by Thomas MacEntee | Sep 23, 2011
A sense of connectedness is what many of us in the field of genealogy experience once we get started researching our roots. Yes, there is that connection with our own ancestors, even the ones we've never met: we see similarities in appearance, behavior patterns and even life choices. Yet this connectedness is almost never reciprocated by our ancestors (well, unless your dead relatives talk to you, and that is a whole other topic . . .). It tends to be a one-way street.
However, the more you become involved in the genealogy community, the more you realize there is another level of connectedness: a connection with other researchers. The term often used is collaboration or collaborative genealogy and while technology and social media has made connecting with others easier, collaboration has always been a part of the genealogy community.
A longtime genealogist who did not use the Internet or email, once told me that she didn't see the value of collaborating - online or offline - with others in regards to her own family's research. When I have these encounters, I don't regale the person with tales of brick walls coming down via social media connections for fear of sounding like a technology cheerleader. I simply ask them: who helped you get started in genealogy? This usually gets the conversation rolling and I find out that someone actually did take the time to collaborate with them and give them their start on the fascinating journey of discovering one's ancestry. Then they tend to understand the value of collaboration.
Remember the saying "No man is an island?" It applies to genealogy and research as well. For most of us, at some point in our efforts, we will need to reach out to someone in the genealogy community for assistance. Some folks stubbornly try to "go solo" perhaps because they see asking for help as a sign of weakness or they fear having the research "stolen" from them.
But what if our own ancestors had decided not to interact, to socialize, to ask for help from their relatives and community? The truth is that most of us wouldn't be here right now - most of our ancestors would not have met, gotten married, had children etc. Social interaction is vital to not only the well-being of a person, both physically and mentally, but also to the growth of family lines.
My strongest recommendation for those new to collaboration is this: go slow. Here is a "go slow" approach to working with others:
Here is a quick list of ways in which genealogists are collaborating with each other both in-person and online:
If you have been in the genealogy field for some time, as I have, you know that collaborating with other researchers is not new. The desire to connect and share information has always been there, yet the methods we use to connect have changed, and rapidly so, with the advancement of technology.
For example, I discovered that a second cousin five times removed, George W. Putman, used collaboration in the early 20th century when compiling a printed genealogy of my Putman line. He wrote letters to the postmasters of each small town in upstate New York, asking if they had addresses for citizens with the last name Putman. The postmaster would forward a list to my cousin who then wrote letters to each person, trying to determine how they were related to the Putman family.
While the use of letter writing for gathering genealogy information eventually led to the use of the telephone during the 20th century, genealogy and historical societies were established so that members could meet and exchange information. Such groups would produce a newsletter or journal where a query or advertisement could be placed, asking if other researchers shared a common surname or other research.
Once the personal computer appeared in the early 1980s, genealogists using modems and programs such as America OnLine or online bulletin boards saw the collaborative value of these venues and exploited them to their full extent. Queries were posted online, other researchers could pose questions or ask for help, and even lookups were performed using these programs.
In the early 1990s, the Internet revolutionized the way in which family historians connected with each other. Websites allowed not just genealogy vendors like Ancestry to provide research content (and charge a fee for access), but individual genealogists and genealogy societies also could have a presence on the Web and solicit information as well as provide content and allow genealogists to collaborate.
Fast-forward to the social media era in the early 21st century and now the possibilities for connecting seem endless. Facebook, Twitter and other tools are being used to exchange information, to ask for assistance and to help newcomers to the field of genealogy. Blogs have replaced websites as the easiest way to have an Internet presence and to connect with others. Genealogy vendors now provide more than just research content - they allow users to build family trees online and to search for connections with others maintaining their own trees.
Who knows what the next "hot" method of collaborating will be? Whatever it is, be sure that genealogists and family historians will find a way to put it to good use for the purpose of collaboration.
A little philosophizing here: I've always believed that if you are constantly looking at every encounter or situation from the perspective of "what's in it for me?" then very often you will bypass or miss opportunities to give rather than receive because you don't see the value inherent in those opportunities.
A hand that is constantly holding on to something can't be open to receive something new. As a genealogist, I've had to "let go" of what's in my hand and learn to give freely to the community mostly through collaboration. In doing so, what has come into my hand is much bigger than what I can even hold sometimes and I am amazed at the abundance.
Don't pass up the opportunity to share your research and your knowledge especially with newcomers to the world of genealogy and family history. Just as we research connections between our ancestors and their friends and neighbors, we too must be aware of our connections to the genealogy community - connections that, once established, will serve us well into the future.