I have been working in the professional field of Family History for about two years now. Whenever I tell someone what I do for a living, I get a pretty standard response. “Oh,” they say, “I should be doing my family history but I just don’t have the time.” Usually I make some placating comment about doing it later in life or make some remark about just finding a little time. But part of me is screaming to say, “Don’t do your Family History because you feel you should, do it because you want to.” Too many people simply do and redo work for people because of guilt and, honestly, they are missing both the point and the fun of doing Family History.
I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the scripture in Malachi about “turning the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers.” In my opinion, this doesn’t just mean submitting names for Temple work. If all you’re worried about is getting the work done for your four generations, don’t. (If have you have Mormon ancestors, most of the work has been done more than once and some individuals have even had their work done more than fifty times.) Family History is about getting to know your family, including your ancestors.
I love Family History. I have always preferred learning about everyday people. As a history major, I always wanted to know about the people, I didn’t care about the battles or the laws. Family History is about everyday people, people who lived and loved and lost and married and moved and mourned and fought and dreamed and died. And what makes these everyday people special is that their lives and their choices have a direct connection to my life and it’s possibilities. I also love Family History because it makes history come alive. Instead of learning about demographics, I can hold in my hands a copy of an original document and suddenly I imagine an enumerator lugging his census book from door to door, a proud father walking to the county courthouse to register his daughter’s birth or a crying mother watching the body of yet another child being laid into the ground. I am currently researching the military service of one of my quasi-ancestors who served in the Civil War and I recently acquired his Pension File. My imagination has run away with me these last few days. I can see him signing up, mustering in, marching through Georgia, jumping off a train about to crash, and limping for the rest of his life after receiving a gunshot wound to the ankle. Suddenly, the Civil War is not some distant past event but something that is running around my head.
But I understand that Family history isn’t for everyone, just as Theology, Assyriology, or Linguistics isn’t for everyone either. When people do their Family History out of obligation, it leaves a bad taste in their mouth and, most likely, they’ll never do it again. But, when people do Family History because they want to, they might find themselves lost in some dusty old courthouse or the Family History Library or down a forgotten cemetery road searching for just one more piece of information to add to the papers slowly taking over their house.
So, my advice to you? Get involved in family history when and if you want to. If there’s never any interest, there’s probably someone else in the family willing to do it for you. (I have been designated the Family Historian in the Zelophehad family.) And the next time you meet a Family Historian, don’t feel guilty. Just be glad that they’re doing it and you don’t have to.
- 9 August 2007