Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Why aren't genealogists more proactive?

Genealogy is a peculiar avocation. Because the subject matter of the avocation is the history of families and individuals, you could immediately assume that "everyone" is or could be interested. But the disconnect is analogous to many other avocations. Just because you enjoy reading is does not mean you want to become a writer. Just because you enjoy art does not mean you can or would want to paint or draw. Just because I enjoy driving my car does not mean I want to become a mechanic. Of course, I could go on and on with examples. Having an interest in researching historical records to find information about a family does not necessarily follow a simple interest in your family and its history.

In addition, many of the aspects of our present family life are very personal and "private" and we all tend to project that aurora of privacy back into the past and apply it to the lives of our ancestors. We commonly feel that not all of the messy details of our family's lives are suitable for public consumption. In addition, present fears whether warranted or not about possible issues of "identity theft" create an atmosphere that is antagonistic to sharing family details even when there is no basis for that fear.

The real world of genealogical research is far removed from the public relations world of the promoters. Genealogical research is a challenging, engrossing and very intellectual pursuit that involves very specialized skills. Those skills are acquired only after expending a considerable effort over a period of time. The mere fact that a university would offer a degree in family history is enough to illustrate the involved nature of the subject. It should not be at all surprising to see the huge differences in the quality of the research efforts between those who are dedicated to improving their knowledge and skills and those who are involved on only a very casual and superficial level.

When I was nineteen years old, I was called as a missionary to go to Argentina. As part of that calling, I spent an entire summer at what was then called the Language Training Mission on the Brigham Young University campus in Provo, Utah learning to speak Spanish. Although I had previously taken classes in both French and German in high school, I did not have even a basic proficiency in either language and absolutely no knowledge of Spanish. Learning to speak Spanish, for me, was an extraordinarily difficult challenge. When I arrived in Argentina, I did not know how to communicate, despite my intensive exposure to the language for approximately 12 weeks.

After two years in Argentina, I had finally learned how to communicate adequately in Spanish. Upon returning to my university studies, I went on to obtain a B.A. degree in Spanish and a Masters degree in Linguistics. Then, as an Army Officer in the United States Army, I was stationed in Panama for two years. When I arrived in Panama, I discovered that despite my years of speaking Spanish in Argentina and during my university studies, I essentially had to learn the language all over again. Subsequently, during my professional career as a trial attorney, I was able to represent hundreds of clients who spoke only Spanish. Later, I decided to try my hand at teaching and obtained an Arizona certification to teach Spanish at the college level. Guess what? I had to learn Spanish grammar all over again. During the years I taught Spanish, I really learned all about Spanish grammar. By the way, I can now speak Spanish, but not like a native, more like a professor. I can also do extensive research into Spanish language based genealogy.

Now, what have I learned from this experience. For the past 35 years or so, I have been learning about how to do genealogical research, including taking university level courses for five years on the subject. I am still learning about how to do genealogical research.

Granted, with computers and the availability of information about the subject of genealogical research, I could progress much faster than I did when I began years ago, but the process of learning to speak Spanish and the process of learning to do genealogical research turn out to be amazingly similar in the time and effort involved in learning about the subject. If I had not spent four years of my life immersed in speaking Spanish every day, I would not have learned it as well as I did, but on the other hand, had I not studied it in the formal setting of university and college classes, I would still have had much to learn.

Today, you can go online and find any number of websites that promise you can learn to speak Spanish in 90 days or less. I can imagine that there are some people out there in the world that could do just that, but even then I would suggest that they might have difficulty in reading the novels of Jorge Borges in Spanish or enjoying the subtilties of Spanish poetry. They might also have trouble teaching a college class in Spanish or teaching an hour-long class about genealogical research in Spanish.

Is there a casual, easy entry-level aspect to genealogy? This is a concept I struggle with daily. I believe that with the online tools we have today, that anyone with an interest in their family history can learn the basics of genealogical research. But I also believe that anyone who attempts to learn about the subject will soon begin to comprehend the reality of its complexity. In addition, those who begin investigating their families soon learn that some of those same ancestors lived very difficult and complex lives and we sometimes conclude that we would have been better off not knowing those details.

Why then do I keep teaching and talking about genealogy and genealogical research? Probably for the same reason I chose to teach Spanish for years and to teach Spanish speakers English for years. I appreciate and cherish the joy of learning and deep understanding of life that comes with that learning. Genealogy is a journey into the soul of our own lives and the lives of our ancestors. But it is not something that can be sold with superficial assurances that it is "easy" or "fun."

In teaching about genealogy and in promoting it as an activity, we should be cognizant of the serious and involved nature of the subject and also aware of the privacy concerns that it raises.

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