How Do You Measure Your Success in Family History?

How Do You Measure Your Success in Family History?

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There are many ways to measure success in family history. Some count the number of “leaves on the branches”, while others count the branches.

For me, there is only one success that really matters…I want my family to care about their ancestors, their legacy and heritage. Now, I don’t expect them to care as much as I do, but, I do aim for just a bit of understanding, maybe a little aha… that’s why you do this. 

Last weekend, I got such a moment. I had my parents stay the weekend for Easter. Since it was my house and I controlled the remote, we watched Who Do You Think You Are. My parents have never watched the show before and my mom was visibly moved by the episode. I waited for my father to say something equally moving about the story presented, so you can imagine my utter shock when he says, “I don’t get it. Why would anyone care about the past?” Excuse me?! Never mind that he just dissed my occupation, but color me gobsmacked, how could anyone even think that, let alone say that?!

I fussed and fumed all night. When I calmed down, I began to analyze the problem like any good researcher is taught to do. My father wasn’t trying to be mean – the man is the biggest softie I know and he certainly isn’t dumb. He was completely genuine when he asked the question. He just couldn’t figure out why people would care about people long since gone. What did that have to do with the here and now?

As I pondered his unexpected response, I realized that my dad’s experience in life was completely different than mine and my mother’s for that matter. My father grew up with both set of grandparents either next door or close to it. Both grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins were part of his daily life. He had no need to wonder about family because his life was surrounded about them and he thought he knew all there was to about them.
My dad James Brown w/ his dad Samuel, grandfather Herbert and Uncle Don Brown
The next day a much calmer and saner me, I mentioned my analysis to him as to why I felt he didn’t have the same need to know the past as I did. Then, I began to practice what I preach…have you heard the story about your great, great grandfather Wiley T. Johnston? I shared a carefully crafted story about Wiley and then I shared another equally moving story about his grandfather. Slowly, the shackles fell from his eyes as he began to understand.

My father had met a genealogist many years ago whose zeal for collecting names had turned my father away. He thought, ‘if this is what genealogy is all about, than I don’t want any part of it.’ He said that he loved history, but not genealogy. I said, “Dad, genealogy is just history where you know the names of the people who were there.”  

I further explained how the lessons of the past, our families joys and triumphs, their stumbles and crashes are all apart of who we are and using their experiences can aid us in our own lives.

One of my favorite quotes on this: 
“It is good to look to the past gain and appreciation for the present and perspective for the future. It is good to look upon the futures of those who have gone before, to gain strength for whatever lies ahead.
It is good to reflect upon the work of those who worked so hard and gained so little in this world, but out of those dreams and early plans, so well nurtured, has come a great harvest that we are all the beneficiaries.
Their tremendous example [whether good or bad], can be a compelling motivation for us all.”               Gordon B. Hinckley

The reason I had gotten so upset by my dad’s innocent comment was that to me, all those who have gone before me – are still real. I know their stories and I care about them and love just as love my living family. Their stories have bound them to my heart.

I could tell the stories had done their job. My dad began to comprehend that there was something to this crazy occupation and endeavor that his oldest child had chosen to devote her life to. The best part of the whole thing… dad began to tell me stories!

Why does storytelling work? Because:
1. Stories are Memorable 
2. Stories Travel Further
3. Stories Inspire Action

Want to know more about family history storytelling? Come hear my presentation at the Family History Expos in Albuquerque, NM this Friday and Saturday. I am presenting 2 classes:
“The Magic of Storytelling” and “Historically Speaking” where I will discuss how to find the story in the records and documents.

Having my dad begin to understand the value of family history was one of my greatest successes. What is your great success?d perspective for the future.             


  1. I wish I could come listen to you this weekend. I love this post, especially because you gave your father what he needed to see through your eyes and for his heart to change. I’m with you: family history is not just names and dates, but real people and the stories of their lives — family I can love.

    • Thank you Nancy! I think that is part of our job to help others, especially family members see what we see. Not always an easy task, but one worth our best efforts! Thank you again for the comment.

  2. Sometimes our hidden ancestors do us a big favour-by having to find them and learn about their lives, they become real people whereas sometimes those close to us we take for granted. I love your quote to your dad about history where you know the names of people (who are your family). I don’t think I’ve been successful in conveying my love of family history to my children who are in that busy phase of their lives, but hopefully I’ve done enough writing that they can learn more when they’re ready. My biggest success: seeing a big crowd of people at our first-ever family reunion all buzzing and talking about being in the one big family as they read my published family history. Thanks for a great post Valerie!

    • Pauleen,

      That is a great success! Getting one person, let alone a crowd excited about their family history is a BIG victory. Thanks for the lovely comment.

  3. Wish I could have heard your talk, Valerie. Hope you put in a submission to talk at Rootstech 2013 then I’ll have that privilege.

    • Jill,

      I adore you and would gladly speak for you anytime, anywhere! Maybe Rootstech will let me speak in the hallway or the ladies loo! lol

      Always a pleasure. Thank you!

  4. This was one of the blog postings that I held onto (you have to weed some out you know) to read when I had the time, That why my comment comes a few days late.
    Absolutely superb!! I got misty just reading the story and hearing about your thought process. Also, the insights you gained were wonderful as I have faced similar situations on many occasions as well, but hadn’t worked though them as beautifully as you did. I completely agree about it being SO much more than the names. That is why I tend to use “Family History” more than “Genealogy” because I want the focus on the lives of the family members and their parts in history.

    • Bret,
      i can’t tell how much your comment means to me. Seriously, I think I will frame to remind myself why I do this.
      I prefer to use family history too, as it feels more relateable for people.
      Thank you, thank you for your kind words!


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