A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with my brother. He was telling me about how he was helping record data for online experiments and he referred to himself as a “citizen scientist.” Maybe it’s just how he talks, but I laughed out loud and then mercilessly made fun of him to no end. I was going to make him a t-shirt that said “citizen scientist” and I wasn’t going to let it die. This was funny stuff!

Tonight, with my first free night in quite a while, I’m spending these fresh, new hours by indexing the 1940 Census via Family Search…and it occurred to me, who’s the dork now? Not very different from what my brother is doing; he’s charting stars, I’m charting people. Citizen Genealogist.

Nope, citizen scientist is funnier.


Unknown No Longer

The Virginia Historical Society has announced the launch of a new Virginia slave name database. Drawing on the millions of documents in their collection, the database provides free online access to sources from the 17th through 19th centuries. You can search for individuals by name, occupation, age or location. Known as “Unknown No Longer”, the database finally gives the dignity of identity to many of the enslaved people in Virginia’s past and will most definitely be a boon to genealogical researchers.

I was lucky enough to see Paul Simon live this week. A highlight of the concert was hearing and watching him play the namesake song of my blog, Hearts and Bones. This is not my video, but it’s the same tour and the best one I could find online. (it also includes their cover of Mystery Train by Chet Atkins)

You take two bodies and you twirl them into one
Their hearts and their bones
And they won’t come undone
Hearts and bones
Hearts and bones

Who doesn’t? This great shirt might just have to be added to my wardrobe. But how many times would I have to explain it? Would people ask? Would I be stopped in the grocery store and asked to expound? Would people be as horrified as I was to learn that the original data for the 1890 Census, groundbreaking for its use of punch-card technology, was lost to fire? Or would people just think I was some kind of reenactor?

The 1890 Census is for me is the twist in the game, the wrench in the works. If I had access to 1890, I might know how Lewis Hirsch got from rural Pennsylvania to Philadelphia. It would be a small chink in a brick wall, but big enough to peer through and see just a little more.

A lot of people will tell me I look like my mother – and when I look at photos, yes, I do look like my mom. My brother and sister look more like my mother, the other brother and I are spitting image Hirsch’s. In my family, we’ve always split it up that way – Wendy and Paddy, Tomlin; Kirsten and Matt; Hirsch. It’s so interesting to me then that not only did Matt and I get Dad’s nose (thanks for that), we also got his temperament. On the good side, we are solid workers (Wendy and Paddy are too). We stay busy, we will work for free if we love what we are doing, and we don’t “relax” very easily (this is not always a good thing). We are kind, helpful, interested in a lot of different things, handy, curious and independent.

On the other hand, we all grapple with anxiety, too much mulling, insomnia, and a low-hum of anger at injustices done to us, our family, our friends, or any other work-a-day Joe. In talking to my Dad recently, we both again verbally recognized this. It’s like the big, green fire-breathing dragon in the room – “yes, yes, I could handle this much better if it wasn’t for the heat on my head from this here dragon.” It’s great to have my Dad to call – he knows what it feels like. We don’t want to be this way: uptight, worried constantly, our minds running a wild parallel ride to our normal, everyday thoughts. It’s maddening…but livable. Dad said, “Just try not to dwell on it, that is what will eat you up.” And I asked him how? How do I not dwell on losing my job, the job that I loved? The answer, is in the good traits, it seems. Work, stay busy, be kind to people (but not people who are out to hurt others-he was specific about this), and look out for yourself, your family, and your dear friends. Sending up a little prayer once in a while is also good practice.

It’s this kind of truthful, meaty nugget, oddly enough, that I look for everyday in the obituaries. Genealogists love obituaries, but if they’re all like me, are so very disappointed in the simple announcement type. To me, an obit is a great place to send messages out to the future – here is how your great-grandmother died, here is why, and here is what she lived for, who she loved, who she called a friend and where she lived. Clues. Obits are for clues. And really good obits contain them in dignified, classy, subtle ways. These obits do not need to be lengthy, just truthful. There is no need to hide in an obit – it’s over, it’s done, it happened.

I’m pretty sure that if the truth was told, there would have been an obituary or two in our family line that mentioned the brave battle an ancestor or two had with anxiety, and maybe even a tip or two on how they coped. I haven’t found it yet, but luckily, I still have my Dad.

A little down time

In November I canceled my subscription to Ancestry.com. I was paying for it for months and not even visiting the site; my Masters degree work taking up the majority of my free time. During my holiday break, I’ve had some time to evaluate how I spend said free time and think up new ways to squeeze things in during 2011. While my class in American Art and Architecture is sure to be loaded with lots of reading, research, and writing, surely I can find the time to do more in 2011 – maybe even genealogy work.

I blame it on Buzzy. Halfway through reading Buzzy Jackson’s Shaking the Family Tree, I’m struck with the idea that I am probably due for some organization. I have binders for each surname, computer files, and several envelopes of documents that need alignment. About this time in the book (page 89) Buzzy is on the genealogy cruise listening to a lecture by Elizabeth Shown Mills, citation guru of genealogy. Buzzy comments a couple of time about how useful Shown-Mills’ techniques would have been in grad school. When the stars align, I pay attention. Shown-Mills’ book Evidence Explained is now on my wish list ($50 lowest price I can find…maybe I’ll check the library first).

I think back to the days before the internet – when I used to write away to the LDS and received their newsprint updates every so often or the trip to the Library of Congress with my sister, waiting in the lobby for our number to be called, sharing the microfiche machine. I think I’m at the point where Ancestry.com has served me well for several years and it is now time, when I have the time, to get back to the grassroots of the job and get organized. Ancestry.com and it’s contemporaries have a way of enticing you to the point where your searches end up going in circles, you linger for hours getting lost in Census records and “what ifs.” Taking some time to regroup will be good.

Since I started my Masters program this past fall, I’ve had to let go of my genealogy work temporarily. I love history and I love learning – and I love learning my history most! But I’ll have to be satisfied for now with the temporary breaks that allow me to dip my toe into genealogy, like reading Buzzy Jackson’s Shaking the Family Tree. I just started the book last night and am already negotiating with myself to get certain chores done before I sit down to read.

Interesting that she opens with the question as to WHY we do this, this genealogical research. I struggled with that question, as most of us have, and still have not found a satisfactory answer except to say that, in addition to loving history and learning, maybe I also like making paperwork for myself.