I realise that the genealogy journey comes with a peculiar set of hurdles, roadblocks, box canyons and blind alleys. On the road to greater enlightenment, I am happy enough to receive the occasional nugget. Of course, a Cullinan Diamond would be splendid. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.
Due to where I live and that my chosen ancestor never set foot in my country of residence, I have had to rely on the services of people abroad for both guidance and retrieval of information. The list of helpers runs to pages and I am grateful to these wonderful folk for having given so generously of their expertise and network of contacts, as well as having turned around requests so quickly and cost-effectively.
I try to control my impatience, an inherited trait, while I wait for ‘things to unfold’. I know that some information is only ever destined to show itself after another discovery has been made. This follows that, in the manner of a logical framework. Timing plays a large part in family history research, I have learned.
I am going to do something now that is unusual for me: I am going to whinge.
It goes against my nature to complain. I’m the type who sees silver linings, half-full cups and pots of gold at the end of rainbows. I am generally a happy sort. But I am human and subject to frustrations like anyone else. Right now I feel in need of a little vent. If you wish, you can stop reading.
Let me share with you a few facts of genealogical research.
Fact number one: if your ancestor lived in another country, or more than one country in the case of my ancestor, then there is only so much information you can glean without having to leave your desk. That seems obvious enough, so what’s new? If, however, your ancestor spent time in South Africa, you can apply a discount factor to what might otherwise be regarded as accessible information. The size of this factor will vary according to what you are looking for and, sometimes, it will be as high as 100%. It is not necessarily the fault of people who are trying to find the information on your behalf.
Fact number two: promised delivery dates can blow out by weeks and months.
Some researchers like to be paid before handing over information. I understand and am sympathetic towards their reasons for doing so. My brain has some difficulty, however, in understanding the logic of withholding an invoice. Why would anyone not want to be paid for services rendered? ‘Could you please invoice me for the information you retrieved last month and on which I have been
impatiently waiting. I shall pay you immediately because I want to see the information. This will make us both happy. Guaranteed.’
Fact number three: you may not always get what you pay for.
Some researchers will tell you up front that they cannot guarantee their investigations will produce useful output. This is a fair and reasonable thing to disclose to a prospective client. These people graduated from the School of Under-promising and Over-delivering. I attended this school and graduated summa cum laude. I try to operate according to its code.
There are many instances, however, where the availability of information is a known quantity. A ‘dead cert’, as Julia Roberts’ hooker said to Richard Gere’s wealthy businessman in Pretty Woman. All one has to do is go and get it.
I keep a record of every request for information I’ve issued. I take it for granted that where someone accepts my ‘brief’, then they will deliver according to its terms. If information is missing, then I would like to know why. And this is where one may meet graduates of another school, the Talk your Way out of the Problem school. ‘If I said that I don’t have the files you can assume that I meant it. They are not in my inbox. If they were, we would not be having this conversation. But that we are having it means that I would still like the information.’
Fact number four: be ready to have your questions thrown back at you.
‘I am approaching you on the recommendation of X who said that you may be able to help me establish where and when my ancestors were married. The only information I can give you is their names.’ (A few days later…) ‘Do I understand you to say that without a date and location for my ancestors’ marriage, you can’t help me further? Please reread my email: I said that I don’t have those details. That’s why I’ve approached you. Thanks for your help and have a nice day.’
Fact number five: silence is not golden.
Many referrals have paved the way for me to find priceless gems of information. I have also been referred to potential sources of help, people, I am told, who not only can, but want to bat for me. On approach, I discover that some of them have a phobia. This phobia kicks in when a response to email is required. It is particularly vexing when I have no other way of contacting them. ‘If you receive an email from me and are not in a position to assist, please do me the courtesy of letting me know. I can take rejection. I’ve had years of practice. ‘No’ is helpful because it allows me to move on to the next line of inquiry. Silence leaves me in limbo.’
Fact number six: some organisations are content to languish in the last millennium.
My eyes prick with moisture as I recall the hard copy of my early student days: shiny foolscap photocopier paper, metres of unintelligible output from the 1.8m square Univac computer (‘Mr Univac’, we used to call it), carbon paper for typed copies of documents.
That was in the 1970’s. It was the known environment and we accepted it. Happily, the times have changed but not everyone has been swept up in the tide of improvements.
There are still many organisations whose records cannot be searched online. To them I say ‘It would save much of everyone’s time – particularly yours – if you would progressively make your records searchable online. Throw me a morsel. And while you’re at it, please get rid of the card indexes.’
Fact number seven: not all organisations offer email contacts.
What, no email addresses? Perhaps some organisations prefer to conduct their business over the phone. Ah, but then there is voicemail, the inquirer’s nemesis. Should I make an international call only to risk hearing a recorded message say, ‘”X is busy taking another call now (yeah, right), but if you leave your name and number I shall get back to you straight away.” Are you kidding me? I know that the chances of your returning an international call are zero.’ And lest anyone think that this practice is confined to the African subcontinent, let me reassure you that it is alive and well in Australia.
Fact number seven: just because Britain has kept great records doesn’t mean that its former colonies have done likewise.
I marvel that a country could destroy decades of original, precious Census records. To the officials who annihilated these documents on the instructions of their masters, ‘What were you thinking? Or did you have something to hide? And while we’re on the subject of obtaining copies of birth, marriage and death certificates….’ No, let’s not go there.
Please understand that most of these ‘facts’ are country-insensitive. They can apply to anyone, anywhere. Yes, even in Australia.
OK, so you have probably figured out that this post is a ‘filler’ to buy time. It is, but I am still on the case. It may just take a little longer to figure out what next to say.
Humour me a little.