Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Genealogy Factoids -- What Are They And Are They Worth Saving? (February 17, 2015)

Recently, Nancy at My Ancestors & Me blog posted a nice personal remembrance piece about her father's favorite entertainer -- the singer, pianist, actor, and comedian Jimmy Durante.

Heather Rojo of Nutfield Genealogy blog has written several times over the years about her participation in Girl Scouts and memories of her experiences. Examples of Heather's Girl Scout memories are here and here, but more are found at her "Girl Scout" tag in her blog's Lables list.  Barbara Poole of Life From The Roots blog has also shared her Girl Scout memories and photos as can be seen here

Jana Last of Jana's Genealogy and Family History blog answered six simple questions here about her childhood memories as a participant in Randy Seaver's Saturday Night Genealogy Fun series a year ago. The questions were adapted from Judy Russell's keynote address at RootsTech 2014 and included questions like, "What was your favorite book as a child?" and "What was the first funeral you attended?"

Back in 2007, Bill West of West In New England blog posted about his doomed love affair with Fluffernutters and his ongoing love of Hot Chocolate, which can be enjoyed here.

Recently I have been posting about my family's 1998 backpacking trek on the Northville to Lake Placid Trail in the Adirondacks using entries from my trail book and photos taken along the way. The series began here and can be followed under the topic "Northville-Placid Trail."

What do these various posts share in common? They all recount little bits of information that were important in the lives of the bloggers themselves and/or their immediate family members, but they are not the kind of facts that are likely to be found in some public document or record in the future -- the kind of document records generally accorded the status of "primary sources." These blog posts are contemporary written oral history of events actually experienced by the writers and are about matters that will easily be lost in the course of just a couple or three generations if not recorded and preserved. These bits of information are what I would call "genealogy factoids," but do they -- or should they within a genealogy context -- meet the dictionary definition of "factoid" ("a brief or trivial item of news or information") or the definition generated on a whiteboard school exercise depicted below?

I would argue that the well-documented, contemporary written oral history that is often the subject of posts on genealogy blogs (especially those blogs more focused on a particular family history than on academic and technical aspects of the genealogy discipline) should be accorded more attention and effort at preservation.  I have written that those of us with living memories of ancestors and their likes, dislikes, and quirks should consider recording those "factoids" in some way before they are really lost for lack of some "official record."  Blogs accomplish this goal, but are probably only temporary themselves in that the vast majority exist only as stored electrons easily lost or abandoned.  Realizing this is why many bloggers increasingly now take the time to preserve their blogs in book form -- to increase the odds that the information contained in the blogs will be more easily preserved, passed down, and perhaps continued by descendants. 

In my opinion, genealogy factoids are important and serve to create color for our descendants and the genealogists of the future so that a genealogy becomes something more about the people than a black and white word portrait of dry, document-supported facts of birth dates, death dates, marriage, occupation, education, military service, etc. It is well written contemporary oral history full of factoids that will fill in the the portrait of an ancestor and give him or her the depth, color, and nuance that really makes each of us different, and which influences those around us -- especially our family members.

My 6th great grandfather, Col. Thomas Carpenter of Rehoboth, Massachusetts, fought in the Revolutionary War and is the basis for my membership in the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR). I know of no existing portrait of what Thomas looked like. His appearance is apparently lost in time. But there is this genealogy factoid about Thomas found buried in the famous Carpenter Memorial by Amos B. Carpenter that provides some insight and color to who Thomas must have been. He must have been a man who (at least in his later years) loved food because his granddaughter told Amos Carpenter that her grandfather Thomas, "was a large, portly man." So much so that she was able to make a whole suit of clothes for one of her children out of one of her grandfather's vests!   

By paying attention to the careful and accurate recording of genealogy factoids we do the service of fleshing out the image of family members with facts that otherwise will be gone forever. How else will my descendants know that I loved backpacking in the woods and completed a trek of over 100 miles through the Adirondacks way back in 1998? How else will descendants or relatives know that Nancy's father loved an entertainer named Jimmy Durante? Or that Heather and Barbara were Girl Scouts and that the experience stayed with them all their lives? Or that Jana loved horse books and cherished ones her father gave her well into her adulthood -- and maybe passed them on to descendants who would otherwise wonder where they came from and why the old books were saved? Or, after learning what a Fluffernutter even was, that Bill West had so many Fluffernutters as a child he could not bear looking at one in adulthood?

Blog on . . . and remember that accurately written and preserved genealogy factoids are special kinds of facts that belong in any genealogy that is to be something more than a list of dates and events supported by primary documents!

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ 

Copyright 2015, John D. Tew
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _


  1. John,

    Thank you so much for the mention! I so agree with you that we need to write about our own memories so that our descendants will know about us and our lives.

    I'm also planning on having my blog printed into book form.

  2. I really should blog about my experiences printing my blog posts into book form. It's the one thing I would save if the house caught on fire - even though I have them "backed up" in book form by gift books sitting on my Mom's bookshelf in Massachusetts and my in-law's bookshelves in Madrid, Spain.

  3. Thanks for the mention, John, and for the great post and encouragement to blog about experiences and memories. I wrote a post several years ago about second-hand memories (http://nancysfamilyhistoryblog.blogspot.com/2010/12/second-hand-memories.html), something you alluded to in your paragraph about your sixth great-grandfather. Like you, I think both first- and second-hand memories add meat to the bones of names and dates and help to keep our ancestors alive.

  4. I've been looking for a way to publish my family memories - from Saturday Night Genealogy Fun and Wordless Wednesday posts - in some format. But I don't want to publish the entire posts, I want to edit them. My target audience would be my brothers, daughters and grandchildren. I just haven't taken the time to do it, and the posts keep piling up at a rate of two a week at least!

  5. I have written some of these types of posts, too. I hope to eventually put them together as a book - maybe with the aim of a book for my daughter who is now a teenager. I enjoyed your post!