A look behind the scenes: an open letter

Lots of work and lots of joy

"Do you have a lot of work to do?" you ask me, dear Sonja. How shall I answer that?

I am a professional houseman. The children are meanwhile grown and no longer live at home. What's left to do, you know yourself: dusting, laundry, shopping, straightening up, etc. etc. My wife has her job and evenings she can relax.
Household chores don't fill my day entirely, though. That cannot possibly be the meaning of my life. When the good Lord asks me one day, "What have you made of your life?", should I answer, "I dusted"???
No, I recalled my old skills as a programmer and looked for a suitable task. It should be something that one can do without pressure, so that one is not completely bound; something that is fun and useful; something that doesn't cost a lot of money and something that one doesn't discard afterwards like a completed crossword puzzle book.

So I hit on genealogical research. There, documents are created and passed down from generation to generation. One builds on the work of the (meanwhile deceased) predecessors, expands and improves it, and turns it over to the library - for the next generation.
Moreover, one can post it on the internet - for today's generation.

Now I have thousands of photocopies and stacks of transcripts, neatly bundled in dozens of binders, plus 30-50 books and probably as many letters here.
One begins the work somewhere, like by typing a handwritten document into the computer. After a few weeks, though, that gets pretty boring and one begins something completely different. For instance, seeking ties between one family and another. When at some point one has enough of that, one wishes to continue the first task, but then comes an email with a question about a specific family and one combs through the documents, answers the question, makes someone happy with it and notices that there are even more transcripts that could correspond to that family and so one types that up, too.
As luck would have it, that was a completely different file than the one at the start, and now one has begun three different processes. Which should one complete now? Back to the first one? Okay, but now comes the next interruption and the games starts all over again.

All these tasks were associated with mental work but now it is late, you don't want to go to bed yet, and there's nothing interesting on the television. So one begins a task that is veeeeeeeeery easy, doesn't require any thinking at all. That kind of work also accumulates in this connection.

Then comes an email, but not with a question. It contains additional relevant data. Let it wait or get it done quickly? In any case, first a thank-you and now there is something that needs clarification and one inquires about it. Meanwhile, or sends notice that they have a very interesting book for me.
Excellent, I buy it, which leads me to a stack of other books with lots of interesting information that I also want to include. It is a fact that data is most complete when one uses as many sources as possible.
How many tasks have we now begun? 6? 10??? For me, after years, it has become several dozen. To be precise, nothing is finished, actually, because it occurred to me how I can improve my system and now everything that comes from beforehand has to be updated.
This doesn't bring any new information, but the information is clearer and more suited to computers for later special analysis.

Then I had to admit that I had obviously set my aim too high and wouldn't be able to do it all alone. I asked for help and got it. Ever more people join on and these days I refer to our "Stormarn Team". Now these assistants first have to be trained before they are comfortably familiar with the system. While I'm just in the middle of some piece of work, an assistant sends me his first completed data sets. These now need to be proofed, corrected, and imported. As soon as possible, because it would be poor form to leave such assistants waiting.
In the meantime, of course, there are plenty of emails with questions and informationů Then, the mailwoman delivers a fat envelope. What's inside? A family tree, from an unknown woman who would gladly help support the project. So, now what is the first job to continue????

At this point I stop, because from here the whole thing repeats itself. It's no wonder that some emails lie long unanswered. I don't like that, but it is unavoidable. I even shut down the websites for 10 months just to get a break. Then I was sent emails begging for a "back door" and after I reopened the sites, a number of people breathed again!
So.... indeed, I have a lot of work, but I do it voluntarily and it is fun.
But now you have a second question:

Why is it fun for you when it's so boring?

Yes, I admit, sometimes it gets boring, but it's not always so. I haven't told you about the joys yet...

There is the joy of doing something that nobody has ever done before. The predecessors mentioned above only provided small, tightly limited works. We - my assistants and I - now compile these individual works and make a new, large whole out of them. This creates new knowledge about the families and even historical interconnections.
The horizon was limited for the individual works; each had his own small area. Think of a bucket full of water. Each book, each document is one bucketful. We are pouring them all together to fill an entire pool! Now families that live in different places, sort of this family in one "bucket" and this one in another, are finding each other. In each place, a couple of children were born. Now the family is suddenly complete. Or... a son moves to another town, his daughter moves back to the first town again. It was previously not possible to recognize that. A lord divided his land into parcels and leased them out. The new tenants flowed in from all overů in the "pool" we find them all again. There are many other examples.
In addition, I also discover sources that nobody used previously:
... The jail fee for betrothed couples in Amt Tremsbüttel, beginning in 1746
... Members list of the burial fund from Bargteheide, beginning in 1744
... Letter to Amt Steinhorst with meanwhile lost marriages from Eichede, beginning in 1721
... Housebook from Wandsbek, beginning in 1630, and other archivalia.
The older the files, the more difficult it becomes to fathom interconnections and it is often true detective work. This type of thing is much more fun for me than typing up directories from 1850, although the latter is much more urgently needed and wanted.

There is the joy of bringing joy to others. Many cannot research their genealogy because they have no idea where to begin. These are, for example, many Americans, South Americans, Australians, and others who only know that their ancestors immigrated from Germany. Sometimes they know, for instance, that their ancestors came from Schleswig-Holstein, sometimes they even know the name of the town. Now, many can discover through our work that after a long search, they have finally found their ancestors. The joy that this brings is described in the emails they send me. Naturally they also share their knowledge with us and we note down who emigrated to USA or Brazil, when and to where, and what became of them.
In the same way, there are native genealogy researchers who have come to a "dead end" and are now able to continue through our work. That also brings a joy that is expressed in the spontaneous greeting: "Oh, it's YOU? Then let me shake your hand, I was sooooo happy..."

There is the joy of creating something permanent. When you dust, the work you do is gone after a few days. When you wash laundry, the clothes are soon enough dirty again. When you play something, that is also a joy, but after the game, there is only the joy, nothing tangible. We are producing something that might still be a source of usefulness and joy in fifty years. We are producing documentation that have the character of books and, when they are finished, might make ten copies of them which we then send to the archives. The local archives already have their incomplete "sample exemplars". And we are creating websites that people can access even before everything is finished, and they are continuously updated and improved.
These websites can also be given to others. When I can't anymore, they are maintained by the next person.

There is the joy of using your mind and putting the "little grey cells" through their paces. As mentioned, it is useful to use several sources. This is not without pitfalls, though, because sometimes the sources seem to contradict each other. This comes from the fact that all of the sources are somewhat imprecise. For example, a child was often not called by its baptismal name, but by its common name, and that sometimes changed, too. "Catharina Margaretha" became "Anna Catharina" and sometimes just "Anna". And already you begin to wonder whether this is the same person. Surnames are also written differently. Do you know the mother's maiden name? And exactly how it is written, or only approximately? The church books often only show under a burial what the surviving dependants knew to say, but that was often rather more guessed than accurate. The same is true for ages. Do you know exactly how old your grandfather is? Or only roughly? And once again the doubt whether two people might not be the same person...

So we (the "Stormarn Team") now fit the pieces of the puzzle together. There are thousands of them and many are doubled, but one must first identify this. And then, of course, our "pool" has its limits as well, and at some point we require other "pools" to answer further questions.
By comparison, a crossword puzzle is boring....

Warmest greetings from Peter (Doerling)

Herzlichen Dank für die Übersetzung an EvaSara Tullier

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