29 March 2013

The Genealogist's Favorite Question: Does Anyone Know What It Is?

I've noticed over the years that my "lone unicorn" approach to information seeking puts me in a distinct minority among genealogists. At conferences and society meetings, on email lists and social media outlets, I've observed hundreds of genealogists asking different versions of what I now think of as The Genealogist's Favorite Question:

"Does anyone know . . . ?"

I'm one of those people who takes things literally, so when I hear this type of question, I already know the answer, no matter what comes after the ellipsis. And just in case you were wondering, the answer is almost always yes.

Yes. Someone knows. Someone always knows!

The more time I spend with genealogists, however, the more I realize that their Favorite Question isn't meant to be taken literally. They aren't asking a close-ended, yes-or-no question, even though that's what it sounds like to me. Genealogists don't just want to know if someone knows. They want that someone to come forward and provide the information they seek. That's not all they want, though.

I've often doubted the effectiveness of The Genealogist's Favorite Question. I mean, the responses people get . . . let's just say they vary widely in terms of accuracy and relevance. The weird thing is, genealogists don't seem to mind!

Information scholar Crystal Fulton's insightful observation about people who pursue genealogy as a serious leisure activity finally shed some light on this phenomenon. This sentence was a revelation to me: "Because the goal of researching one's family tree is to learn about people connected by family relationships, people as sources figure prominently in the process of this hobby."[1]

Now I get it. When genealogists ask their Favorite Question, they aren't just seeking information; they're seeking connections! My friend Gena Philibert-Ortega of Gena's Genealogy gave me a golden opportunity to explore the matter a little further when I spotted her recent tweet:

Even though there's no question mark at the end, this is definitely The Genealogist's Favorite Question in disguise. It caught my eye because I had some thoughts on how to track down circulation statistics for the Congressional Record. As it turned out, Gena wasn't asking for herself. Another blogger, Erica Dakin Voolich, had made a fascinating discovery about a family heirloom, which you can read about here.

Erica asks a couple of questions in her blog post, one of which is a classic iteration of The Genealogist's Favorite. Can you spot it? Erica also asked a more specific question about why her ancestor would have a copy of the Congressional Record. I don't want to ruin the story for you, so that's all I'm going to say for now. Erica has a follow-up post in the works, and so do I.

Helping Erica with her family history mystery was a lot of fun for me, and I thank Gena for helping me make that connection. And yes, you read that correctly. People have never been my go-to sources, but I still value human connections. Perhaps a lone unicorn can change her ways. Does anyone know?!


[1] Crystal Fulton, "Quid Pro Quo: Information Sharing in Leisure Activies," Library Trends 57, no. 4 (Spring 2009): 754, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/lib/summary/v057/57.4.fulton01.html.

Copyright © 2013, Madaleine J. Laird. All rights reserved.

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