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May I Introduce To You . . . Jenny Tonks

Come meet genealogy blogger Jenny Tonks of The Disciplined Genealogist interviewed by Jana Last at GeneaBloggers

Come meet genealogy blogger Jenny Tonks of The Disciplined Genealogist interviewed by Jana Last at GeneaBloggers

MAY I INTRODUCE TO YOU . . . Jenny Tonks


I have the pleasure of introducing you to Jenny Tonks and her blog, The Disciplined Genealogist, described as, “Where I post answers to the questions I’ve heard most often as a genealogy instructor. I noticed most of them had an underlying theme: discipline! (i.e., “I don’t want to stop researching to make citations—genealogy is way too fun!” or, “How do you force yourself to stop and process family data instead of just surfing around and collecting records all day?”).”

Jenny, please tell us a little about yourself.

“I’m a mother of five living in rural Virginia. My husband is a counselor, originally from Idaho, and I was born in New England, spent my childhood in Idaho, and my teen years in New York. I have Virginia ancestors who were Mormon pioneers that left this area due to intense persecution (some were even killed by mobs) in pursuit of religious freedom, so living where I live today in relatively peaceful circumstances is poetic justice for my ancestors!”

How did you get started in genealogy?

“My mom has been a genealogy aficionado since she was a teenager. I like to joke that she raised me with more ancestral stories than fairy tales, but it is actually true. Her stories sparked something in me, and I was working in DOS-based PAF files by the time *I* was a teenager, too!”

When and why did you start your genealogy blog?

“Just a couple of years ago, because I was about to inherit a room full of genealogy files from a relative who liked to sit and collect records, but didn’t take the time to process them properly. Now I get to do all that hard work myself—parse the records for important information, create citations, and generate the reports/family narratives. As I mentioned earlier, my genealogy students often complained to me about not wanting to process their records, either, so I’m hoping to teach my readers how to do this, so that the younger generations of the future don’t inherit rooms full of unprocessed documents. All those “maybes” and “might-be-an-ancestor” documents that you think might be important and spent years collecting for possible proof arguments? They’ll become recycle bin fodder for the younger generations who will have no clue what they are worth if you don’t process them properly today!”

How did you choose the name for your blog?

“It was pretty easy: it takes discipline to stop myself from searching willy-nilly and process the records I’ve found before moving on to another search. We all LOVE to sit and search—it is what drew us to genealogy in the first place! None of us joined because making citations was such a blast, but we have to do it or we end up with boxes of MESS and the answers we usually need are typically already buried in the boxes anyway, but we don’t know it because we haven’t sorted out those files for hidden clues!”

What are your tips for new bloggers?

“I bet all the expert blogging tutorials tell you to blog often, but I’m not a disciplined blogger—I’m a disciplined genealogist, which means that I have less time for blogging. I blog rarely as a result, alas. I probably don’t get a lot of traffic compared to other blogs. I don’t even know what counts as a successful blog! I just know that I care about making sure nobody else inherits a room full of unprocessed boxes like I did, because not everybody’s descendants will take the time to process them as I am doing. Can you imagine somebody sending such a large quantity of genealogy work to the shredder, or the garbage dump? Perish the thought! But to an uninformed eye, it does look like junk.

Please tell us about your favorite post(s) on your blog.

“Probably this one, because it shows how I am cleaning up the electronic files of my relative. Plus, it has received the most hits of any other post I’ve ever written—I’m not sure why. For some reason, it generated a TON of web traffic, and I don’t really do much to promote my blog—I don’t do ads or anything like that. But this post must have really excited everyone. Maybe my readers are looking for ways to organize their family data electronically?”

How much time do you spend on family history research?

“I spend about 20 hours per week working for the genealogy business I run out of my home, and every other waking moment working for my living family that includes five children and three pets! 🙂 I would love to spend more time working on my own ancestors, but that is something I rarely have time for—a luxury I will get to enjoy hopefully more often when I retire, as is the case with most genealogy lovers, I understand (who statistically tend to take it up as a hobby in their golden years). For now, client work helps maintain us and my own ancestors do not, so clients have to come first.”

Who is your favorite ancestor(s) and why?

“Three dear ancestresses who are ALL named Helen, because three generations of men in my family tree (a father, his son, and then his son) ALL married women with the same first name! Their stories are all just amazing. Gosh, I can’t wait to spend more time on THEIR research so I can do justice to their life stories—I plan to write a book about my three Helens! SO exciting!”

How has genealogy improved your life?

“As everybody engaged in this work already knows: it is SO fun! The ultimate catharsis. I love it.”

What do you love the most about genealogy?

“The feeling of scrolling through a perfectly polished report. Like that rush you get just before handing in a perfectly crafted thesis to your professor: each citation is worthy of commendation, each paragraph is perfect (no widows or orphans!). Graphics are sharp and add luster to the narrative. The heart swells as you read it—the new discoveries! The heretofore unknown mysteries solved! I’m totally like the boy on A Christmas Story (daydreaming about all the accolades he is going to receive from his joyous teacher when he hands her his term paper) each time I aspire for the tears of joy I want to see from a client when they read my genealogy reports about their ancestors. Like the boy in the movie, that never happens to me, but I picture it just the same, to keep me moving and disciplined! I want an ancestor’s life story to always be presented as accurately, professionally, cleanly, and in as organized a fashion as possible.”

What family story or heirloom do you cherish?

“A vase painted by one of my Helens, with both her signature and the date “1888” on the bottom. Also, I inherited a cookbook from another of my Helens—I dream of one day starting a blog in which I cook everything in her cookbook, and research the newspaper that it came from (all her recipes are clipped from newspapers), along with what was happening at that time, based on the surrounding articles in that newspaper. But who has time with five kids and a full client roster? Not me, lol. I will add that to my post-retirement bucket list, haha.”

Besides major websites like Ancestry and FamilySearch, what research tool or source has been helpful in researching your family history?

“Since I spend more time on client family history than my own family, and I specialize in Italian family history, I will say that the Antenati web site at is the site I use most often, because it is the web’s largest repository of original Italian records.”

Which genealogy blogs inspire you?

“Confession: I don’t read blogs for inspiration. I read them for information and education. I troll them for genealogy tips, resources, methods, repository insights, or to learn about obscure record groups, etc. For example, when somebody posts about their trip to a courthouse I haven’t visited yet, I might click on their post to see if they have any helpful photos or insights about obscure record collections I may not have heard of before. I skim the post to see if there is any such content. If there is, then I read it closely and learn all that I can, then pin the post to my “Profession” Pinterest board (where I have collected all of my most valuable mentors’ teachings over the years!). I do the same when they post about an ancestor’s record, to see where they found it, etc.”

What interesting connections have you made through blogging?

“Not many; you will notice maybe two comments on my entire blog. I really am not an expert blogger. Genealogy is more my “thing,” lol. A couple of years ago I tried starting a blog where I answer people’s research questions. Now THAT blog REALLY took off and I met LOTS of people! Folks emailed me daily, to where I couldn’t keep up with all of the research questions I received. I had to call in another genealogist for help! But alas, I had inadvertently given the blog and its URL the same name as a column in a major genealogy magazine, so I took it down. I didn’t have the energy (or money) to restart another one after that. And really, it took up *way* too much time; time that I should be spending with clients. I always ended up doing free research for the blog participants, you know? Genealogy is so addicting that way, lol!”

What do you think is the most interesting change in the past ten years in genealogy/family history?

“DNA! I know too many folks who adamantly refuse to participate, either because they so adore their adoptive parents that they want to honor their legal, adoptive family or because they were raised in an era where convention said that legal family equals family, so they don’t want some genealogist to make them acknowledge biological kin as their family. Now that some genealogy publications are starting to require DNA sources in their articles, I find it interesting that there is rarely any distinction between legal (on-paper) family and biological (blood) family in the literature. The industry seems to be adopting a “blood equals kinship” mentality, but I know a lot of adoptees and same-sex couple families who will beg to differ. As time marches on, this should make for an interesting debate as the younger generations grow up and become the leading scholars in our field.”

If you wanted to leave a message for future generations, what would you tell them?

“Don’t become too focused on your blood ties; remember the lessons that history taught us with the British monarchy and the War of the Roses (basically, it is the Game of Thrones, only without the fantasy—it was all real and just as gory/horrific, because of a nation’s obsession with bloodlines). It is okay to keep a separate documentary history of your legal family history, too, even if your DNA kit results lead you to construct a slightly separate tree. If somebody took in and cared for one of your ancestors but turned out not to be their biological parent, I believe that they deserve to be acknowledged for their efforts as a guardian and provider, at least, because their efforts to sustain the life of that ancestor helped result in your eventual birth. Preserve that person’s story somewhere, even if not on the biological family tree chart.”

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Please take a moment to head over to Jenny’s blog, The Disciplined Genealogist and leave her a comment, letting her know you stopped by. Thank you Jenny for telling us about yourself and your blog. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you better.

© 2016, copyright Jana Last. All rights reserved.

Jana Last is a wife, mom and grandma living in sunny California. She loves family history and enjoys learning about her ancestors. She started her family history research in 1996 after the death of her maternal grandfather. She is the author of three blogs and a website: Jana’s Genealogy and Family History Blog, Grandpa’s Postcards, Jana’s Place and Jana’s Genealogy and Social Media Hub. Are you a genealogy blogger who would like to be interviewed for the “May I Introduce To You . . .” series? If so, contact Jana via email at