Find Me a Name

Family Tree Conversation

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.

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

5 thoughts on “Find Me a Name

  1. Perhaps this post comes across as elitist, especially with the comment about name collectors. I think I wrote this post in hopes of eliciting change. Changing the way someone new asks for help. Expressing the other side of the question and how difficult it is to accomplish such a task. Hoping that someone who does want helping pushing their lines back can now know how to ask for help. It's okay to say, "I don't know what to do."

    Beginners do need time to grow and I'll lovingly help anyone, as time permits. I know myself, and others with similar sentiments, can hear the question from this post and re-frame it so it does not create such pressure.

    We can analyze their tree using the question Wendy posed. We can jump in and look for ways to educate and advise. We can plan ahead for the situation that will come up (as we won't have time to rewrite an email like Cathy suggested).

    Thanks for a great conversation ladies. I hope others will share their thoughts on how to handle this situation or how reading this post has helped them reframe their questions in the future.

  2. Cathy,

    Yes! Responding to an email (and rewriting it a million times, or is that just me?) doesn't prepare anyone for the on the spot situation. You're right that such a person must be new and doesn't know what they don't know or how to ask for help.

    I hope you have a lovely experience at the Luxembourgish Book Fair, rather than mine. But, I'm glad I opened up this discussion so you can prepare in advance. Can't wait to hear how things went. Keep me posted!

  3. Thanks for calling me to the floor in a loving way. I might have come off a touch elitist in this email, which is something I DON'T want to do. Those who do seek out the names before the stories do need time to grow and "A Patient Genealogist" can show more patience. (Once again, the name of the blog was a reminder to me! Ha!)

    Your suggestion to stop and investigate the accuracy of their tree is lovely! I like it. We can have that in our strategy box when we're in this situation.

  4. Fifteen years of getting email requests for help (from knowing everything to nothing at all) does not prepare you for the quick in person reply. With an email reply we have plenty of time to write and re-write a polite message when they are asking us for the impossible. As Wendy said usually the person is new to the hobby and does not know how to ask for the help they need.

    I have only two hours experience of helping others with research on a person to person basis and it was more advice giving than actual research help. I signed up to help a full day on Nov 21 at our genealogy society's stand at the Luxembourgish Book Fair 2015, one of the most important cultural events in the Grand Duchy. I may have a different story to tell by the end of the day.

  5. One question I might ask is how they know the names they have already are right, how they found those names to begin with. If they simply snagged a tree off Ancestry, then you can have that discussion about sloppy research. If they actually did the due diligence to begin with, then you can breathe a sigh of relief and point to appropriate sources or thinking outside the box tips.

    While I agree with you that knowing the STORY is more satisfying than merely collecting names, we shouldn't judge name collectors. Maybe they just haven't progressed in their hobby yet. I think I was more of a name collector in my early years doing genealogy because it was just fun finding WHO my folks were. It never occurred to me that I could actually find stories about their lives. Maybe your patrons just need time to grow. At any rate, if you think that way, it might keep your blood pressure under control.

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