The currency of genealogical research is the common set of data or facts that is typified by the data elements and relationships identified within the GEDCOM format. Date of birth, date of death, surname, mother’s maiden name, place of origin, these are but a few of the very common facts of information that form the basis of genealogical research.
As important as these facts are there is something far more important that it often overlooked, the opportunity to capture the essence of a person, the thoughts, ideas and philosophies that make each of us our own unique individual. Who has not looked backed upon their own ancestry chart and wondered about their great-grandparents and the childhood they experienced, what they saw, what they experienced, the joys and sorrows that they shared.
For those that have passed it is often difficult enough to piece together the simple facts, date of birth and date of death. Sometimes the discovery of a marriage date or a census entry of a previously unknown cousin can feel like a significant revelation! How much more meaningful would our research be if we had a written testimonial from our ancestors that spoke to what they thought, what they felt, what they believed in, what they struggled with. While we can never recapture what did not exist, we all have the opportunity, and dare I say responsibility, to capture what does exist and preserve that.
Every genealogy student and family historian has an obligation to preserve your family history. I urge you to seek out your oldest living relatives and talk with them. Interview them in a manner that is comfortable to them and ask questions that go beyond the facts and that help you understand the personas, the thoughts, the struggles and triumphs that bring life, character and interest to their GEDCOM facts. As interesting as it is to know that your ggg grandmother Sallie May was born in 1812 and died at the tender age of 34 in 1846, how much more meaningful would it be to have a written record of Sallie’s own thoughts and perspectives?
For genealogical researchers it can be difficult to project into the future but we should recognize that the only way that this type of information will be retained is if we document it and publish it. The genealogical community often looks upon themselves as the detectives of the past and we may be uncomfortable in documenting the present but we must recognize that today’s present is tomorrows past. When it is clear that your family looks upon you as the family archivist that confers upon you a responsibility to document not only the past but also the present in preparation for the future. Each of the individuals that we wonder about, whose stories will too often go untold, are those whose stories we let slip between our fingers. As our family archivists we have an obligation to help future generations understand who our family members were and thus who they are. Go capture their stories and document them while they can be told in the first-person.
The vast majority of software programs that we work with in our research are oriented around collecting facts not a holistic view of an individual person. It is up to each of us to augment our core set of facts with a more free-form capture of information about these individuals so that subsequent generations have a sense of the values, traditions and human qualities of these people. My wife once asked me about my interest in genealogical research by asking, “why do you do this, you don’t even know these people?” My response is that one day someone will ask the same questions about us and if we want our grandchildren’s children to know something about who we were and what we stood for then we need to write that down. So go and talk to your oldest relatives, capture their stories and then capture your own.