Researching the Present to Preserve the Past

Filed in On The Hunt by on 2 April 2014 5 Comments

Shelley Bishop of A Sense of Family wrote a great post Monday titled “The Two Most Important Things Genealogists Can Do Now.”[1] Based on her take away from a seminar she attended by Dr. Thomas W. Jones, the post reminds genealogists not to neglect the present in our search for the past. This is a topic I’ve been meaning to cover for some time now. Anyone who has done genealogy for awhile will have regrets over a relative they never got around to interviewing. DNA is an great tool with a bright future but is also cost prohibitive for many, if not most, genealogy hobbists. To my mind, discussions of researching the present frequently leave out a couple of Mount Rushmore sized neon signs of obviousness we ought to consider. First, a summary of Shelley’s points:

Engage your living family

  • Interview them for their stories
  • Copy their physical collections
  • Collect DNA from the willing

Preserve and Protect

  • Preserve and designate the precious
  • Duplicate the irreplaceable – Shelley’s example here was the family bible
  • Disseminate copies so these items will survive outside your collection

Share the results of your work

  • Write up your work for a blog, society journal or in print to distribute
  • Create family charts or story books, share with family
  • Apply to linage societies where your proofs will be preserved and shared with future genealogists

Excellent suggestions all!

And as I sit here in my genealogy cave, surrounded by nearly two decades of work waiting to be written up, I know I am the target of Tom’s and Shelley’s admonitions. But what’s missing? Only the Glaringly Obvious (which most of us fail to do).

The Genealogy of You

How many times have you lamented the inability to document the birth, marriage or children of an ancestor? I know you’ve struggled to find death records too, but since you’re here reading this I think we can skip that for now 😉 Create a vital records dossier on yourself. Cite and analyze it just as you would any other ancestor. Leave instructions for what should become of your dossier upon your demise.

But there is so much more to you than just vital records. This is especially true for folks who moved frequently. Document where you lived, attended school and major events you experienced personally. For example, September 11, 2001 was not just a national tragedy. For me, it is an integral part of the story of my wedding. I’ve told this story hundreds of times. My kids, family and close friends can probably recite that story too. None of us has written it down. Generations from now, when some intrepid researcher has me as their great-grandmother, will they discover although my marriage certificate says 2003, my wedding was planned for September 15, 2001? Will they correctly interpret why my future husband had to apply for our marriage license twice?

You don’t have to write a full scale memoir but you should write down the important stories. Your social media profiles and accounts won’t live forever. Believe it or not, there will be a day when Facebook is no more, replaced by some other gee whiz wow of the day.  Don’t neglect your own story on the hunt for your ancestors.

Access What is Accessible

Fluxuating privacy and record access laws impact our ability to do genealogy every day. In the modern era of birth-marriage-death certificates, access to those certificates is often restricted to only those most closely related to the events. By way of example, Alabama has one of the most restrictive access laws I’ve yet had to work with. Alabama began issuing birth certificates in 1908. The first year genealogists will be eligible to view these records is 2033.

Alabama Birth Records

Act now, while parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are still alive. Work with those family members who are eligible recipients to request copies of vital records on deceased relatives.  Review those documents with living relatives to spot incorrect or conflicting evidence. Again: cite, analyze and report on these documents.

But don’t just think vital records. What other genealogical gems might living relatives be able to help you access to preserve for the entire family and future researchers? My mother-in-law helped me by requesting her father’s Official Military Personnel File. As a living, eligible recipient, she was able to receive this file at no cost.

Researching the present is preserving the past. You’ve dedicated yourself to documenting the lives of your ancestors. Don’t forget, there will be future genealogists trying to unravel your life and family as well. They will likely be doing so under even more restrictive conditions than you have encountered. Contrary to popular belief, it will not all be on the internet one day. By combining Shelley’s lessons learned with the suggestion offered here you will leave a lasting record of your family for future generations to explore.

Happy Hunting,

Rorey Cathcart

Copyright (c) 2 April 2014

URL for this post is:

Citation for this post is: Rorey Cathcart, “Researching the Present to Preserve the Past” posted 2 April 2014, The Who Hunter ( : accessed [date])

[1] Shelley Bishop, “The Two Most Important Things Genealogist Can Do Now” posted 31 March 2014, A Sense of Family ( : accessed 1 April 2014).


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About the Author ()

Professional genealogist and lecturer. Located in Charleston County, SC. Special research interests in South Carolina, Southern States, Irish Heritage and Migratory Patterns. Researcher for Genealogy Roadshow on PBS seasons two and three.

Comments (5)

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  1. Nan Bailey says:

    This is a great post on something I have been meaning to do for some time, so I must get started while the time is right. Thank you for the reminder.

    I would like to put a link to this post into our Maryborough District Family History Society’s next journal and hope that other members will look it up and read it. May I put the link in the journal?

  2. Brent says:

    I am descended from john james, Christopher james, Edmund james, Garland James, Henry James, Fleming Wills James. Most of the falimy stayed in Virginia until after the Civil War when they moved to Texas. I am most interested in the exact locations of Armsfield Plantation and Martins Hundred. I would also like to find cemeteries where some of these Jameses were buried. It seems you have done a lot of research in this area of virginia. I thought you might have some suggestions for me.Thank youEllen Sutton

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