Thursday, October 4, 2012

Guest Post: Elizabeth Swaney O'Neal

For this post I thought I would mix it up a bit and have a guest post. When I asked my friend Elizabeth Swanay O'Neal for some hints or tips for my last post she went over and above...So I decided her note to me was too good not to share. I hope you agree. (PS. I love her sense of'll see what I mean.)

May I present: 

Elizabeth Swanay O'Neal

See that… up there on the wall? That’s my certificate from the Genealogical School of Hard Knocks. The genealogy bug first bit me about 25 years ago, and if I’d known then what I know now… I would have done just about everything differently.

Back in the day, there was no, no Google, no email, no internet… heck, hardly anyone even had a computer. Need a death certificate? You actually had to write a letter and MAIL it, and then wait and wait and wait for a response. Or, you had to leave your house and drive to a library or your local National Archives branch to get the record you wanted, and there was no guarantee that you would find it. Cranking through reel after reel of Soundex cards and census records still might not score a hit on Grandpa Fred’s family.

It was exhausting.

But eventually, I did get my first computer, and I thought I was pretty cool beans entering data into the PAF 1.0 database on my spiffy DOS machine. Forget about sources; it was all about THE NAMES. I was confident that I would always remember where I found everything, and who had time to write it down anyway? Seriously, I know what I’m doing. Leave me alone. And why is Aunt Josephine bugging me with those BORING stories about when she was a girl? I’m much too busy for that!
Times have changed, thank goodness. Now you can look for Grandpa Fred from behind your computer in your pajamas and curlers. But the basics of genealogical research have not changed all that much. Here are a few bits of advice that I would give to my 20-something-year-old self – after I finished slapping her silly – upon beginning her genealogical quest:

Write it down. Your database says that Grandpa Fred is the son of Frank and Mary Smith. But how do you know that? Did you read it in a book? Did Aunt Josephine tell you? Did you see it on Grandpa Fred’s birth certificate? Even if you copied it off someone’s unsourced family tree, write it down! Don’t worry about writing perfect Evidence Explained source citations. Just leave yourself enough bread crumbs to find your way back. Trust me; in 25 years you will NOT remember what you ate for breakfast, much less where that piece of information came from, and you will tear your hair out trying to retrace your steps. Here, let me show you my bald spots…

Socialize. When I attended my first genealogical society meeting about 20 years ago, most of the members looked at me as if I were a space alien. Granted, I was by far the youngest person in the room, but I was made to feel most uncomfortable, not to mention ignorant. I attended a few more meetings, and then finally gave up. But times have changed, and this attitude is not prevalent among the majority of genealogical societies. Ok, so the thought of a room full of Aunt Josephines might be daunting, but venture out and meet your local gen soc anyway. If you find that one group isn’t for you, visit another. You will eventually find “your people,” and the camaraderie and opportunities for learning will be worth the effort. You might even meet a cousin or two.

Don’t be afraid of the old folks. Aunt Josephine might look scary, but odds are that she’d love a good chat. Ask her to tell you what life was like when she was a girl, and she’ll probably open up like a book. Be sure to bring along your camcorder, audio recorder, iPhone, or some sort of recording device so you can capture her memories for later transcribing. If she’s a good story-teller, you may find yourself much to rapt for note-taking. And if she’s not a good story-teller, well, you’ll have the audio to listen to later in case you nod off. Oh, and don’t dawdle. Aunt Josephine is advancing in years, and may not be around tomorrow to tell you where her grandparents came from… or may not be in a condition to remember. If you don’t do it now, you’ll wish you had. I sure wish I had.

So, there you go. I hope you are able to benefit from my early genealogical mistakes and bad judgment. Trust me: the Genealogical School of Hard Knocks is much less enjoyable than the NGS Home Study Course.