The Sweaty-Palm Factor

You must have seen the eye-popping item last week in Dick Eastman’s Genealogy Newsletter concerning the correspondent who had been doing genealogy for more than a decade – all online.

This kind of story seems to provoke two major reactions: (a) People use the Internet out of laziness and (b) People use the Internet when they’re too far from repositories and libraries. I’m not comfortable with either generalization.

From what I see, there’s no lack of energy in Internetland, to judge from the mailing lists and Ancestry forums humming with activity. Hours of honest effort are being expended online. The distance argument doesn’t hold up perfectly, either. As Dick Eastman pointed out in some detail, this is a tough break, but it can be overcome (microfilm lending, interlibrary loan, etc. etc.).

The problem isn’t online vs. offline. It’s search vs. research, as Marsha Hoffman Rising puts it so elegantly in her highly illuminating book The Family Tree Problem Solver.

Searching is throwing a name into the pot (a database, or a community message board, or a genealogy journal query section) and seeing what comes up. If you hit paydirt, great. If you don’t, you need a more detailed approach, including:

• Pinpointing the information you need,

• Identifying the places and people who can assist you,

• Talking or writing to them and convincing them to help you out.

In other words, research. Everyone starts with a search, but not everyone progresses to research. Why?

My radical thought: People hate to ask. When the salesperson in the shop says, “May I help you?” what’s the default answer? A quick “No thanks,” that’s what. Yes, some people are straightforward in stating what they need. But I think many more get sweaty palms at the thought of emailing a complete stranger to ask for a lookup.

Online searching is a comfort that way. The databases are so large, and they don’t need to be asked. And there’s always the chance of that paydirt. Funny thing is, the paydirt only leads to other questions, requiring the skill of asking – whether it’s in person or via an email or a phone call. It requires shoving aside pointless but crippling thoughts such as: Will they be annoyed? Will I sound stupid?

I wonder how many people never hit the Send button or pick up the phone, and stick to the safety (and frustrations) of the databases.


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