Facebook and Genealogy

Social Media icons on a smartphone
So many networks, so many family members.

Any discussion among genealogists nowadays will eventually lead to social media, and more specifically, Facebook. They may not be discussing it as a venue for serious research or a way to find that crucial elusive record to break through a brick wall, but Facebook is neither a search engine nor a research focused medium, so though it may be tempting to want something out of FB that it is not intended or suited for, it  would be foolish to consider it that sort of venue. But what it does, it does well.

What Facebook (and Twitter) does provide is a way to interact with contemporaries — family members and other genealogists.  I’ve posted interesting research discoveries and started conversations with my siblings and cousins who generally show little genealogical interest.  The presentation of small doses of background on one 19th century ancestor allows my sisters to take in a bit without being overwhelmed by the onslaught of info I might present when I have a captive audience.  Our exuberance to share the passion of genealogy with family can make it overwhelming leading to the dreaded eyes-glazing-over.  Facebook allows this information to be shared in discrete nuggets, which may capture family’s attention or pass them by if they’d prefer.

I’ve searched for distant cousins and found them on FB, along with other information like their siblings and the names and birth dates of their children allowing me to fill out my tree whether or not I contacted them (though I do suggest caution with this method — who knows if a child is adopted or someone is lying about their own birthdate as many do).  In one instance, a cousin’s mugshot as a profile picture made me question whether I even wanted to get in touch.  Facebook gives a snapshot of someone’s life as it is now, or at least, how they present themselves now.

Despite its attempt to be the sole destination for everyone on the Internet, Facebook’s lack of quality archive capabilities means they will not completely replace boards like rootsweb. Inquiries will have a more limited time to be viewed.  I contacted someone based on a rootsweb board posting from 2002, nearly a decade ago.  On FB, on the other hand, I can’t look at status messages more than three days old unless I go into the individual’s “wall.”  Facebook isn’t about archiving information, but rather about being in the moment.

Recently, the “groups” function of Facebook has provided a newer method for genealogists to come together to share techniques, as proven by the growth of groups like “Social Media for Genealogy” or “Technology for Genealogists.” And due to it’s appeal to commercial interests, Facebook gives everyone a ripe target to applaud or complain about the policies of our favorite (or least favorite) genealogy website.

You wouldn’t look to a marriage record for a death date, nor a city directory for a probate record.  Equally, Facebook is unlikely to be considered a source for intense genealogy records, but rather a way to keep in contact with other members of the family who are living.

So when considering what place Facebook has in your genealogy, keep in mind what it does well.  Resist the temptation to consider any website for something for which it is not suited.  Social media is not everything.  But what it does, it does well, and I would encourage using it.

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Two teepees at the Crow Fair and Powwow, Crow Agency, Montana. Copyright 2013, Kim Cotton.
Two teepees at the Crow Fair and Powwow, Crow Agency, Montana. Copyright 2013, Kim Cotton.

Today, most of the United States is celebrating Columbus Day by shopping sales or getting other errands done if they are lucky enough to work someplace that still takes the day off.  For some, it’s just another day, or if one is Italian, there might be a parade or family gathering to celebrate their heritage in the name of a famous Italian.

However, in my neck of the woods, many choose to honor the people that lived in the Americas long before Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492 (and I’m not talking about the Vikings).  The movement started in Berkeley, the city just north of my own home base, which is well-known for their, shall we say, radical political leanings.  In 1992 the Berkeley City Council approved a city wide holiday to coincide with the federal holiday of Columbus Day, naming it Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  Wikipedia can give you more of the scoop. In recent years, other cities have joined in such a name change. We welcome Minneapolis and Seattle to the list of those who celebrate the cultures that were here before Columbus even set foot in the Americas.

Personally, I’ve been tickled to see the worthy albeit slow transition toward the better understanding of the contributions of Native Americans and rejection of Columbus as our national hero. Having studied Native American art, history, and culture in college and beyond, I’m grateful to see others appreciate the history of those who existed on this land before it was “discovered.” Though the classic genealogical tall-tale of a Cherokee Princess never existed in my own family, my DNA results actually does show some connection to Native Americans. However, the paper trail  does not yet support those results, and I make no claim to be anything other than respectful.

To those who grasp on to the Columbus Day as a celebration of Italian heritage, may I nominate April 15th as Leonardo Day. As a nation, we need another focus for our attention on that day each year, but as a civilization, we can all support the contributions of Leonardo Da Vinci. I’d applaud such a symbol of Italian heritage.

But I am not so delusional as to think that anyone will dismiss Columbus Day without local support, nor do I believe we are likely to see a significant movement to rename this day on a national level any time soon. But as you go on about your day, please take time to honor the first residents of the land we love.

Death in the Family Tree

This is a post I wrote a year ago but couldn’t bring myself to publish at the time:

A rose and a bookThe death of a family member is always hard. The closer you are to them, the harder it is. But being a genealogist adds a different element to the grieving process and one I’m still not fully grasping.

My aunt passed away today. For reasons of geographic distance and complicated family issues, we were not close and I hadn’t seen her in many years. My memories of her are through a child’s eye. My experience with her in recent years has been more genealogical, researching her to ferret out the details on the enigma of her mother — my grandmother. But I loved her.

As anyone with siblings can tell you, no matter how distant you may be, how many years pass, losing them is hard.  Genealogically, the death of a family member is like a library burning down.  Sometimes that library happens to be filled with memories of you as well as your ancestors. She will never again be able to shed light on Grandma’s life nor her own or give me a different perspective on my own memories.

The genealogist in me knows there are things that must be done — it’s part of my role in documenting this family. I feel like Anya in the BtVS episode, “The Body.” What am I supposed to do? She’s here one day and the next, there’s just a shell. In this episode, I am not the protagonist — I am a supporting player. I am the person who needs and wants to be supportive. My cousins are dealing with far more than I am, hundreds of miles away. But there will come a moment when I enter today’s date into the family tree. And that finality wouldn’t scratch the surface of my experience with her.

It wouldn’t explain why when I referred to others, “Aunt” rhymed with “can’t” but when I referred to her it rhymed with “want.” Entering todays date in the database doesn’t give the story of how she was the person who introduced me to sushi, something a child born and raised in California’s Central Valley during the 1970’s and 1980’s would hardly have access to or even know about.

She had moved from Los Angeles to a few blocks away from us, and when she couldn’t find sushi locally,  my mom helped her find the fishmonger with the freshest fish. She purchased nori and special rice and vinegar and a rolling mat, so she could make her own. Through those homemade rolls, she was one of the special people in my childhood who opened my eyes to a whole world outside of what is, despite its census numbers, a very small town. For this, I am eternally grateful.

How do you do it? How long has it taken you to add that final date in the record of a loved one? Did you do it quickly or wait until some of the pain had subsided and time had started to heal the wound? Was it wrenching or cathartic?