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.