Genealogy is not only about researching family history, it’s about pulling the family closer together with a common interest. Legacy Tree Genealogists’ Ryan Rockwood explains how family tree research is often a family affair in which family members assume their unique and valuable roles.
A few weeks ago, my wife tragically lost her grandpa Tom after sustaining brain injuries due to a fall. It was shocking and heartbreaking, especially since he was in relatively normal health beforehand.
As is customary, my wife and I traveled to his home to gather with family, grieve, support, plan, and remember. My mother-in-law began rummaging through storage bins looking for any old pictures or belongings of her father; things she could share with her extended family members attending the funeral. She returned with a large box of photos, notes, journal entries, and mementos from Tom’s early adult years.
We spent some time passing around these photos, journal snippets, memories, and stories. Throughout that experience, I noticed each one of us unofficially assuming different roles in the process: my mother-in-law had kept all of these goods for years, and now she was pulling them out, passing them around, recollecting and reorganizing them. My father-in-law immediately downloaded an app onto his phone. He started digitizing the old photos and documents and uploading them to a shared cloud drive to store and share them with other remote family members around the country. With this shared cloud drive, other family members could upload photos they had from their location. Tom had lived in Japan when he was a young man. My wife and I had also lived in Japan for a few years. So the two of us started digging into some old documents he had collected and reading notes he had written in Japanese during his time in Japan. It was so exciting to help everyone experience this part of Tom’s life in a way they couldn’t have without us – Japanese speakers.
As we took a break from sorting Tom’s things and moved on to preparing the house to receive guests, I couldn’t stop thinking about what had just transpired. Without any coordination or planning, we leaped into specific responsibilities regarding remembering and preserving Tom’s life. Each of us was edified in performing duties we were each uniquely qualified for, and we rejoiced together as a result. Since this experience, I have taken some time to categorize the parts each of us played into five distinct roles:
- The Collector
- The Digitizer
- The Researcher
- The Storyteller
- The Connector
These categories are by no means exhaustive, there is plenty of overlap between each, and one person can have more than one role. However, I think they provide direction for families who want to preserve their family legacy, all working together, just as my wife’s family did. I have expounded on each role below, and I invite you to consider how your family can fill these roles in your preservation work!
Over the years, the collector has amassed all of the physical documents, photos, and mementos for the family. This person doesn’t just safely store these items but can also organize them and ensure they are referenced and enjoyed! In my wife’s family, this was my mother-in-law. If it weren’t for her patiently and carefully holding on to all of Tom’s old belongings, there are numberless stories we wouldn’t have known! Who in your family can focus on collecting historically significant and sentimental items?
The digitizer ensures old physical photos, documents, and objects will outlive the test of time by digitizing and even indexing them for reference and use by generations to come. They should be in close contact with the collector to digitize all of those items quickly and efficiently. This role is becoming increasingly more important as our world becomes more and more digitized while older records and documents deteriorate over time. This person hedges against the adage, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” In my wife’s family, this was my father-in-law. Who in your family can bridge the gap between old and new information formats?
This person takes all of the information from the collector and the digitizer and searches for even more details. The researcher is who we would call the traditional “genealogist.” They would need to employ sound research methodologies to verify or refute family stories, provide historical context, and identify other ancestral individuals. This family member may go so far as to specialize in a particular ancestral homeland or main timeline pertinent to their specific family. My wife and I were able to provide and expound upon information from Tom’s Japanese documents. The work we did would fall into the research category, even though her family has other members who have done more traditional research into Tom’s ancestral lines. Who in your family has the interest and expertise to find out even more about your relatives and ancestors?
This person not only shares all of the stories and memories they have but, more importantly, gathers and solicits stories and memories from other family members. Then they compile and present them engagingly and entertainingly. This person leads off in doing things like gathering others to tell their stories, acting out stories with children, or applying lessons from an ancestor’s story to a teen’s life. They create scrapbooks, write biographies, and plan memorial events. In my wife’s family, my mother-in-law fills this role, but we all took part in telling Tom’s story at some point during this process. Who in your family tells your ancestors’ stories?
The connector takes all of the hard work put in by the other members and ensures it gets out to the masses! They don’t produce anything on their own but are instead focused on sharing information with the family and friends who would benefit from the work already done. They make sure the old photos and images kept by the collector are accessible to all. They also ensure everyone has access to the digitized and published works put together by the Digitizer, Researcher, and Storyteller. In this day and age, social media is The connector’s best friend. However, good old-fashioned mailed packages, letters, phone calls, text messages, and emails are still options to share memories with other family members. In my wife’s family, nearly all of them made a post on social media highlighting a picture of Tom, a story from his life, and a note of gratitude for the positive effect he had on their individual lives for family and friends to see. Who in your family can connect one with another by sharing your ancestors’ legacies?
Everyone Has a Role to Play
Although Tom’s death was tragic, the experiences that came, as a result, taught me valuable lessons about how families can engage together to remember and preserve the legacy of those who came before them. It taught me that through Collectors, Digitizers, Researchers, Storytellers, and Connectors, everyone, young or old, regardless of traditional genealogical experience and skill, can play their part and come together in this great work! This experience benefitted my wife’s family greatly, and I know that all families’ efforts in this regard can help them just the same.
We at Legacy Tree Genealogists love our primary roles as Researchers and Storytellers. We may not be a part of your family, but we often get so engrossed in the research that we often feel like we are. Get a free quote today, and let us help you preserve your family legacy!