A friend asked an interesting question. "Why do you do genealogy?" The answer should be simple. One would think it would be something along the lines of:
"I do genealogy because I want to know who my ancestors were."
But guess what? Like most questions in life, the answer is not that simple. There are a myriad of reasons why we delve into genealogy research. Wanting to find out who our ancestors were is just the tip of the genealogy iceberg.
The reasons I currently "do genealogy" are not the same reasons I had twenty or thirty years ago. When I began my genealogy quest it was because my father had repeatedly expressed curiousity about our Irish origins. He died when I was 14 years old, and after his death I vowed to find out about our Irish McGinnis ancestors.
So my answer to that question, had it been asked those many years ago, would have been. "I do genealogy because I want to remember and honour my father."
It was a specific reason, very narrow in scope, but it sparked a broader interest in history. In fact, that is not my main reason anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time. I've grown. Genealogy has been a journey, and as on any journey, my needs and desires and goals along the way have changed.
For example I’m extremely curious. Some would say nosy. I think most of us who love genealogy would make great detectives. My personality is such that I can't let a mystery lie without digging into it. I need to find answers.
So my current answer to the original question of why I do genealogy is now much more complex.
"I do genealogy for many reasons. One is my curiousity about my ancestors - who were they, what were they like, what experiences did they live through. My love of history is part of the reason I do genealogy. My desire to solve mysteries is a huge part of my passion for genealogy. And I do genealogy because I want my children and grandchildren to know and recognize the individuals over the centuries whose lives helped make us who we are today."
Genealogy isn't a pursuit well suited for those who require instant gratification. It's a long-term process and to those who are not like-minded it seems an incomprehensible pursuit. I've spent more hours scrolling through microfilm searching for that one entry with an ancestor's name, then I care to remember. Many people would consider those wasted hours. I don't.
Some of my family are not the least bit interested in our ancestors. Some are interested to a degree. Tell them stories of the more interesting or outrageous ancestors such as our daredevil Peer ancestor who walked Niagara Falls on a tightrope and they listen. Tell them about great great grandpa, the farmer in England, and their eyes glaze over.
I once had a friend say to me "But why do you care? They're all dead!" I care because they made me who I am. Without them I would not be here. They are part of me, part of my genetic makeup. They also deserve to be remembered, and to continue to be part of our lives. Our children and grandchildren need to hear about those ancestors. They need to speak of them to their children, and to carry on the stories they hear from me.
Some of my relatives are not interested in my treasured photos of our ancestors. To me those are the icing on the cake! Photos make my ancestor come alive. One of my relatives told me she wasn't interested in seeing a photo of our 2nd great-grandfather. Why wasn't she interested? Because, she said "Why do I care what he looked like? I never knew him."
That absolute lack of curiousity is incomprehensible to me, just as my desire to know more is incomprehensible to her. A photo allows us to know our ancestors. With a photo in my hand I can study a face then ponder over whether or not great-grandma's nose is just like my granddaughter’s. I can visualize the ancestors in those photos living their daily lives, just as we do today. With a photo I feel a connection I can’t quite feel with only a name and a date.
I’ve been asked when my research will be done. Many family members want to know why I am still looking when I know the names of ancestors back several generations. Non-genealogists rarely understand that genealogists want to find as many details and as much information about each ancestor as they possibly can.
Even though my answer to the original question is complex and multi-faceted, I can sum my reasons up in one sentence:
Without the past there is no present, nor can we build a future.
How would you answer my friend's question, "Why do you do genealogy?"
Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.