Monday, September 2, 2013

The Road to the Past is Much Longer than I Anticipated

I worked in the Information Technology industry for 25 years, mostly as a programmer and trainer, until I became too sick to work about 10 years ago.  I missed the gratification of the work, the sense of accomplishment, and of course, the paycheck.  I'm housebound most of the time, but I do get bored.  One can only play so much Rock Band, after all (it's one of my vices!).

After the passing of my father a few years ago, I got interested in learning more about our family's ancestry.  The commercials for are very enticing--plug in some names and dates, and PRESTO!  The little leaves pop up and you will soon know everything you ever wanted to know about your family.  Being a history nut, as well as a techie, it seemed like a good thing to occupy my time.

I was very naive and oh so ignorant about the science of genealogy when I started nearly two years ago.  I rapidly built a huge family tree that, beyond my grandparents' generations, was mostly inaccurate and filled with people who in fact were not related to me in any way.  Of course, I had a huge disadvantage in that I was dealing with last names like "Johnson" and "Jensen" and the fact that my grandparents were from other countries whose records are stored in foreign languages. (This is still a barrier to my research.)  But I was gullible, and, as I said, ignorant of how to properly approach my family research project, and as a result, my first family tree on is a muddled, useless mess.

So, I returned to the way I approached things in my old profession.  I started planning, not taking things at face value, and analyzing before I dove in.  As a programmer, one needs to know the objective of the program to be written.  What does the user of this program really need?  What are the inputs and outputs?  What requirement will it fill?  Is the data going in accurate?  These same principles apply to doing genealogy.  I have learned that I need to set objectives.  I must have a plan, validate the data going in, and narrow my focus to a single objective at a time, rather than diving in and trying to build my entire tree at once, from a single source.

As a programmer, I always had a schedule to adhere to.  I had to do my analysis up front, interviewing "users" and clients, check my data sources, and then get to the technical work of coding.  Then I would test the program, install it, and do any necessary training.  Project complete.  Here's where genealogy is very different.  Because the data comes from so many sources, (and some sources are difficult to find), and the data is not consistent across those sources, your timetable for a project is impossible to predict.  I now know that this will be a journey that may take longer than the duration of my life.  Knowing that at the onset may have changed how I approached this project.  If you are a beginner, set your expectations realistically.  Most professional genealogists have been working at their craft for many years.  Unless you are fortunate enough to have had someone else do extensive research for you, building your family tree could require a very long time to complete, and there's no way to estimate how long it will take.

I've figured out that this journey is going to be long.  I have also figured out that I want to become a professional genealogist or family historian of some kind.  I'm totally hooked.  It's not just the process, it's the whole road to the past that has seduced me.  Stories of my ancestors' trials and triumphs, newly discovered photographs of long-lost relatives and accounts of historical events in faraway countries have me chomping at the bit to learn more.  It's given me a new purpose in life.  I hope I can share some of my discoveries with you as I continue on my journey, perhaps saving you from some of the mistakes I made, and hopefully encouraging and entertaining you along the way.

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