52 weeks of personal genealogy & history: Week 52: Advice to future researchers of my families.

The topic for Week 52 in Amy Coffin’s and Geneablogger’s 52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History series is: Advice. Do you have any advice for future generations who may be researching your family?

Reflecting on my own experiences over 25 years of family history research, what advice would I give to someone researching our family in the future, which may be a new, or indeed a current generation? What lessons have I learned? Oh, this is one of those questions where you purport to be an expert even if you’re not, but here goes.

Enjoy the ride

Family history is a wonderful hobby – you may think you’ll control it but like any obsession it will eventually control you. Fortunately, unlike most other obsessions, the hazards are few (poor eyesight, a diminishing bank account, an inability to bypass a cemetery, and a tendency to write 1711 when you’re living in 2011 or even 2111). Enjoy the ride, you’ll have a great time!

Be a life-long learner

Family history is a great obsession hobby for anyone who wants to continue learning. As each family door opens there will be something you need to learn about, be it technology-driven or history in any of its guises. Be open and be a learner.

Are you a number? Neither were they.

Our ancestors were people, just like us in many ways, even though times were different. Don’t treat them as a statistic on a tree with bare biographical data. Learn as much as you can from a wide range of sources so that as you learn, they become real people with real lives in their moment of history. The power brokers may make world decisions but it’s ordinary people who implement those decisions and live the consequences.

Don’t be shocked

Don’t think that in the olden days everyone was virtuous and made no mistakes…they were people just like us…human nature changes surprisingly little. Don’t start the journey if you don’t think you can cope with finding out unusual, scandalous or unpalatable things about your ancestral families. Give them forgiveness and tolerance for things they got wrong and remember they are/were (usually) precious to their families. Don’t fudge the truth but don’t abuse the trust salaciously.

Get down & dirty

Even though it would have been inconceivable to imagine how much family history research would change in 25 years, I can’t imagine there will never be a need to visit a library or archive. It would be a sad world if it comes to that I think. So go old-fashioned: check out books, hold documents your ancestors signed, visit the churches where they married, and if possible look at the places where they lived, died and are buried. You will learn so much this way.

Review and reassess

Don’t trust every record you see or every index you read. Just because the surname Cass doesn’t appear in indexes for Papua New Guinea, doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Just because the family was called McCorkindale by the late 1800s doesn’t mean the McCorquodale family, with its many variant spellings, isn’t your ancestral line. Just because one family is called McSharry and another McSherry doesn’t mean they’re unrelated: they are one and the same. Go back to basics and compare birth, marriage and immigration records.

Don’t trust everything that an earlier researcher has written or published. They will almost certainly have done their best at that point in time, but check their sources if you’re concerned. No sources? Perhaps you shouldn’t trust them all that much. If we’re good researchers and keep on looking, we learn more which may change the original story, a little or a lot.

Revisit aka Persistance pays (usually)

Can’t find them on the first pass through the records? Please don’t give up. Go back, again and again. As you learn more about your family you see information with new eyes. Is it a waste of time? Not even if you don’t get answers…you keep learning.

When persistence doesn’t pay off

Perhaps in decades to come and more records come to light, someone will find how my “swimmers” came to Australia. That’s George Kunkel and Mary O’Brien and her sister Bridget that I’m talking about. And if some future researcher finally solves this riddle, can they please get an ouija board and let me know how George and Mary got here, because it’s driven me mad for decades! I have visions of them in heaven (they were good people) saying “try harder”.