Ancestry.com - Ancestry Daily New, 12 May 2005
HONORING OUR ANCESTORS:
"WHY WE SEARCH," by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak
Some weeks ago, I requested that readers take a moment to complete a
brief survey on one of my websites. As of this writing, 2,283 of you
did so (thanks!). In an earlier article
I shared some of the amazing responses to a question about the
extreme measures some of us have taken in pursuit of our roots.
There's still more to discuss on this entertaining topic, but I'll
save that for another day.
Today I thought I would focus on the meat of the survey, which is
motivation. What is it that inspires us to start the quest and what
keeps us engaged year after year? This is what I hoped to learn, and
thanks to the many of you who kindly took the survey, I can share
some insight on this intriguing subject.
I like to include at least one element of demographics in each
survey, and this time I included age. Specifically, I asked how old
respondents were when they first heard the siren's call of genealogy
and how old they were now. While the majority of respondents were in
the 51-70 age bracket now, what jumped out at me is how young so many
of us started. Forty-four percent started their research before the
age of 40.
I suspect we're seeing the beginning of a trend. While genealogy is
still especially popular among the retired (after all, it takes
time!), I see signs of more and more folks joining the hunt at a
younger age. Scouting badges, homework assignments, and the
burgeoning scrapbooking hobby are just a few of the potential
triggers that can rope us in during our teens, twenties, and
thirties. It would be interesting to repeat this same survey in a
year or two to see whether there's any evidence to support this
notion that we're starting to skew younger. But let's turn now to
WHAT TRIGGERED YOUR INTEREST AND INVOLVEMENT IN GENEALOGY?
I offered eleven pre-set responses to this question, plus the usual
catch-all: other. It's a good thing I included "other" because that
was the second most popular response! In declining order, here's how
--- Unexpected discovery that piqued your curiosity (e.g., old photo
album, collection of letters, story about an ancestor, etc.): 26.95%
--- Other: 26.3%
--- Death of a loved one: 11.29%
--- Request for help by a relative known to you: 8.86%
--- Special event (e.g., parents' 50th wedding anniversary, family
reunion, etc.): 5.51%
--- School or scouting project (your own or your child's,
grandchild's, niece's, nephew's, etc.): 4.13%
--- Contact by a relative previously unknown to you: 3.87%
--- Visit to the old country or ancestral hometown: 3.64%
--- Vanity search on Internet (that is, searching your name and
discovering something): 3.11%
--- Religion: 2.96%
--- Desire to join a particular society or organization (e.g., DAR):
--- Adoption (casual or formal) in the family: 1.67%
It's clear that most of us get started more or less accidentally, and
natural curiosity is a contributing cause for many. And while it's
sad to see the death of a loved one in third place, it's not
surprising. I'm actually pleased to see that only about one in ten of
us start our search for this reason--and I would be delighted to see
this figure diminish further in future surveys.
But what I really wanted to know is what reasons were hiding in the
"other" category. When I inspected the comments, I found a secondary
tier of motivations claimed by clusters of respondents. See if any of
these resonate with you:
--- Always interested - can't remember a starting point
--- Gift of a computer and/or genealogy software
--- TV programs, especially Alex Haley's "Roots"
--- Relative's storytelling (with great-aunts heavily represented!)
--- Carrying on relative's quest (usually a parent, aunt, sister, or
--- Major health scare or other medical cause
--- Historical events, especially 9/11, but also the Bicentennial,
liberation of Lithuania, etc.
--- Out of the blue (e.g., "No explanation. Maybe those ghosts were
talking to me.")
--- First child or grandchild
--- Knowing nothing about one side of the family (most often, a
father who had died young or left the family)
--- Escapism from early adolescence children
--- Moving close to a Family History Center or other research
--- Ellis Island (articles about, finding an ancestor in the
--- Mother and father were orphans
--- Dysfunctional family
--- Time to do it
--- Military brat with no hometown or roots
--- To prove a family tradition
--- Dual citizenship
As just a sampling, here are some of the remarks that I found
especially poignant, startling, or otherwise compelling:
--- My mother developed Alzheimer's disease, and I suddenly realized
all her personal history, not just her own story, but those of her
ancestors, was quickly fading away.
--- Had a miracle baby at 41, but found out I had uterine cancer one
year later. Wanted to leave him a sense of me and my ancestors.
--- A coin. My grandmother whispered, "This was the year I was born!"
I was hooked.
--- My mother was 97 years old and she made two requests for some
knowledge before she passed away: 1) try to find some answers to the
KIA/MIA status of my brother during WWII, and 2) some information
about her mother's family (her mother died when she was very young).
--- I dreamed of my grandfather and he wanted me to search his family
--- When my uncle died, found Civil War headstone of my great-
grandfather in his yard.
--- I was 69 when I found out by accident that I was adopted.
WHAT CONTINUES TO MOTIVATE YOU NOW?
Fortunately, I did a better job dreaming up possible responses to the
follow-up question about what keeps us hooked now. This time, "other"
found itself essentially in a three-way tie for last.
--- The thrill of the hunt/the challenge of mystery-
--- Leaving a legacy (for yourself and/or for the benefit of future
--- Honoring/paying tribute to ancestors/The desire to "know" them:
--- Connecting with relatives, both close and distant: 13.19%
--- Fit with my other interests (e.g., history, travel, etc.): 8.6%
--- Self-discovery: 7.21%
--- Creative outlet for researching, writing, etc.: 6.69%
--- Social outlet (e.g., genealogical societies): 2.41%
--- Other: 1.4%
--- Finding famous/illustrious roots: 1.38%
--- Religion: 1.37%
I don't think there are any significant surprises here, but the top
response reveals a fact that's obvious to all of us, but invisible to
those who "don't get it"--genealogy is fun! We may get started for
any of a number of reasons, but it's the detective game aspect that
keeps many of us addicted. And beyond that, I'm pleased to find
myself in the company of folks with such noble reasons for our
honorable pursuit! Thanks again to all of you who completed this
survey. I'll be sure to let you know when I've developed another one
(suggestions on topics and questions welcome!).
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