Will Anyone Else Understand Your Genealogy?

The following article is by my good friend, by William Dollarhide:

This article is a prologue to four (4) subsequent articles relating to a genealogical organizing system described in my book, Managing a Genealogical Project. What follows are four (4) articles: “Piles of Paper,” Part 1-4. Once those four articles are published, I am hoping to get Leland Meitzler to write an article that describes his methods of adopting the organizing techniques described here into a totally digitized system. –bill$hide

For Yourself or Others?
When your activity or interest is not shared by someone else, you tend to prepare things for yourself without thinking of others. As a result, your ancestor collecting may lead to piles of paper without much organization, or, even worse, papers that only you can read or understand. Genealogists who are only interested in the thrill of finding their ancestors and have no real publishing plans are probably the only persons who can understand what they have collected, find a sheet of paper, or make any sense of the project at all.

On the other hand, genealogists who go into their projects with a specific purpose of publishing their results are forced to prepare their work in such a way as to find the documents, notes, photographs, etc., so that when it is time to publish, the materials are easily retrievable. Moreover, if your genealogy is well organized, it should be possible for anyone to take it over, understand it, and possibly complete the work of publishing the results.

As an example, my first two years of genealogical research was a disaster in terms of paperwork, organization, and filing. I was copying every record in the world in which the name Dollarhide appeared, and my collection of paper was taking over the house. I finally developed a system to control the paperwork, and the system worked. I could find any document quickly, and I could make sense of my large collection of papers.

But, a benefit emerged from that well organized paper-collecting system that I had not considered. I realized that I had the means of disseminating information to other people because I had a well organized collection of genealogical materials. I also felt that my genealogy collection could be taken over by someone else if necessary.

A great disappointment when I first started in genealogy was to learn that the rest of my family did not share my excitement about it. I was having great fun with my new hobby, but I became the family bore at family gatherings. The rest of the family tolerated my addiction, but they learned to stop asking questions like “So. . . what is new with our genealogy?” That would set me off for an hour with stories about various branches of the family I had recently discovered.

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 45: I’m crazy about genealogy, but not necessarily yours.

Even though my immediate family did not care much about my research efforts, over the years, I found many other cousins who had an interest in my work. Most genealogists will acquire correspondents over the course of their research, and this communication with others is an extremely important way to advance your own genealogy goals.

If everything you do in genealogy has an underlying premise that you are not the only person interested in what you are doing, then your project might take on some organization. So, with that in mind, think about who else may read your work when you copy down a census page or make a photocopy from a book. Did you write down the author’s name, the publisher, or the date of publication? Did you write it down so someone else can read the writing?

In an earlier article, Did you really start with yourself?, I wrote about my grandmother, Julia Angeline Watkins. Several years after her death, I found a box of her old papers, photographs, and memorabilia. Julia had written a few pages of her life story, included three generations of her family history. When I first read those pages, I had the distinct impression that they were written specifically for me. Grandmother did not address her remarks to a specific person, but it was clear that she was writing for someone in her family to read it. I got goose bumps. It was an emotional and very personal experience to read words written years earlier by my ancestor. Her words answered my questions about her ancestry, but, more than that, gave me insights into her character and what she was like as a person. After that experience, I vowed that I would try to write something for my great-grandchildren to read about me.

The dictionary definition of “publish” means “to make public.” You can publish something by making public one copy of what you have written. Simply sending a copy of your genealogical materials to someone else is a way of making your work public. Or, donate a copy of your genealogy to your local library, just to have another place where it can be seen. In any case, everything we do in our genealogical research should have another reader besides ourselves.

If someone else will read your genealogy, then perhaps you should write it in such a way that it is understandable. If you will start thinking of your genealogy as work that others will read, then you may take more care in how you prepare the work, organize the work, or make assertions about relationships.

Leaving a genealogy to your unborn great-grandchildren is a wonderful way to leave a legacy. It may be the nearest thing to immortality any of us will ever achieve.

Managing a Genealogical Project
Maybe it is time to for me to talk about techniques for managing a genealogical project – a subject I have written about since 1974, before there were personal computers, printers, or Flip-Pals; and long before there was an Internet. My main concern began with the piles of paper I had created, and I developed a method to organize the paper into notebooks, with retrievable documents and notes. I will describe my methods of getting rid of the piles of paper in four (4) articles. These will be followed, hopefully, by an article by Leland Meitzler describing his digital genealogical database, adapted from the Dollarhide organizing system.

Leland and I first met in 1984 at a genealogy conference in Denver. At our first meeting, he told me that a year earlier he had bought a booklet and package of forms from my first Genealogical Helper ad, something strangely titled, The Dollarhide System for Genealogical Records. Leland said that he had reorganized his entire genealogy collection using that system. Many years and thousands of sheets of paper later, Leland has taken a paper system to a completely digitized computer database. Every note, every photograph, every document, every family group sheet, every pedigree, and every descendancy in his mammoth genealogy collection is being digitized and made electronically available. In doing this, he adapted the Dollarhide System organization concepts he had used in his paper system.

Look for the next four articles, “Piles of Paper” Part 1 – 4. If you are reading this after the fact, all Dollarhide articles that have appeared in the GenealogyBlog are in an archives for retrieval. Go to the alpha list of categories on the right hand side of the blog page and click on “Dollarhide Columns.”

Further reading:
Managing a Genealogical Project, a book by William Dollarhide.
A Genealogist’s InstaGuide: Dollarhide’s Rules and Daffern’s Laws.

3 thoughts on “Will Anyone Else Understand Your Genealogy?

  1. The material we leave on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org do a lot to organize and perpetuate our work – especially if augmented by proofs/sources, media and stories. Once you have mastered “Dollarhide’s Rules and Daffern’s Laws” to get organized, you can also use the Passage Express tool (yes, it is still available and still works – at least through Windows 7) to document (and thus archive) multiple copies and versions of your family documents, stories, movies and family tree on either a flash drive or DVD that can easily be played on your relative’s computer. My family doesn’t even read newspapers or magazines anymore but they seem to enjoy the family DVD’s I send them – if it isn’t electronic, it isn’t in their universe; if you can make your work entertaining as well as informative AND you get it into the world that Social Media addicts can relate to, then you have a chance to catch the interest of your younger (under 50) family members.

  2. Jim, thanks for the comment about Passage Express – something I have had some experience with over the years. With thoughts of using PE or something similar, years ago I decided to put together a slideshow with my personal photos, documents, timelines, etc., that will be first presented at my funeral/memorial. All family members will get a copy, but they have to attend the service to get it — Leland has agreed to run the slideshow and make copies for anyone who wants one. During my life, most of my family ignored me and my genealogy, so this way, I can share my work by making them all feel guilty at the end. -bill$hide

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