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.


Links 6.21.10

I see that somebody on Facebook declared a National Backup Day in 2008 (they picked Aug. 26). Good idea; ought to revisit it. This week is beginning with the apparent demise of our family’s oldest Mac laptop, an iBook G4 that is already on its second hard drive. The Archaeologist’s clever husband revived it briefly using some advice from an Apple user forum plus a strategically placed handful of outdated business cards (don’t ask). But this was only a temporary fix. Fortunately, it bought us time for one more quick backup. How long since your last backup? If you can’t remember, please do one!

Now on to the links.

Another apparent demise: Dick Eastman writes a thought-provoking essay about the decline of the desktop computer. Will computer use be completely portable in just a few years? Will everyone have a permanent squint from teeny-tiny monitor displays? As a matter of fact, will a new generation of mothers have a new warning: “Plug that thing into the external monitor, do you want to go BLIND”? Only time will tell, but according to Dick, the statistics are pretty clear that desktop use is fading.

Missing fathers: I see I wasn’t the only one with missing fathers on the brain this past weekend. Martin Rigby of the Liverpool Echo was thinking about them too, and the problems they pose in Victorian records of illegitimate births. A very useful overview.

More Irish records: First the 1901 census, now this; the Irish have been busy. The Irish Times reports that Ireland’s Minister for Culture has unveiled a new website containing more than 2 million records for Kerry, Cork, Dublin and Carlow. Many of the records are Church of Ireland, but there are also Roman Catholic records for Kerry as well as south and west Cork. Happy hunting.

Faster, but not fun: Springfield (Mass.) family historian John O’Connor writes an engaging account of the genealogy field trip that first hooked him onto family history research. He asks whether the explosion of online data has gained us speed but lost us the fun factor. In my usual rock-solid, decisive way, I find myself saying … yes and no. See what you think. And enjoy the week.