Start With Stories

When I was in library school, I had to take a class called Human Information Behavior. It was my first real experience with information science, very esoteric and technical. It was also the first time I realized it takes a certain type of person to be a librarian. Most people wouldn’t spend time wondering why people search for library books the way they do, or how communication styles impact information retainment, or how different content sharing programs succeed and fail in effectively conveying information.

Did I lose you in that sentence? It’s fine. I’m a nerd.

The point is, a few lessons from HIB have always stuck with me. The biggest one is this: if you want to know about things, ask a book; but if you want to know about people, ask people. Most of our connections to each other live in our heads and never make it to paper. At its core, genealogy is nothing but connections.

When I set out to start my family tree, I took stock of what I knew about my mom’s family, all from what I heard from my relatives over the years:

  • Grandma Betty was born in Chicago in 1931. She moved to Louisville before high school.
  • Her father, Sy Ramage, worked for the Illinois Central Railroad. He was not great at holding onto his money. He grew up on a farm in Dongola, Illinois.
  • Her mother, Catherine , was nicknamed “Kitty”. Part of her family included the Cooneys.
  • They lived in Memphis for a few years when my mom was growing up before moving back to Louisville.
  • We assumed we were pretty Irish from my grandma’s family.
  • Grandpa Dave and his twin brother were born in 1929 and raised in Louisville.
  • His father, Edward Snyder, had served in the marines and died of tuberculosis when my grandpa was 4 years old.
  • His mother, Lily May, never remarried. She was the first woman to be a real estate developer in Louisville. Her maiden name was Frankenstein, which was very awesome to know when I was a kid.
  • Someone – probably my Snyder great-great-grandfather – was adopted.
  • My grandpa’s family had been in Louisville for awhile. Sometimes my grandpa or my uncle would take us to the cemeteries to see graves of our relatives. Yes, I did think it was cool.
  • My grandpa’s family was very probably German.

All of this information was anecdotal or experiential. We didn’t have a family Bible. We did have a photo album from the farm in Dongola, but none of the pictures were labeled. But it was a wealth of data to start from. I had times and places. I had an idea of income levels to help screen people out. I tried my best to verify people’s names with my relatives, knowing that there are plenty of Snyders in the world.

I had to make a decision about the conjectured things – the presumed countries of origin, the supposed adoption. I decided that I would take them as true until I found something that proved otherwise. HIB taught me that information shared from person to person over time may twist and morph, but it’s rarely rooted in a total falsehood. Operating on memories as truth, I already had four generations to map to the family tree. It was a pretty solid start, and all I had to do was probe my memories.

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