors — and their stories — a little better. That way, when a newly-discovered document provides helpful background info, but neglects to mention parents’ names, I’m seldom disappointed.

Ability to Switch Gears Easily

When a seemingly promising line of inquiry on one ancestor repeatedly fails to pan out, I find myself effortlessly transitioning to a new approach on a different ancestor without any lengthy period of soul-searching or annoyance. As a result, when Thomas McEntee asks me to post about an ancestor that drives me mad for Madness Monday, I honestly can’t think of any — I just never get to that point.

Batman and Robin

OK, so maybe my “superpowers” aren’t so super. I’m probably more qualified to be a superhero sidekick than wear the cape myself. My wife Cynthia, by comparison, is the real deal. Her superpower is her divergent thinking skills. When a patron at our Family History Center brings in a Chicago-area research problem, my wife can list five or six possible lines of attack within a few seconds. Once the patron chooses one, she can rapidly iterate and generate new ideas based on the results found. If the death certificate the patron needs doesn’t show up in the online index, she’s off to the appropriate cemetery record film or old newspaper obituary website to track the death info down there. Faster than a speeding bullet. You get the idea.

Your Turn

What about you — what’s your genealogical superpower? Encyclopedic recall of FHL film numbers covering your county? Mad Ancestry/Footnote search box wildcard skillz? Brain-embedded co-processor containing source citation templates from Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence Explained? Consider sharing your superpower with us in a post on your blog. Or just let us know in the comments below. Thanks!

What might have been

Monday, August 4th, 2008

As I flew out to Utah and drove back to Chicago this week, I found myself revisiting an anecdote from a book I’d read in junior high called Ball Four — a tell-all book about professional baseball written by one-time Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton. I don’t recommend the book to my readers (I’ve pretty much filed my reading of it under the heading “misspent youth”) but at least one insightful concept from it remains with me: the idea of “games almost tied”.

During the 1969 baseball season chronicled in the book, Bouton was a relief pitcher for the Seattle Pilots. As he watched his team frequently struggle to come from behind in later innings, almost tie the game, but ultimately fall short, he observed that no baseball statistic existed to track the number of such valiant but unsuccessful comeback efforts. To meet this need, he coined the term “games almost tied”, which if adopted, would presumably go next to the win and loss columns in baseball standings. The poignancy of his idea struck me powerfully at the time and still does. What has this got to do with genealogy and family history, you ask? I’ll try to explain.

When we look at pedigree charts or family group sheets, marriage licenses or death certificates, what we’re seeing is basically “history as written by the winners” (to paraphrase Alex Haley, among others). These outlines of our ancestors’ lives of necessity omit mention of the relationships that were almost formalized, but not quite — of the families and children that might have been. Just as baseball standings would be enriched by considering the number of “games almost tied”, so (I’m tempted to conclude) family history research might take on an additional poignancy and relevance were we to occasionally throw light on some of the “almosts” that our ancestors navigated through.

Of course, there are good reasons that we tend to be hesitant to discuss old boyfriends/girlfriends, broken-off relationships and the like — and instead leave them to become inspiration for countless country music ballads and folk tunes. But even though they don’t fit in established slots on genealogical forms, I for one would be grateful if I had some insights into my ancestors’ near misses, whether in relationships, careers, geographic location, etc.. What about you?