The Journey From Hobbyist to Professional Genealogist

Originally published on on 28 Apr 2016.

A friend recently asked me how I knew I had crossed the line between a hobbyist and a professional genealogist.  That was an interesting and thought provoking question!

I began in genealogy like most, focusing solely on personal research.  That narrow view is fine initially but limits the level that one can reach, even as a hobbyist.  I didn’t gain a world view approach until I expanded out of my warm fuzzy world and broadened my experiences.

Reading journals was a big step in the journey.  At first, I only read articles that related to the geographical area and time period in which I was focused.  Then called the Chicago Historical Society, I loved the articles in their Chicago History Magazine.  I remember reading an article about Graceland Cemetery and thinking, I have people buried there, maybe they will be mentioned.  One day it just hit me that it doesn’t matter if the article is about an area I’m actively searching or not, it’s the TECHNIQUE, LOGIC, and PROCESS mentioned in the articles that are the most beneficial.

I wasn’t a member of any professional organizations because I had limited time and money.  I read the journals at my local library while my kids were either in story time and later, while they were doing their own school required research reports.  I guess I’m lucky to be old enough to still remember card catalogues and having to physically go somewhere to research instead of just turning on Cortana or Siri! That background allowed me to understand the importance of continuing to search for original sources.

While in the library, I noticed flyers for various local organizations that publicized upcoming events.  It was definitely difficult to fit into our busy schedule while working full time and caring for children and elderly parents.  I tried to select one activity a quarter and those that I could bring the family along with me.  I would love to tell you that this fostered the love of genealogy and history into my children but it didn’t.  They are STEAM folks all the way!  I console myself in that I did provide a well rounded education and maybe they’ll take an interest when they’re older.

The internet allowed me to broaden my horizons and collaborate with others. That expanded my knowledge base and gave me a sounding board with others who were passionate.  It also helped a great deal that they could critically appraise my work.

I love problem solving and helping others so it wasn’t long before co-workers, friends and neighbors started asking me for help.   I believe in the saying, “Each One Teach One” and by doing so, I became more refined in my own skills.  I took my best practices from the education field and applied it to genealogy.

Word spread and that led to paying customers.  Luckily, this occurred at the time my kids turned into adults so I was able to devote more time to perfecting my craft. I decided to join professional organizations and took continuing education classes.  I traveled to research facilities and picked the brain of other professionals. In retrospect, I believe when I started to strictly adhere to the Genealogy Standards I was no longer a hobbyist.

This was a long slow process and very different from my first career in which I was considered a “professional” immediately after earning my degree.  Perhaps that’s why I so love the field of genealogy – it simmered over time and like fine wine, got better with age.

A Genealogist’s Work Space – How Surroundings Effect Efficiency

Originally published on on 14 Apr 2016.

I’ve written previously about the lack of efficient office space in our home office.  Last fall, hubby and I decided that the current arrangement wasn’t working.  After the kids moved out we had converted the larger bedroom to a guest room and the other to a home office.  It made sense at the time because the larger bedroom has a nice view, is bright and cheery and gives a guest a more relaxed environment.  Since it would mainly have been used by the kids when they came home for short visits, it was ideal.  Hubby liked the smaller room for his den as it was cozy and left him little space to clutter up.  It also had a built in bookcase crafted by the builder that took up most of a wall that could be used as document storage, if I ever could get around to parting with the books we have on the shelves.

The arrangement worked for a number of years because I preferred to use a laptop or tablet and hubby loved his desktop system.  When I began taking paying clients, however, I found I needed to use the desktop system as it has more than one screen.  I could keep the client’s tree open on one screen and show the document on the other.  Using the laptop at the dining room table made me feel like the staged genealogists on TV who turn the laptop and say to the client something like, “Why don’t you look it up on!”

When I sent in my preliminary application to become a certified genealogist we knew we had to make the office more effective.  Hubby came up with the idea of flipping the rooms as the kids live close now and rarely spend the night.  That got us thinking of what we both needed to do our work.

I wanted a flexible work space; one where I could spread out documents and notes.  I definitely wanted that to be close to the printer/copier/fax/scanner and the two screen desktop.  I needed office supplies readily available.  Storage space was also important.

Hubby, too, needed space to spread out.  The desk that had once seemed perfect wasn’t in practice.  Loved the styling and color BUT the laminate was worn in places and there was only one drawer and one file space so storage was limited.  Hubby then bought another piece of furniture that sort of looked like a business night stand.  It housed the printer with a drawer underneath to keep the paper.  It was difficult to access so hubby’s top request was that he have space for supplies and that everything could be easily accessible.

We decided we needed two computer desks and a table.  Definitely didn’t think it would be hard to find something to meet our needs but we were wrong!  I didn’t like the prices of the laminate desks which would look worn in a short time.  None had tables that matched anyway.  The few that had a solid surface top had no storage and I wasn’t sure I even liked the look; looked to me like someone had plopped a countertop on a desk.  IMHO, the solid wood desks weren’t well made for the price.  I saw a few glass desks that could work but I didn’t like the price and hubby thought it was too modern for us.  No surprise, we’re antique people.

So, we waited.  And waited.  And kept waiting.  The holidays came and went, business travel, sickness and accidents, and other repairs took precedence.  Two weeks ago I saw the glass desk with a matching table was on sale.  Texted hubby and we decided we’d check it out the following day.  Drove through torrential rain and decided it would work.  Of course, there was a glitch.  Actually, there were several glitches.  The store only had one desk and the table.  They also didn’t have in stock the filing cabinet unit that matched or a 9 drawer unit that could house all our office supplies.  Employees had no idea when or if the store would ever get the items.  Called another store and they had one desk and the filing cabinet and would hold it for us.  For our trouble, we got an additional 20% off the sales price and the first store sold us the 9 drawer unit on display at half price.  We were happy!

Got home and emptied the room and decided we definitely needed to paint.  Hubby spent the rest of the day painting away.  I continued to work on the KDP in the cramped office with paint fumes wafting.  The following day we began to assemble the furniture and found that it didn’t match.  The desk has a tempered glass top that is light grey on the edges.  The table and corner unit has dark grey edges.  The second desk was missing the keyboard tray and a leg.

We decided to move the desktop computer into the new office anyway and contact the company the following day, which was last Monday.  Even with the setbacks we loved the new arrangement.  The weather had been dreary and the new room, especially with the glass tops, was bright.  We could see!  The view was relaxing, too.

The company said that there were no more dark grey desktops so they shipped the missing pieces and new light grey tops so all the units will match.  The missing leg arrived first so we assembled the second desk on Monday.  The other pieces arrived yesterday.

I never realized how important one’s surroundings to complete tasks efficiently until I took on the BCG portfolio.  I’m used to juggling a Kindle in a research facility’s stacks, taking a picture with my phone, and holing up on the sofa with the laptop to research.   I found I’m better “in the zone” when I’m at a desk, though.  So I started checking around to see if any research had been conducted in this area and found a Harvard study that shows employees perform better when they control their space.  You can read it here: Harvard Study

I am pleased to announce I have finished the KDP!  I completed it in the new office on Sunday, April 10th at 4:45 P.M.  There’s editing, checking some citations, a deed and a will I’m still hoping will turn up (but not likely as both were misfiled!) before I wrap it up totally but it is 99.9% complete.  I especially like the thought that the KDP was the first project completed in the new space.   Here’s a toast to my productive new office and that there’ll be many more KDP’s in my future!

When Seeking Out Records – Suggestion for Reaching Colleagues Who Care

Originally published on on 3 Apr 2016.

This is a story of extremes; the indifferent vs. the passionate.  Being almost done with my Kinship Determination Paper’s research I have encountered a full range of people personalities in my quest for obtaining information.  I’m trying to understand why some clerks, researchers, “professional” genealogists, historians, ministers and distant family members are so nonhelpful and others go above and beyond.  In the future, how do I insure that I contact those that care and avoid those that don’t?

As a child, I loved Highlight’s Magazine for Children.  We couldn’t afford a subscription so I looked forward to having my mom read it to me when we visited the doctor or dentist.  The “Goofus and Gallant” feature always made me laugh.  Maybe it was how my mom read them but I really wanted to be like Gallant!  Then there was the “Do Bee or Don’t Bee” segment on Romper Room.  I identified with the Do Bee.

In reflection of the past five months I think I’ve been in contact with half Do Bees and half Don’ts.  My findings don’t appear to have anything to do with area density; rural or urban doesn’t seem to be a factor at all!  It seems that locales in economic distress exhibit the least desire to be of help.  Maybe it’s because the employees are stressed due to over work because of unfilled positions or limited resources.  Perhaps it’s the overall mood of the community.  Or they can’t focus on the past as it’s so difficult dealing with the present.  The topic would make an excellent  dissertation for someone to investigate!

In the past week I’ve joked about the following situations I encountered but mind you, I’ve used gallow humor to deal with the frustration:

  • No one answers the phone in the probate department of a Midwest county office; repeated calls made at various times over several days.  Are they all dead?!  Called the operator who responded, “I know, I’ll transfer you.”  No voice mail, no email.
  • Emailed a question through a city’s website link, “Ask a Librarian.”  No response.  Called a few days later, phone out of service.  Looked online for a new number and none found.  411 has the number I tried so I reported it out of service.  I emailed another library the original question.  Got cc’d on the forward and then got a response from who the email was forwarded to.  Response said, “You are welcome to visit [name of library] and look through these volumes.  We ask folks to make an appointment so that I will be sure to be here (I’m the only full-time staffer here). “  I responded that I couldn’t come as I live far away and I just needed direction on where the record I was searching might be found so I could arrange for a look up.  The response was, “Oh, ok.  The …(first facility I had emailed but gotten no response from)… has the information.  Unfortunately, it’s closed these days but plans to reopen at some point.”  The person did do a look up and in one volume negative evidence was uncovered so I still needed to check other sources.  Called the city to find out when the library will reopen.  Was told there is no known date.  It’s a budget problem and not mold, mildew, fire, water, or a gas leak issue.  I’ve had to revise travel plans in the past due to all the above concerns except budget.  That’s a new one for me and will certainly make for an interesting footnote!  Going to have to check out Evidence Explained for help on that citation.
  • Tried to email a city department but the form filler didn’t work.  Copied the email address and tried to send from my personal email – returned as undeliverable.  Looked up a different department, no email address.  Emailed the webmaster about the problems and asked that my request be forwarded to the appropriate departments.  Got a response, “ok.”  No apology, no thanks for letting us know there’s a problem with our website, no nothing, which means I never heard from any of the departments who I asked that the email be forwarded to.  I’m thinking it’s because there is no email.
  • Spoke with a clerk in a county records department about obtaining a deed.  My only question was, “Does your office house records from 1920?”  I was expecting a yes, no or maybe so answer.  I got, “I’ll transfer you.”  Ok, a new take on “maybe so.”  Asked the same question to the next clerk.  Got, “I’ll transfer you.”  Was transferred back to the original clerk.  Clearly frustrated, she said that I should just come in and ask that question.  Huh?  Like I’m going to get the answer in person and not on the phone?!  I told her why I couldn’t come.  She said, “Well, find someone to come in for you.”  I asked for a recommendation since I don’t live in the area.  She responded, “I don’t know, maybe a title company” and hung up.  I’m thinking that the department should stop paying for phone service as a way to balance their budget since the employee will only speak to people face-to-face.  Would skype count ?  Perhaps the probate office figured this out already and stopped paying for phone service which would explain why no one answers that phone.
  • Received a letter in the mail from a state archivist (not the same state as the above) that said, “Unfortunately, we do not provide copies of county records…You will want to contact (the county) to obtain a copy.”  Clearly the archivist cannot comprehend what the request was – it stated that the county has lost the record.  I’m fairly certain the record was microfilmed and that’s why I contacted the state archives.  At least my check was returned.  Maybe I should donate it to the city with the budget problems.

Since I want to remain a “Gallant Do Bee” I’m thankful this week for:

  • The State Archivist (of a different state) who remembered that I had emailed a question a few weeks ago, found something recently while assisting someone else and emailed me the new information.  Wow, now that’s service!
  • Same situation happened with a county probate office – the individual I had been in contact with several weeks ago just happened to find something that she thought might be helpful.  It was regarding guardianship of a collateral line I was working on and yes, it was valuable, just like her!
  • The small town library that did several look ups, then scanned and sent the findings at no charge.  I sent a donation as I was so impressed with their helpful, dedicated staff.
  •  A county archivist who answered all my questions on the phone, made several suggestions and asked for a copy of the paper when I’m done so their collection can grow.  This individual demonstrated passion about her community and plans for the future. A winning combination!

Here’s my plan on how to not waste time with the losers and connect with the colleagues who care – I started a database of my contacts that were most helpful.  It has name, position, contact method (phone/email), and date of contact.  I thought about making a Goofus list, too, but decided against it.  I’m going to hope that maybe those negative folks were just having a bad day, week or month and not a lifetime. Personnel changes could also occur and I want to continue doing “reasonably exhaustive research” which means I just may have to recontact the same resource locations again in the future. I also wrote thank you notes to those that were so helpful and asked if I could have their supervisor’s name to let that person know how valuable the employee was.  Kindness is contagious and I want it passed on!