Jan 28 2013
Maybe it’s because I’ve been researching my family’s history since 1972 that I get so frustrated with newbies who think of using only the Internet for their genealogy research. Maybe it’s because of the hundreds of dollars I’ve spent on retrieving remote courthouse documents that I get frustrated with people wanting everything now and free.
Over the years, I’ve learned that in genealogy, as in the rest of life, there is no free lunch. True family history research is hard, dirty work, and it’s often expensive. But the rewards for finding that elusive document outweigh the sacrifices we make to find our ancestor.
I’m not knocking the Internet. It has allowed me to find distant cousins I may have never found in more traditional ways. It has unlocked untold riches in remote repositories that I never knew existed. It has given me a community of colleagues through mailing lists. It has given me home access to the U.S. federal census, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, state historical societies, and libraries. But the Internet is only one tool in a genealogist’s tool-box—it’s not the whole toolbox.
There is nothing quite like walking through ancestral cemeteries to get a connection to your family. There is nothing quite like unexpectedly coming across the tomb-stone of the man for whom your father is named, in the cemetery of the country church where both men once worshiped. There is nothing quite like finding your great-grandmother’s name written in Latin in the burial register of the same church you were baptized in as an infant. The ancestors become so much more real to me when I walk where they walked, sit where they sat.
There is the intrigue of finding the divorce cases of your great-great-grandmother who had three husbands in less than six years. Why couldn’t Matilda keep a man around to help rear the children he fathered?
Limiting your research to the Internet means missing out on the community of researchers who sit in darkened rooms reading microfilm until their eyes glaze over just to find their missing ancestor and yell “There he is!” as the whole room cheers. You also miss out on friendships made with the librarians and government office clerks in repositories you visit over again and again. You miss out on climbing up a rickety ladder to retrieve a huge marriage ledger that contains your ancestor’s original signed marriage certificate just sitting loosely between the pages because the couple never retrieved it from the courthouse. You miss out on the experience of having a clerk then hand that document directly to you to keep. And you miss out on the entire family of your family history the people you meet, commiserate with, and learn from. People spanning yesterday, today, and tomorrow, each one making your quest for knowledge that much more worthwhile.