One fine day, you are happily working at a quaint family history library. Word has spread that you willingly help others when they timidly begin their search for ancestors. A middle-aged man confidently approaches you and catches your eye. Today, your presence in the library is to serve so you ask, “How may I help?”
Without hesitation, the man blurts out, “Find me a name.”
Like a balloon, the air of your enthusiasm is seeping out as you attempt to remain polite. Inside you’re screaming, “Is that all you want out of family history?” and “Do you think I’m a genie in a bottle?”
Yeah. Okay. Let’s fine you a name.
Perhaps this only happens in certain segments of the genealogy spectrum, but it’s deflating. It’s deflating because volunteers want to do more than just help you add a name to your tree like a tally mark on a headboard or belt loop (so to speak). Genealogy is more than finding names. It’s about discovering your ancestors and learning from them and the legacy (for good or ill) they left behind. Yet for some, they just want a new name.
In most of these high-pressure situations, volunteers rarely have been exposed to the patrons tree before hand. Now, with the badge of ‘volunteer’ and the implied ‘expert’ badge that comes with it, miraculously the more knowledgeable must pull a rabbit out of a hat on demand in a short amount of time (depending upon the library hours and how close it is to closing time). Thus, this question, regardless of harmless intent, is defeating.
When I encounter such situations, ‘find me a name’ sucks the passion out of me quicker that a vacuum inhales a child’s Lego piece that you barely noticed before you passing over. Yet, I can’t let it show. The person thinks this is a legitimate request and as a volunteer then I can oblige. They don’t realize they just asked for the moon.
“They didn’t ask for the moon, did they?” you may be thinking.
Yes. They just asked for the moon. In a short work session, they want me to look at their tree and not only find possible leads, but to discover someone new. Someone no one else has uncovered before. Most often, the person has no guidance for me as to where to look. I’m just supposed to log in and find someone that they can say is a new-to-them relative.
Then it gets worse. When I’m lucky, they have created a family, with a few sources supporting the names on the tree. Hooray for small victories. As I poke around on these ‘found’ relatives, I notice that the number of sources is lower than would be expected for US ancestors. Additionally, no stories, photos, or other memory items are attached to the tree. When I mention this, the individual doesn’t care about that. They want to find a new name for their tree.
Okay. No where do I start?
If I were helping a beginner, I would poke around, look for a family line that has a lot of record hints and teach them how to evaluate and attach sources. If they find new names along the way, we celebrate and all is well.
But find me a name is not ‘teach me how to do family history. Instead, it is a demand to deliver someone new without having any preparation time and a short time window to research. Oh, the pressure! Oh, and I’m to do this for free. Eek.
Then I see the composition of the family tree and my heart sinks further. There are dead ends. There are lines that I wouldn’t touch with a 20-foot pole as too many people have a finger in the pie. There are lines that are into countries that have little to no records available online (remember, they want a new name, now). What is a volunteer suppose to do?
Yep. Pray is right.
Sometimes, I am miraculously able to find a new person for their tree. More often then not, I can’t. If I had more time, perhaps. If the tree was my line or my income stream, I’d go find a name. As a volunteer, I leave the service opportunity never wanting to go back again.
As I’ve pondered this again and again, I keep thinking there must a better way for me to handle this. I can’t change the demand, but I can change my reaction.
I need to translate what the request is, into something I can handle. I can handle, “Will you look at my tree and find me a starting point?” I can analyze a tree and make suggestions of where someone can go next or get their feet wet as a beginner. Perhaps I can teach the person how to evaluate sources and as they practice the lessons, they’ll find a new name when the new name is ready to be found.
So, the next time I encounter this situation, I will simply explain that I can make recommendations but I can’t promise I’ll find a new name.
What do you think? I don’t want to bash the “Find Me A Name” people. I want to know how you would or have handled such situations.