Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Fast and Slow

This past week I was reading blogs and saw that Becky Jamison at Grace and Glory had posted Curt Witcher‘s presentation on “The Changing Face of Genealogy” at RootsTech. Since I had not attended RootsTech and had heard so much about this address, I decided to watch it to see what all the excitement was about.

It was inspiring, eloquent, uplifting, and captivating. Curt Witcher is a bundle of focused energy, with years of experience and many insights to share. He made a number of points that could have evoked disagreement and controversy in some corners of the genealogy community, but were delivered in such a beguiling and matter-of-fact manner - “It’s fact!” “Get real!” - as to be doubly persuasive for all their upending of time-honored genealogical wisdom.

Witcher said many things that need to be said. Genealogy is not just the esoteric pursuit of a privileged coterie, but an activity that should and must include the participation of many people at many different levels. The changes that have taken place over the past couple of decades in the means, methods, and resources that can be used to pursue genealogy have made this broader involvement possible. They have also changed the expectations of people who take up genealogical research, and Curt Witcher described and advocated for this tectonic shift very effectively and persuasively.

One of the points made by Witcher was that people have come to expect greater speed and immediacy of results in their research, or, as he characterized it, “fun and success” and “real-time results.” This speed, in fact, is what has attracted people to genealogy in far greater numbers than ever before.

This is how I was lured into genealogy. A simple Google search to demonstrate to a colleague the uniqueness of my maiden name led me to information that confirmed family stories of our connection to a founding family of Texas. It didn’t stop there; during the next year I would find all kinds of information unearthed by other researchers as well as make new discoveries of my own. The pace was very fast. I went from knowing nearly nothing about my ancestors to having so many possible avenues of research that I did not know where to start.

So I can confirm Witcher’s assertion about the lure of speed, the desire to find things quickly, the attraction of fun and [quick] success.

And yet ... and yet ...

That’s not all there is.

I am now at a point where I have tons of tantalizing leads on the Moores, enough material on my great-great-uncle William Henry Lewis to write a book, a slew of Fichtelmanns to figure out, an entire soap opera on the Floyds. And much, much more.

I have done too much “spending 10 minutes finding lots of documents.” I cannot absorb everything or even comprehend it. There is just too much.

It is time to slow down, and to do the evaluating and analyzing that Witcher said would come with the faster pace of discovery. I don’t need any more projects, nor am I interested in looking into gadgets, apps, or doodads, unless they will truly make me more productive - not fast, but productive.

I want to look at everything slowly and carefully. Often this means transcribing materials. My piles of untranscribed materials have been sitting there, staring at me accusingly. So I finally got off my duff and dug into them.

And my method of transcribing is labor-intensive (= slow). For the census, I transcribe the information from the digital image to a blank census form, which is then typed into a Word or Pages document, and then copied and pasted to the Notes section on my Reunion program. (And I haven’t even felt silly about doing it this way after I heard Lou Szucs speak - she does much the same thing.)

Court transcripts, newspaper articles, and the like get transcribed at a similarly slow pace. Every time a new piece of information turns up, I enter it into a document called “Clues from [family name] Materials.” This is then converted into a point to be followed up on my “Weekly To-Do” list. In this way I am still making “finds,” but they tend to be smaller finds, ones that fill in little gaps in my information.

At the same time, I have been spiffing up source citations in my genealogy program and cleaning up my genealogy bookmarks. I am also entering information, one person at a time, into Ancestry Public Member trees (now no longer just “cousin bait), which I use to cross-check with my Reunion database to make sure that both have the full list of sources for each item. Again, I have deliberately chosen the methodical and laborious way of doing something.

The source citations and transcriptions should be deadly dull work, but they are not. They are peaceful and calming, and they seem to clear my mind. Research Zen, if you will.

So researchers are not always in pursuit of speed and fast results. And in my case this is not because I am a prissy source-citer or genealogical snob. I’m not even particularly industrious. It is simply because I need to go slowly and carefully right now, else I am in danger of losing control over all the data I have. I know that this information will lead to discoveries, but it needs to be organized and carefully studied. Too many times I have discovered that the clue I needed for a breakthrough was in my hands all along.

Curt Witcher is right: people want “real-time results” - it’s just the way people are.  However, I believe that people do not necessarily want things to move fast all of the time. Instant information may beget the need for instant gratification, but the latter need not be a permanent condition. It’s sort of like romance versus love and marriage: the former comes with fun and excitement, but the latter brings the real payoff. Oh, and the passion is still there.


  1. One bite at a time.

    Review, review, review.

    Lots of short little often repeated phrases fit this post.


  2. Greta, Congratulations on being one of Family Tree Magazine's 40 Best Blogs!! It's more than well deserved. Keep doing what you do best!

  3. Congratulations, Greta!!!! GOOD JOB!

  4. Greta,

    This post touches on so many things that go through my mind. The thrill of the chase and find (instant gratification) vs. the need to slow down and understand what you have found. It's a constant tug of war isn't it?

  5. Congratulations to one of my favorite bloggers! You are so deserving of the honor.

  6. Congratulations on your Top 40 honor.

  7. Congratulations on your FT Top 40! Well deserved! Love your blog!

  8. Congratulations, Greta! Well deserved!

  9. Carol - Yup, that's the drill. I'm surprised at how often I miss something on the first round.

    Michelle - Thank you! And you're right, slowing down goes against the grain, but eventually it starts to pay off.

    Yvonne, Janice, Brenda, Lisa, and Bill - thank you!

  10. I love this post, Greta. You proved just what Curt Witcher was teaching us. We want to get into the research results quickly and be able to feed our curiosity and interest, but then the real work comes as we become more dedicated as (good) genealogists. Thank you for your wonderful article!