11 October 2012

Thankful Thursday – Discovering the Breadth of Your Knowledge Through Volunteering

I’m a member of several larger genealogical societies, but hesitated to join a local society simply because I don’t have roots here, other than my own. However, I’ve learned not only how informative the meetings can be, but also how badly many of the smaller local societies need help, whether it’s meeting planning, membership coordination or other volunteer opportunities. Yes, I’ve been to other genealogical society meetings where it appears that the members in charge do not want the assistance of newcomers. But, I truly believe that that is not the norm, or if it was in the past, it’s not now. What’s more, if you find a Society where you don’t feel welcome, for whatever reason, there are plenty more that are actively looking for participatory members.
I was so fortunate that Pat Biallas asked me to join her at the September meeting of the Fox Valley Genealogical Society. Tim Pinnick shared a presentation on the Civilian Conservation Corps, its history, and how to locate individuals who had participated in this organization. After the meeting, I had an opportunity to speak with several long standing members, and I found out that they were looking for ‘new blood’ to assist with their outreach program. Twice a month, all day on the second Tuesday and the evening of the second Friday, the FVGS provides assistance free of charge to those interested in researching their families. Due to my much reduced Archives work schedule, I decided to offer to volunteer on Tuesdays.
FVGS holds their Research Assistance program at The Oswego Library in Oswego, IL. It holds a nice sized collection of genealogical books and periodicals, which were originally owned by the FVGS. Along with the usual on-line databases, the Library provides a great place to launch a family history search. I arrived around 9:30, and was pleasantly surprised to find two patrons ready to dive into their searches. One lady was looking for her 91 year old mother’s father, and another was attempting to start her application for the Daughters of the American Revolution. I started to help her, since I’m already a member. We discussed the process first, then the documentation she’d need and how best to start her search. I’d brought my new Google Nexus tablet (shameless plug for which I get no remuneration) and she was simply amazed at what I was able to help her find. Later, her friend came over, and we worked together to locate some clues as to where her great grandfather might have come from. By 12:30, they were happily on their way, having terrific starts on their research plans.
After a little break for lunch, the ladies from the FVGS came back and we sat down for a bit to discuss what their goals are regarding research assistance. I can say that I truly wish that I’d thought to look to my local genealogical society for assistance back in 1996 when I started my own research. It makes me wonder if I would’ve been inclined to begin working as a Professional Genealogist sooner. Be that as it may, the assistance is there for anyone who wants it, whether they’ve only just started or have a brick wall they’d like help to break through.
One of the other new volunteers off handedly mentioned an odd research challenge she’d come across recently. Curious, I asked if I might be able to help her, since there weren’t any other patrons there at the moment. What a wonderful few hours we spent, pouring over nearly illegible Census records, pulling them from Ancestry.com, moving them into Photoshop so they could be enhanced. We used the cluster theory to pull surrounding families on each of the four Censuses that had her family. We then located her family in another earlier Census she’d been unable to locate them in before. And the findings? Together we uncovered that her great grandfather was a Mulatto from the area of Virginia which is now West Virginia. We pieced together bits of her family’s oral history she’d dismissed in the past; whispers that had part of her family being silenced and part of it simply saying that it was a fact her great grandfather was not White. We worked methodically through the evidence; and at each point we thought we’d have to stop it seemed I was able to locate another resource or record group with additional evidence that she could use.
In the end, she had a fabulous new start on uncovering a great family story. And each time I made a suggestion where we might look, she said, ‘you know so much!’ I was often laughing, because I’ve been doing research in one form or another since I was in High School. When I worked in the Financial Industry, both as a Stock Broker and Portfolio Assistant to a Bond Trader, my research skills were an essential tool for my work. I suddenly was thinking that I might just be underestimating its value. Not monetary value, but the intrinsic value that comes from helping someone to uncover a great story about their family.
So it makes me wonder, how many of us are there that undervalue our breadth of knowledge?  Maybe it’s not in research skills, but perhaps it’s in something else. Geography, local history, medical history, paleography, technology, archival sciences; all of these are knowledge areas that those of us who’ve been doing genealogical research for a while might be taking for granted.
How wide is your breadth of knowledge? I bet it’s wider than you think…


  1. Laura, this is such a happy story. You opened doors fro this person you helped find the family secret about her great grandfather, and you showed her that through research skills like yours, doors can continue to be opened. I really like the way you differentiate between monetary value and the intrinsic value of helping someone. That is completely true. The first kind of value is "spent" after a while, but the second stays with you. I love the way you were able to keep finding more evidence. That must have felt wonderful.

    1. Thanks Mariann, it really was a rewarding experience. And, although it's not the purpose in my volunteering, I'm noticing that I'm getting lots of great help myself...the Karmic genealogy wheel is starting to turn again! :-)


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