Last weekend I spent some time going over some of the information I have collected over the years. I wanted to make sure it was all scanned and uploaded to my online family tree. So I opened a binder I created for one family line back in the early 2000s and saw pages of photos diligently scanned and printed on photo paper by a half grand-aunt that I had never met. In the binder, I had included my emails to this distant family member, and her responses back. I then started wondering about her and, with a bit of Internet sleuthing, discovered she had unfortunately died in 2020. I realized how lucky I had been to find her and benefit from her knowledge.
As genealogists, although we do many things in the quiet of a home office or by ourselves in a library, an archive, or cemetery, we benefit from collaboration. When I present, I often talk about the benefit of networking with other researchers who have experience with the location or time period, or type of research you’re doing. There’s no doubt that we all benefit from crowdsourcing and collaboration with those in genealogy societies, professional staff at library and archives can provide. But there’s another group we often fail to mention.
You know who they are. They include the older members of your family who consent to interviews. They are the cousin who forwards you obituaries. They are the family member who goes through the family photos and identify family names for you. They are the people you call and ask questions of.
I’ve had several of these people in my life. They don’t care to research family history, but they are interested in helping you preserve it. My dad was one of these people. He spent hours helping me research his grand-uncle, who he knew as a child, and would forward me information he found online that he thought would help. I’ve had cousins I’ve never met before meet with me to take me on tours of ancestral hometowns and share their photo collections. And this half grand-aunt who I found via her half-sister, my grand-aunt, who corresponded with me decades ago and provided me with what she knew about her dad’s family, one of my great-grandfathers.
Non-genealogists aren’t like us. They may care about the old photos and want to pass on the family stories, but they don’t want to spend hours in a library trying to uncover a fact. They graciously part with their time, memories, and their help. They may even reach out to other family members and help you make connections. They're just as happy to have you do the actual research and share your findings with them.
When we think about asking for the non-genealogist for help, whether it's their memories, their heirlooms, their photos, or their DNA, we need to consider:
- They are busy with their lives
- Our priorities aren’t theirs
- They don’t have the same passion for shared family history
- They may not have an interest in helping us
I see this a lot with DNA matches. Genealogists get upset that DNA matches either don’t have a tree or don’t respond to messages. “Why did they do the DNA test?” Maybe it was a gift. Perhaps they were just curious. Maybe they looked at the results and then never looked at it again. Everyone has different priorities.
Does this mean we shouldn’t reach out to non-genealogists? Of course not. They might be waiting to tell those stories. Maybe they wish they knew a family member interested in those old photos or documents. Perhaps they would like to learn more about your shared maternal line.
Non-genealogists are essential to our work. We need to consider reaching out to them to piece together our family histories. Who knows, they may end up enjoying the thrill of the genealogical chase just as much as you do.
To the non-genealogists, thank you for all you do to help us, genealogists. We couldn’t do it without you.