Fixing Your Genealogy Jalopy: A Metaphor

One of the things I’ve discovered over the course of my many life adventures is this: poverty is a wonderful motivator and teacher. During those lean years, I learned to do a number of things I might not have otherwise, simply because it was the only way it was going to get done. Being broke and needing to replace my recently-deceased car was a doubly bad situation. Repair bills finally exceeded the point of making it worth keeping on the road. I couldn’t afford to get a new car, or even a late-model used vehicle with a warranty. My only option was to try and buy the best car I could afford and keep my fingers crossed that it kept running.

Inevitably, things started to go wrong. The brakes needed replaced in the front. Never having worked on a car in any real mechanical sense, and not having the ridiculous amount of money that a brake shop charges, I only had one option: learn how to do it myself. In that pre-internet time, I went to the library and found some books on auto repair. I learned some general things about cars and brakes from those books, but looking at the books and then looking at my car, I needed some more specific information. I went to the auto parts store to get a repair manual for my particular model of car which would tell me step-by-step how to fix my brakes. I read it, and then I did it.

The next thing that happened was that the rear brake line began leaking at the caliper. Hmm… the tips and tricks necessary to remove the bleeder screw from the caliper without breaking it off were not discussed in my manual. Neither did it really discuss how to bend the brake tube around the myriad of things it wound around on its way from the master cylinder on the engine to the brake caliper on the wheel. I needed to hear from someone experienced who’d done this a thousand times before. So I talked to a mechanic friend of mine about how to get that bleeder screw out successfully and how to bend and attach the brake lines. I listened, and then I did it.

There were a variety of other things I learned to do mechanically with my car. The more I did them, the more confident I became in my ability to tackle new and more challenging repairs. With a few exceptions, each repair became easier and faster. Even when I couldn’t necessarily afford to fix things the way they really should be fixed, I was able to come up with ways to work around the problem, ways to keep it on the road. My car had a fancy rear fiberglass spring that went from axle-to-axle. It had little rubber boots on each end of it where it connected to the axles. Those boots wore out, and of course you can’t just buy those boots – you have to replace the whole assembly at great expense. Not having a spare $500 at the time, I figured out that a piece of heavy-duty truck mudflap bolted to the ends of the spring served exactly the same function and cost me nothing but a few minutes of time. I had to replace the pieces of mudflap a few times, but I never did replace that spring over the several years I continued to own the car.

Not that everything I did was successful. On the contrary: I broke things,I hurt myself, I made many things worse before I figured out how to make them better. But those mistakes were a HUGE part of the learning process. The process of learning about mechanical repairs started with that car, but extended well beyond it. I worked on my wife’s car. I worked on the next several cars that we owned. The process for working on different cars was pretty similar, but each had its own quirks, methods, and tricks to make things easier to accomplish.

Genealogy is no different. It is a hands-on activity. Education is paramount, to be sure. You have to read some books, articles, wikis, and other resources to get a general understanding of the basics of genealogy. Eventually, you will use those same resources to acquire specific knowledge about research areas, resources, or other topics not covered in that general material. All along the way, you are going to talk to people who know more about genealogy than you do who will give you guidance and help in your research. You’ll probably go to a class, conference, or institute. You might take part in study groups or other guided learning. You’ll probably follow the latest developments in the field online.

Here’s the catch: it’s easy to do all of those things, and still not be a successful researcher. Why? Because you have to actively apply what you’ve learned. In order to be successful, you need to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. You can read all the repair manuals you want – but if you don’t pick up a wrench and dive in at some point, your genealogical jalopy is still going to be sitting broken-down in your driveway. If you never go to a courthouse, never actually take the time to look up particular statutes that apply to a record of interest, don’t go to a distant archive to see read through that manuscript, or don’t order microfilm to bring that distant record where you can reach it — you won’t learn what you need to know to be successful.

You need to have those physical records in your hands rather than an abstract concept in your head. You need to try and read and interpret them, to figure out how different records can work together to provide the most accurate picture of your ancestor. I’ll go so far as to say you need to have the opportunity to MISinterpret those records. If experience is the best teacher (and I think it is), and making mistakes is often the most memorable experience (and I think they are); then the experience of making mistakes teaches us in a way that is often better than any other method. Mistakes force us to take a closer look at how things work. In order to fix our mistake, we need to come to a much more in-depth understanding of something than if we’d just unknowingly stumbled through it correctly the first time. It requires us to disassemble things into their various parts in order to understand the whole, which then gives us the proper understanding to reassemble things correctly.

So, yes, read books articles, blogs and wikis. Go to educational events, talk to other folks, and find a mentor. It all starts with education. But be sure to set aside time to actually do the things they suggest. Even if the entire process doesn’t quite click when you read or hear it, get out and try to work through it. The more time you put in under the hood, the more sense the repair manual starts to make. The flip-side is also true. The brain feeds the hands and the hands feed the brain. Genealogy and auto mechanics are both skilled-labor endeavors, the success of which is a combination of both knowledge and experience.

One final note: if you see a genealogist broken down at the side of the courthouse, make sure to stop, get out your repair manual and toolbox, roll up your sleeves and help out…but that’s another post for another day.

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12 Responses to Fixing Your Genealogy Jalopy: A Metaphor

  1. I loved this, Chris. It’s a guy metaphor, but so true. You just gotta get your hands dirty in original records. Oh, wait, genealogists do that with white gloves on. But it’s a metaphor so that doesn’t matter. :- )

  2. avatar DearMYRTLE says:

    One of the best posts I’ve read in YEARS.

    If you traded in your old car for a newer one it would have had similar parts, but certainly some new ones. The same is true when we follow an ancestor’s migration to an earlier residence in another state our country.

    In both cases, you’d have to study up.

  3. avatar Chris Staats says:

    Wow, Myrt, thank you!
    And Cathi, If I can swag curtains, you can put on new rotors and brake pads! Some things are the exclusive domain of one gender or the other, though. Like doilies. I’ve never had a discussion about doilies- what makes a good one, how you make them, proper placement…I think only women worry about things like that. :)

    Thank you both!

  4. avatar Jean says:

    What’s with this gender-specific typing here? This is a really powerful metaphor that can apply to all of us. When my husband taught computer programmer trainees (and I got some promising one to work with me) they inevitably made mistakes. He told them that was part of their job as trainees. But that they needed to learn from those mistakes so as not to make them again. We also found that teaching or mentoring them was a good way to learn more ourselves as they found really novel ways to mess up. So for sure, helping genealogists in need of a little assistance can benefit both sides.

    • avatar Chris Staats says:

      Jean, that’s why I like speaking (when I get there on time and the computer works!). It’s a great opportunity to expand what you know while you’re developing the program. It’s an even better opportunity to expand what you know, or find new ways to use what you know – based on questions and discussions with those in attendance. Talking to other people with different perspectives is a HUGE learning tool.

      I remember my Grandma Staats telling me the story of my dad asking her to show him how to cook when he was little. My grandma responded, “But Terry, I’m always happy to make your meals for you.” My dad replied, “Yes, but there might be a day when you’re not here, and I want to know how to take care of myself.”

      I never heard that story until well after I’d pretty much adopted the same philosophy.

      So I do know how to cook, clean, sew, and yes, I can make pretty curtain displays – all things that require learning and then doing, followed by more doing and thereby learning. And all gender-neutral as far as I’m concerned. I do draw the line at doilies, though. Anything lace, really. :)

  5. avatar Lynn Palermo says:

    Wow, great post, well written, and you hit the nail on the head. Thanks Chris.

  6. You’ve got it dialed in Chris! Great post. Now I’m off to get my genealogy hands dirty.

  7. Oh you are soooooooooo right on this! Not to mention how much fun it is to get out there and get your hands dirty! I was a happy kid when I came in from outdoors covered in mud. I’m a happy genealogist when I come out of a courthouse or archives covered in dust.

  8. avatar Shelley says:

    Great post, Chris, and a perfect analogy. Balancing education with experience is so important. You nailed it!

  9. avatar Patti Hobbs says:

    Great post, Chris. I object to Cathi’s characterization as to this being a guy thing. I too could not afford mechanics’s bills and learned to do things. I moved on to doing the same with computer stuff, construction stuff, and genealogy stuff. I was teaching a group in our gs how to work on a project. One person commented that she’d never taken any computer classes. She was surprised when I told her I’d never had any computer classes.

    In my opinion the biggest factor is a willingness to work hard at learning and determine that you CAN figure it out.

    • > In my opinion the biggest factor is a willingness to work hard at learning and determine that you CAN figure it out.

      I couldn’t agree more. When I was young I learned to change the oil in my car, the spark plugs and wires, the distributor cap, and a few other things. Some things I left to my brother and cousins, but I could do the basics. My son learned to cook and do laundry; me daughters learned to take care of their cars. I was flabbergasted when my sixteen year-old nephew told me he didn’t know how to do laundry. Teaching kids the basics of home and car acre is important and helping them learn to read to teach themselves new things is even more important. I’m always surprised at people who don’t head to the library (or nowadays the Internet) when they need to learn something new.

      Great post, Chris, and right on the mark. I spent several years reading about how to do genealogical research when I couldn’t get much time from work to “do” research. But once I had the time to practice what I had been studying I realized now much I still had to learn. I’m still learning every day.

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