Low-Key Family History: A Call to Mediocrity

Genealogy is cool, and it’s good for your soul to spend some time thinking about your ancestors. For this and other good theological reasons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints asks members to work on their own family history, particularly on FamilySearch.org. People often seem to either take this incredibly seriously, or do none of it whatsoever, which is a shame. We need more mediocre genealogists!

In the last few years, I’ve developed some very mediocre family history methods, which I now share. (If you’re already a good genealogist, it might be best if you just stop reading here.)

My main, almost exclusive activity is to log in to FamilySearch.org and use the “Record Hints” function. My family tree, like those of many Church members, is already pretty well populated thanks to work by others in my family. I can trace my genealogy back to England, Scotland, Wales, Sweden, Norway, France, Italy, pilgrims, pioneers, and Pocahontas (really). Going back further there are various royal lines. Hugh Capet, King of the Franks, is my great^33 grandfather, if I just counted correctly, not to mention my link to King Merfyn “the Oppressor” of Gywnned, in Wales. Then at least one of the royal lines bleeds back into fabrication that then lashes back into Biblical genealogy all the way to Adam. I can’t readily find that one right now.

Hugh Capet, in all his oddly proportioned majesty

I’m just saying…there’s a lot there.

However, many of the individuals are not well cited/linked to their substantiating records. “Record Hints” will point this out, often uncovering records that can be linked to an individual but are not currently cited on that individual’s page. There seems to be a pretty decent search algorithm underlying this function.

These records then often have some extra information—a previously unknown child, parent, child’s spouse, child’s family, etc. Or they will be partially attached to a duplicate person or family, which can then be merged. And as long as you’re attaching new records to the person and getting a basic sense for them, you can click “possible duplicates” and merge any that do not have distinguishing information.

This is made easier by my policy of trying not to over-think things. Two family search entities with the same name, who lack any other distinguishing information or differentiating records, are presumptively the same person. People with the same name, birth date, and birth place are presumptively the same. I try to avoid generating new confusion, but if it’s really unclear from the records what is going on, I am ok with the idea of leaving some pre-existing confusion or inconsistency behind and moving on to the next issue. More records and more time will eventually be available to resolve such things. At least in my tree, there is enough scope for resolving obvious issues (duplication, lacking record links) that I haven’t needed to get bogged down in subtleties.

This is like a computer science breadth-first search—rather than diving to the bottom of each rabbit hole in series, I’m first going to survey the whole breadth of the pasture. I think the number of direct ancestors currently identified in my tree almost certainly exceeds 2^10 (=1024), and adding their identifiable descendants (other than my direct ancestors), aunts, etc. for a couple generations off the main line increases that by perhaps two orders of magnitude. So the most basic level of effort—fix obvious duplicates, attach obvious record citations—has given me plenty of work for the last year or three, with no end in sight. As new records keep getting indexed, the work expands.

The final ingredient in my program of family history mediocrity is to spend a limited amount of time on it, not very often. I have an evergreen Google Task to “Poke at family search at least once on even months – every month until temple reopens.” The technical term “poke” means to open the website, open up the record hints function, and try to do something with at least one or two of the hints. Often I’ll get into it, and spend an hour or two at it, but sometimes it’s pretty quick.

So I do a deliberately mediocre job of applying the easiest family history tool, for a limited amount of time, not that frequently – once a month (or pre-pandemic, every other month). And it makes me happy! It’s interesting and fun, and I do think it’s good for my soul. Burnout has not been an issue; smolder is the name of the game. If I get to where I have more free time or a spiritual need to do more, I’ve got a good base habit to build upon. In the meantime, while I have young children and so forth, I feel like I’m making a good faith effort to comply with the exhortation to do some genealogy.

I recommend these practices if you don’t have something better. You, too, can rise up and become a family history mediocrity!