Iwona's Sources - Genealogy Madness Thrives

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Genealogy Madness Thrives

Genealogical research has exploded thanks to the Internet. The thicket of Web sites connected with genealogy can drive you mad: you can no longer grasp the number of databases, you can no longer remember all your registered passwords and log-ins. Hundreds of catalogs, indexes, and forums are functioning, sorted by surname, region, parish, national group, ethnic group, religion, organization membership, genetic group, and so on. We are constantly being surprised by revelations and novelties, one after another. Faraway archives and distant cousins are within reach of a "mouse." Sources sought for genealogical information-concealed in numerous archives, once found only after long and tedious research work-are more and more often obtainable in cyberspace; you need only use your imagination and your mouse acts like a magic wand. Of course, there are sometimes technical difficulties, for instance, when a given site cannot withstand its hordes of visitors, and then one must arm oneself with patience.

One time, while I was surfing the genealogy waves, I came upon my own paternal roots, which I took to like the proverbial magpie on its overseas journey. In a short time I learned the roots of several generations, with dates, place names, and parishes. True, this tree was just a very basic outline; but even that made me happy, because the pleasure of polishing and deepening knowledge of my ancestors is in front of me. The fact that Polish roots can be found on American sites surprises no one.

Global digitalization of metrical records has begun. The first pages have appeared, harbingers of digital catalogs of complete records. The revolution will begin the minute the Mormons, the uncrowned rulers of genealogy, make their gigantic database available online-which is supposed to happen in the not-too-distant future. Does a vision of deserted research workstations await us? A time when archivalia will be condemned to eternal existence in warehouses, and genealogists will be wholly dependent on a virtual marketplace?

For that matter, the archives themselves have long since been copying their holdings and sealing off access to first editions and manuscripts more and more tightly, particularly those from more recent times, that is, from ancient times to the 19th century. The most beleaguered 19th-century metrical records are more and more often subject to inaccessibility clauses in view of their historical value, their poor condition, or temporary fumigation or restoration. There is no denying that the massive use of the physical archivalia and illumination by way of scans, photocopies, and digital cameras, amount to invasive activities that shorten their lives. And it is, after all, the job of the archives to exercise appropriate care over the technical state of their holdings.

For now, the research rooms of archives are essentially under siege. In the largest regional centers, it's getting to the point that there is no room for researchers; in some, there are waiting lists to use microfilm readers at least a month in advance. More and more often, we hear foreign languages in the workstations, mainly English, German, and Yiddish (which to some extent reflects the history of Poland). The archives are not keeping up with the demands of researchers of individual family histories. The waiting time for commissioned research or for copies of records is lengthening from a few months to over a year. Yet compared to Lithuania, we're not doing so badly; there, the waiting time for search results has lengthened to five years. In addition, the current world crisis has affected the research rooms of state archives. To save money, afternoon working hours have been eliminated or sharply reduced, and prohibitions have been placed on plugging private laptops into the power supply. I haven't even mentioned yet the restrictions on daily limits of books per person.

Similar tendencies are evident in diocesan archives, and some have introduced charges for using their holdings and microfilm readers and for making digital copies. And these rates are not necessarily symbolic. The Tarn6w research room is equipped with one old reader, usually broken, and so we look through books only (hooray!) for a fee of six dollars an hour. In the Gdansk diocesan archive, on the other hand, they do not charge fees (yet) and, in terms of technology, surpass all other archives in Poland. The working area there, although small, puts at our disposal fully digitized holdings, which allows us unheard of comfort while we look through records on modern computers.

The fascination with genealogy is connected not only with creating charts several feet long with a progenitor at the top but also with the immaterial sphere, with the feeling of mystic closeness with unknown ancestors, with the strong need to identify with a familial and social community, or finally, with expectations for revelations about our ancestors. What we most desire is to have noble or princely titles in our genealogy, or at the very least, kinship with famous historical figures.

Genealogy is like life: it can be perverse and unforeseeable. Fevered searching for ennobling roots, fueled by family myths, often finds no support in metrical records. Fairy-tale histories told by grandfathers had perhaps the purpose of compensating for their drab and careworn biographies. And there are reverse situations, when the explanation for seeking ancestors is a desire to reconstruct a genealogy just for the pleasure of knowing or for honoring family tradition. In such cases, discovering the Great and the Esteemed can fill us with unexpected joy and pride.

Human cultural, philosophical, and atavistic motives are not the only stimuli for the genealogical drive. There are researchers, or actually searchers, looking for inheritances, family fortunes, or rich relatives. In some cases, searchers have regained their ancestors' estates seized after the war by the Communists.

An epidemic has broken out of searches for potential heirs of relatives who died in America, often unknown. Law offices specializing in genealogical research in connection with seeking out heirs have grown up like mushrooms after the rain. The commercialization of genealogy is expanding in ever wider circles.

Classical genealogical research does not exhaust the sophisticated lust for learning about our ancestors. Genetics and its specific tools have entered the arena of genealogy. These tools include the little brushes for collecting smears from the mucous membrane inside the cheek for DNA analysis. In return, we receive a mythological trajectory of genealogy almost from the beginning of Homo sapiens, or the possibility of virtual knowledge-usually of absurdly distant ancestors connected only by similarities in their marker profiles. Such a relationship remains in the sphere of illusion and can never replace true genealogical ties, and the activity of the genetic brush cannot summon the same emotions that accompany genealogists during the course of their detective searches. Seeking roots back to Adam and Eve seems a formula not so much for a hobby as for science fictionor obsession.

Iwona Dakiniewicz, Łódź, Poland genealogy@pro.onet.pl

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Last Updated on July 6, 2017