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Are You in the “Space of I Don’t Know”? My Success in Confirming Family Stories

Do you live in the "Space of I Don't Know?"
Albert Einstein Mind Map


I want to tell you a story about the need to abandon your pre-conceived notions about a genealogy website or record set. For years I was the type of researcher who insisted that I knew everything about a specific website and I told myself (and others) I’d never use it.

Always Inhabit the “Space of I Don’t Know”

One of the things I learned after years in the Information Technology field was to make sure that I was always analyzing problems from what I call the “Space of I Don’t Know.” In her biography Lessons in Becoming Myself, the actress Ellen Burstyn presents a great summary of this concept:

“It is in the ‘not knowing’ that the search occurs. It is a living process where creativity thrives. It is standing in the space of ‘I don’t know’ with dissatisfaction with what has already been achieved, and eagerness to open up to the unknown.”

If I am working to resolve a research problem, such as verifying a family story, I need to be open to finding out that the story is not true, or partially true. From that same perspective, if I’ve tried to use a website in the past and have been frustrated in my results, I have to be open to asking myself the following:

  • How long ago did I use that website or record set?
  • Was I using the proper search methodologies? Did I go with a guess or did I consult the FAQ or Help section for assistance?
  • Have the search mechanisms changed or improved since I last visited the website?
  • Has the site added new record sets? Has the record set added new holdings?
  • Have the records been re-indexed? (This does happen from time to time).

For me, the term “reasonably exhaustive search” also applies to search methodology: did I use the best knowledge and ensure that I was performing the best possible searches when using a website or record set?

Also, I try to use this practice when visiting a library, archive or repository. Don’t make a visit without first checking the website and understanding the holdings at that site. If there are finding aids then use them. When you arrive, if there is staff available, then use them and tap into their knowledge.

The Repo Man: A Family Story

Here is a recent example that involves a family story and something that I vaguely remember as a child. And I used the resources at MyHeritage to verify the story and to clarify the facts.

While my parents were going through their divorce around 1969 or 1970, I remember our family car “disappearing” one day. I was about 8 years old and I thought it had been stolen. I wrote about this recently here when I launched a crowdfunding program for a genealogy colleague.

The car was a yellow Datsun station wagon (for you young folks, Datsun was the precursor to Nissan). As I’ve written in a compilation of my memories and family stories:

“. . .My mother was newly divorced and raising two young boys. She had no credit and had little work experience. For us, changes were afoot – I had to leave Catholic school since there was no money for tuition; I spent after school time at a baby sitter’s, etc. What I remember most is how our car just disappeared one day.

I didn’t understand – I thought it was stolen! Later I found out that it had been ‘repo-ed’ . . . repossessed because my mother couldn’t afford the payments. It was a matter of feeding her boys or having a car. As a result we walked almost a mile each way to the grocery store or relied upon the kindness of friends and family members to go places.”

Recently I’ve started using MyHeritage more and more for research especially since they list NewspaperArchive as one of their record sets. Several months ago I decided not to renew my subscription to NewspaperArchive due to the cost. Also, I had convinced myself that they never had anything I needed when I did a newspaper search.

So guess what I find on MyHeritage yesterday?

Guess what I found to help my genealogy research?

“Notice of Sale

To: Richard J. MacEntee and Jacqueline MacEntee, Box 1055, 6 Wierk Avenue, Liberty, New York and to whomever else it may concern.

On April 6, 1971, at 2 P.M. at North Main Dodge, 500 North Main Street, Liberty, New York, the following goods will be sold . . . “

And the entry goes on to describe “1969 Datsun Station Wagon” which had been secured by a loan from the Sullivan County National Bank.

So the story was true. I couldn’t remember the dates originally, but now I had factual information. This may seem like a small bit of information, but it substantiates a story that was important enough to make an impression on me while growing up. A story that I remember almost 45 years later. A story that represents some of the setbacks my family endured.

Here’s What I Used for My Recent Discoveries

Yesterday I took a chance on a resource that I didn’t use in the past because I had convinced myself that it wasn’t worth the investment of my time or my money. That resource is MyHeritage.

I put aside my biases, my preconceived notions and I gave it a try. I not only found what I needed to finish this small vignette about my family, I also found these items, about my MacEntee line:

  • The birth announcement for my half-sister. I always thought she was born in Florida, but the announcement has proven otherwise.
  • Obituaries for Elmer MacEntee and Elmer MacEntee, Jr. my great-grandfather and great-uncle.
  • Obituaries for my great-grandmother Margaret DeGroodt.

And I know there are more discoveries just waiting for me. I won’t even begin to tell you about what I found on my Henneberg line, my most difficult area of research. Not only has the SmartMatches feature helped me to connect with other Henneberg researchers, but I’ve even connected with a researcher in Germany who is assisting me with deciphering early German handwriting!

Put aside what you think you know about MyHeritage and about specific record sets. I have a special offer for GeneaBloggers fans: get MyHeritage Premium Plus and the MyHeritage Data Package with access to over 5 billion records for 50% off!

Click here for more information. This offer is only good through 15 November 2014; if you already have MyHeritage, it is good for renewals too!

Lack of Knowledge is a Not Weakness

It is not “weak” to admit that you don’t know something. I learned that a long time ago. I’ve put aside trying to impress colleagues and others by “covering” when it comes to knowledge. If you listen closely when attending one of my webinars or lectures, you’ll hear me say “I don’t know.” If you listen even closer, you’ll hear me follow that up with: “Let’s find out together . . .” and off I go on a search for information. For me it is not only fun but also liberating. I don’t work under that pressure that I need to know everything. I live in that constant space of “I don’t know” and curiosity. For me, curiosity is part of genealogy. That is how I got started; I asked my family questions about our history.

And as Albert Einstein said, “Never lose a holy curiosity.”

©2014, copyright Thomas MacEntee. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Are You in the “Space of I Don’t Know”? My Success in Confirming Family Stories

  1. Thanks for the inspiration Thomas. I’ve been toying with giving GenealogyBank another try after being frustrated with it several years ago. I didn’t renew my subscription to so GB is a possible alternative. I’m a current subscriber to MyHeritage but have had no success……yet.

  2. With any newspaper website, it’s important to dig a little and think about why you may not have found anything in the search results. Sometimes the OCR doesn’t read the person’s name correctly. Sometimes the coverage isn’t there for the few days you might need to find a particular obituary. Sometimes you restrict the search only to newspapers in the state where someone died, so you miss the obituary in the paper from the person’s hometown — or vice versa.

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