20 October 2011

Geneablogger Open Thread: The Genealogy Experience

Good ol' Thomas posted an Open Thread for this Thursday in regards to the necessity (and meaning) of the genealogy experience, and as for most other things in this world: I have an opinion!

Firstly, the intangible experience of genealogy, I believe, is vital to the process of discovery that drives all of our research forward. How that experience materializes is, undoubtedly, different for everyone. For me, at first blush it's a Sherlock Holmes-ian desire to root out the truth, discover the details, and see everything correctly in its place.

This part of the experience is exhilarating: there's the thrill of the hunt, running (sometimes in circles) around an ancestor, trying like hell to pin them down, to establish them distinctly. I find a record, or a corroborative link and the first words out of my mouth are "Haha! I've got you!" It's a chase, a pursuit, and the high when I come out on top is unspeakable. This is the part of genealogy I am addicted to.

Then there is the experience that lends itself to more thoughtful research. I call it "coloring inside the lines," and it involves getting the details on people's lives. This is a more-painstaking process, but incredibly gratifying, as the life experiences of the numbers and letters in my database turn into the story of real people, real lives, ensconced in history and reactive to the worlds around them. This is the part of the experience that reminds me that as I live today, so all these people lived... and I feel honored to know more about them. Sometimes I realize that I may be the first person to have thought of these people in decades, if not centuries. That feeling ties me to the people I research, and some of them, strangely, almost become my friends.

That, pared down and simplified, is my own experience of genealogy.

The software, the books, the libraries, the mailing lists and sites... these are all tools, as I see it, and not the central core of genealogy itself. Our mastery of them speaks not to our abilities but to the ways in which they have helped us manifest the true genealogy experience, therefore the tools rank secondary to the process of discovery and experience of genealogy as each of us experience it.

I see it like this: my husband, who is an electrician, is not made an electrician because of the tools he uses. You could never give his tools to an un-trained individual and expect them to perform the sort of complicated and dangerous work he does on a daily basis. The essence of his being an electrician is the extent of his learning, the depth of his experience, and the now-intuitive way that he understands electricity.

And so it is with genealogists.

This may explain why many who are in touch with their own true experience of genealogy balk so much at others who wield the tools and use the words, but seem to have no heart or skin in the game. Maybe we're not so much angry at them for sullying the world with misinformation, or so much peeved with them for their relentlessly fabricated trees as we are sorry for them that they have, in some way, missed the point. The experience of genealogy, the TRUE experience of genealogy, seems to have passed them by. They have the tools, but not the experience, and so seem woefully unprepared for their own research, and seem oblivious to their own family trees.

So yes, I would say that the experience of genealogy is central. Without that core emotional connection to the research, our ways become somewhat blind. We could travel the world and visit every repository, even piece together a remarkable family tree. But without the emotional component of genealogy, all it is is a process, and not an experience.

That, to me, seems somewhat devoid of meaning, and I regret those stuck on process who don't get to experience the subtle changes of perspective and sense of self that comes with the real genealogy experience. I wouldn't be who I am today without such experience, and to have lost the chance by being blind to it would be a sad fate for me, indeed.

1 comment:

Greta Koehl said...

Wow, your paragraph on those "who seem to have no heart or skin in the game" really nails it - that's exactly how I feel. We are not collecting chachkes, we are uncovering, piece by piece, the stories of our ancestors' lives - some only in outline, but others in wonderful detail.