Last weekend I attended the Fairfax Genealogical Society’s Spring Conference, “Putting the Pieces Together.” I didn’t have much research time this week, so I’ll focus on what I learned at the conference.
The Saturday presentations were divided into four tracks of four presentations each. I chose the “Putting the Pieces Together” track, since it focused on some of the skills I need at this point in my research. This and the “Western European Research” track were shared by Warren Bittner and Leslie Albrecht Huber. The four presentations I attended were “Putting the Pieces Together: An Urban Case Study” by Bittner, “The Journey Takers” by Huber, “Welcome to the Library: Reading to Put Your Ancestors Into Historical Context” by Bittner, and “Understanding and Researching Illegitimacy: The Bittner Bastards of Bavaria” by Bittner. This last one was actually in the Western European Research track, but I found it to be a good illustration of many of the points from “Welcome to the Library.”
“Putting the Pieces Together” centered on research in New York City, so many of the techniques discussed will help in researching my husband’s family. Bittner covered a wide range of resources to check, but singled out city directories as an invaluable resource, particularly when no joy is to be found in the census. He showed how knowing where an ancestor lived and worked from year to year could be used in “reasonably exhaustive research.”
Before attending Leslie’s “The Journey Takers” I bought a copy of her book of the same name, and the lecture definitely whetted my appetite to get started on the book. I loved Leslie’s descriptions of how her obsession with her family’s history led her to immerse herself as completely as possible by spending time in Germany and often doing research under less than favorable circumstances. The historical background she provided in this presentation reinforced Warren’s points in the next lecture about learning everything you can about the time and place in which your ancestors lived.
“Welcome to the Library” was a truly inspirational presentation; during the break I spoke with a lady sitting next to me, and we both agreed that we couldn’t wait to dig into some of the historical and sociological resources pertaining to our ancestors. In addition to giving an extensive list of the types of history books to read, Bittner emphasized that “A good family history should also be a good microhistory.” I love this idea and am becoming a huge fan of microhistory. Bittner also spoke about the lasting effect exerted by certain seminal works of microhistory.
In the “Bitter Bastards” presentation, Bittner pulled all the threads together and illustrated how studies have demonstrated which factors influence legitimacy and which factors (surprisingly) do not. One of his main points was that when we research our ancestors, particularly those from a time and location distant from our own, we must throw out all preconceived notions about how our ancestors lived and how they viewed things, particularly those notions which are based on how we live and how we view things; we usually project too much of ourselves and our own experience.
In theme and content these presentations were beautifully woven together, and I came away with both inspiration and new knowledge and ideas for my research.