25 August 2012

Keeping Promises

You're a good person, right? You work hard at your job. You do your best to be honest with people. You love your family and try to do all you can to show it to them. You're a good citizen that follows the law. In short, you try to play the game of Life fairly.

My fiance running drills with his amateur American football team in England.

Why must you lie like that?


I have no problem with someone who claims genealogy as a hobby. Some people decided long ago that stories and photos and reunions were more their thing than encyclopedias and microfiche and land grants. More power to you. But there is an insidious underworld of amateurs who call themselves "casual researchers" or "casual hobbyists" that are setting terrible examples for new family historians and the next generation researcher. These "casualists" are so unconcerned with the facts of their tree that they copy anything that "makes sense" to them onto their online work. They add photos willy-nilly to the wrong people just as often as they get them on the right people. They may look at records, but stick solely to online information and usually don't look past the name and age of the person. They spend most of their time scouring the web for free resources and volunteer groups that will find them the information at no cost (all the while forgetting the old maxim "you get what you pay for"). They don't care about the next generation, so any items and documents they have in their possession are usually in an unorganised mess, usually a box or shelf, that "makes sense" to them. If another relative becomes interested in genealogy and takes up with this sort of person's "research", they'll either continue with the incorrect information or spend the crucial first years of their new hobby learning how to fix mistakes (if they don't just ignore the work because they can't make heads or tails of it). In short, these people LIE and perpetuate the LIES of others.

My fiance lives in England. He coaches in an American football league. This league has fields, teams, uniforms, referees, playoffs....... all that the professional league would have (outside of sponsors and salaries). They follow all the rules. They spend their weekends drilling to make sure they've got the game down before facing another team. The coaches are selected based on their experience and willingness to teach others without compensation. These guys get up every Saturday of every week and play for fun, but they take it as seriously as if they were getting paid. Because it matters to them, they work hard at it. Many of these young men also play backyard football when at a family picnic or partying with friends. No uniforms, no real field, no referees telling them when they are wrong. Despite the laid-back attitude of these games, they play with rules. The same rules. They have a scrimmage line and somewhere marked off for the goal lines. Without a referee, each player calls out a rule-breaker. The offender doesn't cry about it. He doesn't call his friends bullies for pointing out he stepped out of bounds. He takes the ribbing for throwing for an interception. He knows that each person there has no ill-will specifically for him and has made a few mistakes in their day too. He just enjoys playing the game.

What does this have to do with you, genealogy, and organisation? Everything has rules. Anything that is truly organised, from your research to your kitchen cabinets, follows a set of rules. They must be easily accessible. They must be found in the most logical place. They must be continually maintained to the standard you have set. Genealogy has rules. All facts listed for a person must agree. If they disagree, they must agree to such an extent as to make any differences moot (Thomas on one record vs. Tommy on another as long as the rest of the document matches, for example, isn't enough of a disagreement to exclude either document as fact. Children born after the mother's confirmed death date, however, is so far-fetched that it cannot be a fact). They must be related by blood, marriage, adoption or household. (An exception to this one is a town tree where it traces all the families in a town whether they intermarry or not. But why would you add random floating people to your personal family tree when they don't connect at all?)

Rules aren't there to ruin your day. They are usually made to guide new people to the easiest, honest way to play the game. They are promises that offer a reward for keeping them. If I'm playing football, I promise that if I have the ball, I will run to the assigned marker for a reward (6 points) as long as I stay on the playing field. If I run off the field, I broke my promise and my penalty is I'm down. Let's expand our metaphors here. If I drive a car, I promise to drive at the posted speed. If I break that promise, I could be caught and ticketed. Of course, my insurance company may give me a discount if I do keep safe on the road. If I diet, I promise to eat right and exercise. If I am lying to myself, I don't lose weight. When I follow through, I lose weight, feel better about myself and people compliment my appearance. If I hire into a company, I promise to follow their rules, show up to work on time, and represent the company as they wish to be represented. If I fail to do so, I am fired. If I meet or exceed their rules, I get raises and promotions. When I play Monopoly with my 8 year old niece, I promise to play the game by rules she can understand and follow so she has a fair chance to win. If I cheat, I ruin the trust my niece has in me. If I play fairly, she learns that win or lose the game is the goal and has fun bonding with me. Any hobby, game, job, sport, etc. has these rules or promises and their consequences of both reward and punishment.

You'll notice some of those examples have no real referee. You follow the rules without anyone but yourself to catch you. Organisation is one of those "all you" scenarios. There are so many books, blogs, videos and so on that deal with how to organise. They tell you their system and you try to follow along with it. Sometimes they work and you stick with it. Most of the time you don't and you feel like you're just not an organised person. You'll notice that in my entire series, I've not just told you how to do it. I've suggested things, gave you an exercise. But most of the time, this is about you finding your way. It has to feel right to you and make sense to you. It has to be a promise you can keep.

And this is where the "casualists" fail. They don't keep promises to themselves or their family. When you take up the mantle of Family Historian, you make that unspoken promise to get it right. You promise to show your love for family by getting their story right. You promise to show your love for your children by leaving them a legacy they can show with pride. You promise yourself that the hours, months, and years that you spend on this hobby will not be wasted and forgotten. Everyday, the casual amateur lies to themselves and their family. They don't follow the simple rules (heck, half the time they don't even learn them). They waste their time from start to finish. And if any of their family tries to seriously use their research, they waste that person's time as well. In my family, I have the serious researcher (yes, besides me) all the way to the casual amateur and anything in between. Those amateurs drive me batty. They hand me their years of research and I pick it apart for the facts. Usually I only add the living info they have that directly relates to them as everything else is a mess and incorrect. What do I get in return? They're mad because I didn't use their research. They KNOW their great grandmother was a Cherokee. Well, she's my great aunt and no she's not. How do I know? I have the records. They have a rumor and a pair of moccasins bought at a gift shop in Oklahoma in the 80's during a family road trip. They KNOW that they're related to royalty. I've not found that to be true. They find this surprising since it's all over the internet. Ugh.

The only thing that bothers me more than their inability to use their critical thinking skills is their organisation. When I say they hand me their research, I mean I get a box or a folder that is random bits of paper. I get albums with photos in no particular order. Most of their research notes aren't in any sort of readable handwriting. Half the time, they can't even decipher it for me. There are no conclusions! No sort of timeline to explain how they know these records are for this relative. I have newspaper clippings of no discernible worth that describe events but haven't been placed in an order that paints a history. I now have to organise their research to use their research to prove their research. Again, Ugh.

This week's to-do
Last week I asked you to visualise your end-game. This week, I want you to make the promise to follow through. Set yourself and your heirs up for success. As you file your records, read the whole document to get the most out of it. Try to piece together the story of your ancestor's life as you go so that new clues will jump out at you now rather than later. Set yourself up a maintenance schedule and keep it as you would any promise.

My schedule:
Daily- 30 min. prior to research, I review my topic. I pull any files on the person or group I'm working with and read my notes. Since I work daily, this is usually just me making sure of where I left off from yesterday. If you are less frequently researching you want to review so you don't double your research (or the relatives in your tree). Plus a new day means new eyes. Reviewing your work may make something jump out at you. I also use the last 30 min. of my day to file my research and clear off my desk. (Are you still keeping up with your clean workspace task?)

Weekly- I digitise my research log (I accept my handwriting is horrendous, so I type up my notes just in case I need to give a copy to someone else). Review my plan for the next week (am I continuing with the surname or am I bored and need a new task to refresh?). I make a list of any supplies needed and make a plan to get to the store before I run out. (I use pencils like they are going out of style and try to bulk up during the Back-to-school season when they are cheapest). I use my Sunday as a refresh day to visit my dad and just "chill". But before I leave the house, I reply to messages from relatives, send emails or letters, schedule lunch dates with cousins if possible, continue with plans for reunions or get-togethers.... I use Tuesdays for any phone calls to businesses and offices, because Monday can be a hectic day for them. This way I've given them time to get over the weekend. I try to schedule a day during the week to write my blog, but this is the one promise I break too frequently. Since I often get new ideas or thoughts during the week, sometimes my blog can be written and I need to edit (like this week) or writer's block is waiting for an idea to come into view....... end result is a delayed post while I work through it. (I really have to get better at this one. If for no reason but my own pride).

Monthly- Review and renew all backups. I try to open the files to make sure that data loss hasn't occurred and save any new info or update a file. I keep up with technology changes so that my files won't be on the wrong format with a new computer (anyone ever forget to transfer their floppies to CDs only to have their old computer die and the new one not have a floppy drive?). I also have a once a month review of my living relatives. I mail those I don't talk to more often, confirm birthdays and anniversaries for the month and get in touch with new relatives found via my tree connections. I check over my monthly budget and plan the next month's expenses. I have a list of records I want to order and how much they cost. As my budget allows, I check them off the list and get them ordered. I also decide if I'm going to renew a monthly subscription at this time or if I'm going to switch subscriptions or save the money for the month.

Quarterly- I touch everything in my research once very 3 months. I review my current conclusions (what I claim to know about my relatives; where I lose them; their migration, military service; where the line ends with no progeny....). I look at my brick walls and unidentified photos to see if I've learned something new as well as to put them to the front of my thoughts. I also review my research plan and gauge my progress towards writing my book or planning my yearly reunion and adjust as necessary. I also choose this time to review my experience. If I feel there is something new to learn, I set up a schedule for the next quarter that has days to read new books, attend classes, or watch videos about the new topic. I also take this time to review the basics of searches, terms and conditions of websites and organisations I use in my research, and any part of history that I learned a long time ago but is now at the forefront of my research. I may know about the Revolutionary War, but reading up on the details may help with my current effort to find records dealing with my Patriot (or Loyalist) ancestors. And having done this for so long, even I can sometimes forget the simplest ways to accomplish a task....... before I could write my series on organisation, I had to first remember what it was like to be disorganised and how I fixed that. It had been so long, I didn't remember the first steps on the road.
This sort of schedule may be too intense for you. Or it may leave out things you want to cover. Point is this week you need to make a serious commitment to your research and your system by making a schedule. A rotating to-do list that you keep up with so that nothing ever gets out of hand again. Don't be a "casualist", be a hobbyist. Promise to do it right. Write it on a calendar if it helps. Be consistent. If you pick Wednesday to do all your filing (and I will say filing is best done daily, but it's your system), actually file on Wednesday. Police yourself since no one else can. Keep your promises.

Or keep lying to yourself.


  1. Anonymous25/8/12 11:51

    Another 'knock out' (in the positive sense of the expression) blog Rhi !

  2. You are talking about my mother! LOL!

  3. i guess it's an advantage to know from the get-go that your copy of the family tree is inaccurate...

    1. It should always be assumed that there are inaccuracies when starting out or using someone else's research. That would be the advantage of grooming a successor: they'd know the accuracy of your method and could build upon it. Without that confidence, we all must start with proving the proof. I have a book that deals with one line of my family and it does fairly well in cross-examination with actual documents like censuses and land records. There are errors, but they are small (incorrect spellings of names, incorrect birth order of children, using a nickname or middle name for the given name)........ I don't blame anyone who doesn't take the steps to gather documents, that's not everyone's bag. But the better documented the facts, the stronger the tree and the more reliable the research. I just like to remind folks that with the ease of use of the internet, the bad info propogates just as easily as the good and to assume the worst.