The Old Booksmith


Why Do I Do Genealogy?


Genealogy is one of those activities that some people can become engrossed in to the exclusion of eating and sleeping, not to mention causing the eyeballs of their family and friends to glaze over. Other people just don't get it: "That was then, this is now. Who really cares what happened in the past? What does it matter who my great-great-grandparents were?"

I believe I understand where my own enthusiasm for family history comes from. First, both my parents were only children, so I have no aunts or uncles and no first cousins. Second, I was an Army brat, the son of a career officer, and we were stationed all over the country — all over the world — so I never lived next door to what relatives I did have. My folks realized, I think, that my brother and I were being shorted somewhat in the way of family contact, so they both passed on lots of stories and reminiscinces — especially when we were traveling in the car, on vacation or moving to a new post. My mother also had a large stack of photo albums and I used to pore over the pages and ask questions about who all those people were and what they were doing and where and when the picture was taken.

Traveling all over the country, and especially all over Europe, led me to develop a strong interest in history. (Standing in the Pantheon and watching the rain drifting down through the oculus can do that to you.) That interest grew in high school, and I was probably the only one in my graduating class to have read Herodotus, Thucydides, and Ammianus, even in translation. I did an undergraduate degree in history, political science, and philosophy, and had visions of a tweed jacket and a briar pipe.

Doing academic history, of course, taught me to do research in general, and I began interrogating my parents and my grandparents at every opportunity. I started writing letters, collecting public documents and picking the memories of more distant relatives. This was in the 1960s, so I also learned patience, and how to write a winning letter, and how to talk a courthouse clerk into letting me go back there behind the service counter.

As it happened, real life intervened and I altered my career trajectory a little. I became a librarian (with an M.L.S.) in a very large public library system instead of a college professor. After a few years of climbing the career ladder and gaining some seniority, I went back and did a graduate degree in history, as well. I also got my Archives Management certification. That enabled me to become the History Specialist for the system. And the History Division included the Genealogy Collection — which was and is one of the largest of any public library in the U.S. Teaching students and other patrons, one-on-one, how to do research was one of the most illuminating intellectual experiences I've ever had.

So I've been doing this stuff for more than 40 years now. I continue to compile and interpret information about my own family and I've worked with my wife on her family as well. I've written a number of articles for genealogical quarterlies (the latent academic in me), and I've published a couple of books. I teach workshops and continuing-ed classes. I've served on the board of my state society. I've just finished 10 years of editing a state-wide journal.

I admit it: I really don't undersrtand how people can not be interested in where their DNA came from, or what sort of lives their ancestors led that eventually produced them. How can you know where you're going if you don't know where you've been?

And now I even have one of my kids infected with the genealogy bug!