Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Family History Research Fieldtrip and Dealing with Feelings of Just Wanting to Find People to Take to the Temple Without Having to do All That Annoying Research Stuff

I went on a research fieldtrip to the Mesa family history library last Friday with my awesome visiting teachers.  All three of us had problems we needed extra help with and only 2 hours to get it.

As we planned ahead of time, I thought, “What do I do when I only have a limited time at a family history center?”  I realized I would have to have laser-focus and make it as quick and easy as possible to bring other people up to speed on my problem.

Laser-focus means you concentrate on one person or one couple.  That gives you direction.  You also decide what you want to know about them.  (Yes, you want to find as much as possible, but choosing a few things helps you focus further.) 

To efficiently bring consultants up to speed, it helps to create a summary sheet of everything you have found out so far about the person or couple of interest.  Take this summary sheet with you and use it when talking with the consultant as you describe your problem.  List birthdays, death dates, summaries of censuses, and even name variations.  It will be a helpful visual aid for yourself and the consultant, and it will also be a place to scribble down things you discover and ideas for other places to look.

I had my little summary of data about John Schafer and Elizabeth Albert.  My summary had their data from the 1860 and 1880 censuses and where the censuses were from and occupations and things.   That made it really easy for me to talk to the consultants, especially since I talked to three different ones.  It made it easy for them to think about where to search and I noticed it helped me so much that I think from now on any time I go there I should take summary data with me.

As I said, I talked to three consultants.  The first one got called away to help someone else before he could finish thinking of a search strategy for me.  The second one seemed a bit uncertain about where to search next, and he called in a third to help.  The third guy seemed to have a lot of experience searching for different kinds of documents, so his involvement was very helpful.

Does this mean that 2 out of 3 consultants at family history centers aren’t going to be able to help?  No.  It just means that in my case I had already exhausted the easily findable sources and I really needed help.   And I got it.             

So what did we (I and the consultant) find? 
·      We found the Schafer-Albert couple in the 1870 census with yet another instance of a wacky-spelled last name—Scheafer.  (Michaela rolls her eyes.)  We knew it was them because it was the right people at the right ages in right place at the right time.
·      We figured out that vital records didn’t go far enough back to find any birth records for Elizabeth.
·      We figured out that Elizabeth Albert’s mother was from “Elsis” according to the 1880 census and that was an attempt to write “Alsace” from France.  (I had no idea what “Elsis” was, so that was a big help.) 
·      We also figured out that John Schafer probably owned land, and we searched for and found a microfilm to order which would tell us which of another set of microfilms to order to find his land records.

I’d say that’s quite a bit of progress for a single two-hour session with the last consultant of three that looked at my case.

How did my visiting teachers do?  One of them was excited because she found two people in her family that she didn’t know about.  The other didn’t find anything, but could see that she was going to have to do more personal preparation in order to make progress.  She spent the time trying things out in Familysearch and learning to navigate the site.
I feel pretty good about this fieldtrip.  I’m happy that we could support each other and pull each other into it.

One of my visiting teachers was a little discouraged because she just wanted to find the people and take names to the temple.  The research aspect didn’t interest her at all.  But I can totally see why she felt that way.  In fact, I remember feeling the very same way about five years ago while I was taking a class from ASU on “Writing Family History Narratives.” 

That class required me to focus on just the ancestors in my four-generation pedigree chart, finding documents for them and gathering information on them.  I remember resenting all the research I had to do on people so “close” when I just wanted to focus on my treetops on and find new people to do temple work for. 

However, over time, I came to enjoy the searching process, especially when it led to finding new documents.  I came to enjoy the methodology of taking care to record and cite sources.  The main semester assignment to write a narrative for each person in my four-generation pedigree chart required me to take time filling in details and learn about these people more deeply.  When the semester was over and my narrative was finished, I felt much more emotionally connected to those ancestors of mine.  I felt like I knew them better and they felt like real family, not just names. 

We all hope to feel the joy of finding new family names to take to the temple, but I learned that isn’t the only time we can anticipate feeling joy as we do family history research.
·      From that class, I learned that finding traces of my ancestors in documents gives me joy,
·      As each trace adds to the picture I’m building of what they did and what they were like, I come to know them better, which also gives me joy.
·      Building that picture also accumulates evidence with clues about where to find their parents and helps me identify and recognize them with confidence, which gives me joy. 
·      Recording what I found and citing carefully so that others will have an easier time in the future also gives me satisfaction that I am making it easier for others to retrace my steps.
·      Sharing what I’ve found also gives me joy because I’m helping my family know my ancestors too.

Also, I learned that practicing search strategies on people in my tree whom I knew about would help me become a better researcher for the future when it came time to look for people that I didn’t know about.   (This is why instructions for starting family history research always say, “Start with who you know.”)

When the church talks about family history, it always talks about the doctrine and the ultimate end of taking family names to the temple.  The thing is, in order to get to that end, you have to do a lot of research.  And the research is fun (and also frustrating at times). 

But the church doesn’t talk much about the research process except in context of telling miracle stories of how someone finally found their GGGGGGgrandfather.  So we members get the impression that family history research is 1) not worth enjoying for its own sake and that it is 2) something that can be done in a cursory, hasty, perfunctory, sketchy, and brief fashion, like we can find the one magic document with all the names and dates and then move on to search for the next people up the line. And we discover to our chagrin that this isn’t true when we try it.  (I describe these notions because I’ve had them myself.)  Or 3) we get the impression that every effort we make to do family history will be attended by miraculous divine intervention, no matter how small that effort is.

This is like holding the firm belief that an ‘A’ in math is desirable but also holding notions that the ‘A’ should be achieved without taking a class in math, or studying math, or trying to work math problems.  It is like holding the idea that the Lord will help us get the ‘A’ on the Calculus test when we haven’t even learned how to multiply.

Here’s something I’ve realized.  Educating myself about the search process is just as necessary as learning the doctrine and learning the Lord can help me with miracles.

As an aside, I recommend taking a college class on family history for a number of different reasons. 
1) Having an assignment with a deadline attached creates the traction you need to make lots of progress.
2) You’ll have a supportive learning environment and someone to ask for help.
3) You’ll learn about all the different kinds of records that exist which will broaden your horizons.
4) You’ll learn search strategies and strategies for keeping organized.
5) You’ll learn to create your own records with more of an eye toward helping your descendants learn about you.

Taking that college class was an intense experience.  When it was done, I breathed a sigh of relief and didn’t touch family history again for another five years.  But when I started up again, I still had my notes to refer to.  I also found I had internalized principles from the class, which helped me.

In short, doing family history research is a skill that can be learned.  It has best practices.  It has tools.  The church is trying to make their tools easier and faster to use, but we still have to learn how to do it so we can use what we’re given in an intelligent way.

Suppose the church were to talk at length about the research in general conference in ways that might help members get over their hang-ups?  If they did, then talks would become like a how-to research guide.  But there is so much to learn that that information is better delivered by family history research classes and webinars which we’d find if we’d just go look at family history research library sites.  Plus there are plenty of awesome resources at Familysearch for learning the “how.”  There’s a massive wiki on research topics.  There are conferences completely devoted to family history research.  All of this we can find if we go looking.  So, the church keeps the focus on that ultimate end of taking family names to the temple.

If we think about the principle that sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven, then finding miracles are for people who educate themselves on the search process and are working it as best as they can and still get stuck.   Those miracles are for people who would never find what they need because it is hidden in a weird place.  Those miracles are for people who would never know what they need to know unless the Lord sent someone to them who could tell them.

Some Resources: