Why Genealogy?

Genealogy is said to be the third (some say the second) largest hobby in the country. Just ask the librarians. They will tell you that their shelves are bursting with genealogy books. The available computers are in continual use with those seeking clues on their lineages. The fascination is hard to describe. Some enjoy “putting the pieces of the puzzle together.” Some love history. If your great-grandfather served in the Battle of Gettysburg, instantly you connect to that historical battle site. If Great-Aunt Peggy was the first white child born in Monroe, Indiana, then there is a bond to that town. Some are curious about a family story. Was Grandfather really expelled from college because he and some others hoisted a cow to the top of the belfry?

Genie Jargon

Genealogy, Webster tells us, is the account or history of a descent of a person, or a study of a person's family. Genealogy, the hobbyist will tell you, is a madness, an addiction, which will forever change how you spend your every spare moment!

Some embark upon the journey because of the need for a medical history. A disease or congenital condition may encourage a descendant to document the condition as it was passed down in the family. Another may be interested in a lineage society, and want to join the Society of the Colonial Dames or the Sons of the American Revolution. Whatever the reason, all who begin the journey of tracing their ancestry share a common opinion. It is addictive. All your extra time is spent writing relatives, searching documents, and going online the minute you arrive home. This addiction does have many rewards: new-found relatives, friends in every part of the country, and fascinating bits of history and folklore to enrich your life.

All states have a major genealogy repository, and some have several. It could be within the state library or the state archives, or there may even be a special state library specifically for genealogy.

Genie Jargon

A repository is a physical location where things are placed for safekeeping. This could be a museum, library, archives, courthouse, or another similar place.

If you are a newcomer to genealogy, you will be amazed at the variety of information in a multitude of sources. Your first trip to a genealogy library will be overwhelming, as will a trip to a National Archives branch. “I can't believe there is really a book written about my family,” you will exclaim when you find a genealogy published in 1875. As you begin to realize all the information you can find online, too, you'll spend more time at a computer. You will feel excitement when you find your grandmother and grandfather in the 1930 census, and your mother listed as a small child in their home. With them, to your surprise, is an uncle you never heard about. What joy! You may even acquire an obituary of your relative or a biography with a photo, either in a published book or online.

Lineage Lessons

There are 13 branches of the National Archives spread through several states, in addition to the main Archives I in downtown Washington, D.C., and Archives II in College Park, Maryland.

Why the Effort?

With all the entertainment available, why would you want to spend your time writing letters, talking to relatives, visiting libraries and cemeteries, and pounding a computer keyboard? A definitive answer defies all who attempt to explain. A sense of identity is foremost for many. Those who believe that their family was too ordinary or too poor to be interesting are amazed to realize the sense of value they place on their family and heritage after delving into the family background. The tales of hardship, of endurance, will instill within you an understanding of the conditions under which they lived. My husband's grandfather would tell with pride how they were too poor to buy fruit, but his mother grew tomatoes and learned to make a wonderful sweetened green tomato pie. The courage and resourcefulness of your ancestors will bond you with them no matter what their station in life. You will feel their pain when they lost the little babies, and when the older children had to drop out of school because they had no shoes to wear.

Among reasons for interest are these:

  • To determine ethnic origin
  • To explain why your dad wouldn't talk about his family
  • To find out if you are really descended from Paul Revere
  • A passion for history
  • To note traits in the family such as temperament and talent
  • The need for a sense of identity
  • Congenital health problems
  • A desire to join a hereditary society
  • To track down a family tradition
  • An interest in migratory patterns
  • To identify the owner of artifacts in the family
  • To determine ancestors in a particular occupation
  • To reclaim the family cemetery

Will It Really Grab Your Attention?

You have your own reasons for your interest. However, though the spark is there, you still wonder whether it is going to be worth the effort. “Why bother?” you think. “My ancestors are all gone. What difference does it make?”

Tree Tips

Ask your family members if there is a genealogy book or chart within the family. Someone may have already worked on the family tree, and it will give you a wonderful start.

It is hard to recognize, this early in your quest, that your search will affect positively not only your immediate family, but others as well. Within a short time you will experience the enjoyment it provides. When I developed my own interest in genealogy, my husband's grandmother was grateful that someone was interested enough not only to listen to all the stories, but to make sure the family mementos were not discarded: the locks of hair, the mother's pin worn during the war, the old postcards that were exchanged, and the very old letters that were written by family members. It brought her considerable peace to know that these would be treasured and preserved. On another branch, our interest generated a family reunion, and relatives who had not seen each other for years were able to once again connect. An interest in family history touches many lives.


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy © 2005 by Christine Rose and Kay Germain Ingalls. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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