26 December 2011

Motivation Monday - Synchronicity What?

Timing is everything, isn’t it? I’ve always enjoyed those stories and movies where they suppose what happens when we make a split-second decision: one side goes off to one life and the other towards another, completely different, life. There’s a part of me that believes that happens; that timing, synchronicity, plays a role in my everyday life.

The greatest example I have of that has been my decision to return to my genealogical research, having stopped almost 7 years ago because of a career change. I went from being a very, very busy professional to a college student (I went school full time to earn my BA in Art History) and even that path was strange and circuitous. In the end, two months before I graduated, I had secured a new job as a Consulting Archivist. I was very excited to be starting a career that incorporated some of my greatest assets: my attention to detail, organizational and assessment skills, my love of history, as well as my need to work hands-on.

At first I was so busy learning my new vocation that I really didn’t have time for personal genealogical research. Being a Consulting Archivist means having the ability to very quickly learn a collection; usually there’s a slightly lower learning curve, but knowing what’s in a collection is critical to having the ability to make it accessible. Plus, I was working at two or three places at once, so I had to be able to quickly shift gears from one knowledge base to another.

One collection though had my heart from the beginning, and in hind sight I now can acknowledge why: the collection was ripe for genealogical research. It was full of thousands, yes thousands, of records of individual people. From the start, I tried to bring those people back to life through the records in order to make the collection more interesting to those who were making the decisions about its future. Sadly in the end, after five years, the economy was such that my services were no longer required and I was let go.

Losing that client would’ve been a much bigger blow had I not already started working at the small Historical Society Collection I’m at now. It’s an incredible collection of late 19th century material from a vibrant, rural town about 45 miles west of Chicago. The initial processing took more than a year, since I’m only there two days a week, but from the beginning I recognized the importance of incorporating a genealogical infrastructure into the collection. It’s paid off in more ways than one as the research requests have almost always been for individual people and how they fit into the fabric of the town.

What the heck does that have to do with my own genealogical research? Well, it’s the synchronicity thing. I started my research in late 1996, when Family Tree Maker, RootsWeb and GenWeb were in their infancy, so most records were still not available online. I knew how to research, but only knew one foreign language, had no knowledge about preservation and/or conservation of materials, no understanding of how to organize and/or arrange material and a limited appreciation for any or all of those skills. When I started working at my Historical Society client, I had to look at what genealogical resources are now available, what software has been created, what technology can be used, etc. I had to look at it with fresh eyes and different perspective: new timing.

As I sat at a table in early December, looking at original documents in French, German, Dutch, and Portuguese from the early 19th century that MY ancestors had signed, touched, carried and lovingly saved, I was struck by the fact that I would NOT have been able to understand them or how to handle them or how to stabilize and protect them only five short years ago. They really would’ve been meaningless to me, as they currently were to my Cousin who has them in her possession. I laughed when her husband told me it would take me at least a year to go through the shopping bag full of material they’d brought and that I wouldn't be able to read most of them because they were in all kinds of different languages. Their admiration for my ability to get it all organized, scanned, stabilized and identified in several hours was great, but for me it was the triumph of FINALLY getting access to documents I knew existed years before and now was able to hold in my hands.

I’m still reviewing each document, some of which I’ve had to put into Photoshop to enhance, to glean as much information from as I can. That process made me take a long hard look at my own material I’d already processed, and I’ve “found” more information on pages I’ve had in my possession for 15+ years. I’ve had Family Group Sheets someone sent me in late 1996 that are fully sourced and cited (an interestingly debated subject of late) for which I had no appreciation when I received them, short of the names and dates I was able to put into my database. What a shame that I wasn’t able to understand the importance of that SOURCED information and the time and effort it took to obtain it.

My point here is: Timing is everything. What you can’t find today may be sitting on a piece of paper you shuffled to the side five years ago because there just wasn’t anything on it you could use. Because at the time there wasn’t. Those pictures you pushed to the side, because you didn't know who the people were in them, may have scribbles on the back that were meaningless two years ago but now are clues to a line you started to research last week. Have a look at some of that ‘stuff’ you’ve got stashed away, and let me know if you ‘find’ anything new. Because timing is everything.


  1. I completely agree! I haven't appreciated some of the information that I had because it wasn't sourced, but now that I have made connections in other areas I can see the names on the pages in my files are hints and clues to where I need to go next. I'm so excited to watch your journey through this!

  2. Yes! It happens all the time. A document doesn't seem to have any relevant information but them a few years pr months down the road I reread and discover tons of valuable clues and even answers to old questions.

  3. Laura, your main point is well taken. However, I've been tempted to follow the side trail you've tantailizingly laid out and am fascinated by the treasure trove of family papers you mentioned. What a fantastic find!

    I recently came across a stash of family documents, some of them 125 years old and ready to crumble at the merest mishandling. While I'm ecstatic at the privilege of being able to access such treasures, I'm quite concerned about how to best preserve these items so others in my family's future may also see these documents intact.

    With your knowledge in the area of archiving, any blog posts you write with suggestions on how to preserve such discoveries would be much appreciated!

  4. Jacqi, if you have an immediate concern about the docs, please send me an email (archivalbiz@gmail.com) and I'll be happy to make some simple suggestions for you. I'm putting the finishing touches on a presentation I'll be doing next month at the Messenger Public Library on this very topic!

  5. How wonderful to have all those documents...and be able to make sense and apply an organization to them! Will you be sharing the presentation to the library on your blog? My Aunt has an old family bible that somebody wrapped with plastic wrap held on with stick pins! How sad is that? I'm sure they thought they were protecting it. :(

  6. I started in 1996 also. I happened to call the owner of my 3rd great-uncle's plantation and discovered he was having a festival on the grounds in six weeks. I turned out to be the only person there who carried the family name. As an interloper, I kept a low profile among the period dress and speechifying about the family.

    Synchronicity is a tremendous factor in my life. It happens so much my hair doesn't bother to stand on end any more. It did in 1996, though!


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