Wednesday, January 27, 2010


I like doing historical research but have wondered what genie drives people who do the genealogical kind. Both sorts of research can be frustrating, tedious, and lead more often to hair-pulling dead ends than to moments of eureka euphoria, but historical research, it seems to me, is about so much more than pedigrees. I've found it to be more intrinsically interesting.

For this reason I've accumulated some family histories but have resisted formalizing them with family-tree structures. I had resisted, that is, until this week when I installed an open source program on a server I control and began to feed it data. I started because I was dissatisfied with an html table I'd put together showing some basic generational transitions in the family of a great-grandfather and once I'd started I found I couldn't easily stop. Now I've invested many hours in the project and am pausing to reflect on how this came to be.

It's a compulsive sort of game. The program provides slots for all sorts of data and your quest, the challenge you're given, is to fill in as many of them as possible, then to find errors and omissions, then make the corrections, then clean up the messes you've made during this updating. Of course while you're checking, correcting, and cleaning up, you're also continuing to add new data and it's easy, and intensely frustrating, to lose track of where you are in each little parallel-processing task.

The resources at your disposal are many and mostly close at hand (which is to say they're on the web), but tantalizingly incomplete, ambiguous, and quite often foreign (which is to say they're written in languages you don't know having archaic usages that seem to defy translation). A family tree program is like a horrendously difficult crossword puzzle that extends infinitely in all directions.

Ambiguities reign. These two records having the same name for a person from the same time and place turn out not to be for the same person after all. This apparent misspelling of a name isn't a misspelling after all but is for a different person than you thought. You find two sources that identify the same person — you're sure of that — but they give very different information; which is right or are both partly right, partly wrong? Difficulties expand and chaos threatens. Worst, for me anyway, is the temptation to work on more than one individual at a time, taking advantage of serendipitous discoveries, but losing track of where you are, what work still needs doing. I express these complaints as if they are simply annoyances, but they're also part of the budding addiction. You, that is to say I, get irremediably hooked.

There are benefits to this state of affairs. Genealogical research has helped me uncover family linkages, notice interesting correspondences of dates, and discover ancestors that I wouldn't have found in just collecting family stories. That, and I've reacquainted myself with the php scripting language which I haven't used in a while.

That said, here are links to the web page of family stories on which I've been working and the companion set of genealogical pages. The family history page is Louis Windmuller and Family and the genealogy is called Windmuller Family. If you're interested, I welcome corrections and additions to both. There's an email link on the genealogy page which I think works ok. You could also just comment on this post, giving your email address, and I'll get back to you.

I always like to include a graphic, so here's a bookplate that my great-grandfather used.

And here are links to other posts of mine on members of this family: ---------

An afterthought: Archivist friends say most researchers are genealogists these days, which doesn't surprise. They also say these researchers are quite labor-intensive clients and likely to be somewhat unscrupulous. I hope that's mostly hearsay and not fact.

I'd forgotten that I wrote on this subject a couple times before: 1) the passion of genealogists and 2) more on genealogists.


Thomas MacEntee said...

First, thanks for your work with the genealogy community in the area of archiving.

Second, I do believe the comment you heard about genealogists being unscrupulous is hearsay - for my 17 years in the field, the past 2 professionally - I have heard of very few instances where a genealogists has been unscrupulous.

On the contrary - the genealogy community is not only dedicated but also one of the biggest advocates for sharing research and resources and for keeping access to records free.

Jeff said...


I'm happy the archiving site is helpful. It's old enough to need updating and I've a mind to do that soonish.

I'm also happy to learn that archivists are as careful of resources as are any other researchers. I have seen and do agree that genealogists share well with one another and are free and open in their (our, actually) communication.

-- Jeff