I recently returned from a
two-week vacation in Europe and Great Britain, leaving my daughter behind in
London for a semester abroad. While there, I had the chance to tour Buckingham
Palace, parts of which are open to the public a few weeks each summer while the
Queen is at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. The state rooms of Buckingham Palace
are fittingly ornate and impressive. I particularly enjoyed walking up the
Grand Staircase to the Ballroom, then into the State Dining Room, where Queen Elizabeth
II is said to personally supervise the details of the place-settings and menu
for each occasion. I felt an undeniable sense of history touring the Palace
during Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year (that’s an amazing 60 years on the throne).
|Buckingham Palace (author's photo)|
As part of my Royal Day Out ticket, I also got to tour The Queen’s Gallery, which currently is featuring an
exhibit on Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist.
And it was there that I received an unexpected, yet very powerful, lesson that
I think relates directly to all of us engaged in tracing our family history.
Before my visit, I didn’t
know that da Vinci, painter of The Last
Supper and Mona Lisa, also studied
anatomy. He made copious notes and fabulously detailed drawings of animal and
human anatomy in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s, keeping them in various
notebooks over the years. By the time he died in 1519, he had made discoveries
and drawn sketches that could have transformed the study of anatomy for
generations to come—if only other scientists had known about it.
But therein lies the rub. You
see, da Vinci never published his ground-breaking work. It remained in loose,
uncollected form upon his death. Even worse, da Vinci wrote his notes using
“mirror writing”—a left-to-right hand style that is extremely difficult to
decipher. Odd notebooks full of strange drawings and unreadable script that
fellow artists and scientists didn’t even realize existed? Sad but true. Da Vinci’s
work disappeared into oblivion. The sketches and notes were eventually
collected into an album and acquired by King Charles II, but they were not
interpreted and their significance recognized until the early 1900’s—roughly 400
years after they were first written. By then, other scientists had made even
greater strides in anatomical studies, and da Vinci’s discoveries had lost
| Da Vinci's anatomical study of the arm|
|Da Vinci's drawing of a fetus in the womb|
So what does all this have to
do with family history? In the end, I think it comes down to two words: publish and preserve.
Now I’m the first to admit I
get caught up with the thrill of the hunt. It’s hard to take time out to write my
thoughts and conclusions up when it seems like more ancestors are waiting to be
discovered around every corner. If only I branch out more widely, or reach back
another generation, or break through that elusive brick wall—then I’ll write it
up, I tell myself. It’s not finished yet, and besides, there’s always tomorrow.
But the sad truth is, there’s
not always tomorrow. The recent death of John Humphrey, one of the world’s
foremost genealogists and a wonderfully generous instructor and author, has
driven home that point. Our time here is not unlimited. And if we want our work
to survive us and be beneficial to those who follow, we need to make sure it’s preserved
in useable, accessible form.
The lessons I hope to learn
from da Vinci are:
1. Write in a format that will be
universally readable and understandable for ages to come.
The fact that others couldn’t
read what da Vinci had written was a big part of the problem. How do we make
sure future generations can read our findings? Personally, I think this means we
need to produce material in print rather than rely on computer files. Two
hundred years from now, I’m pretty certain someone will be able to pick up a piece
of paper written in English and read it. I’m not so sure that they will be able to access a DVD, flash drive, or GEDCOM file. And the “cloud” is still
brand new territory. Technological changes are hard to predict, and today's Word file might be mumbo-jumbo tomorrow. Saving things electronically for current use is fine, but
for the long haul, go with the hard copy.
2. Compile your findings into
some organized, cohesive form—a report, article, book, lineage application, chart,
Da Vinci’s lesson here is
straightforward: don’t leave your hard-won research languishing in a stack of
files or notebooks that no one else will make the effort to compile.
Realistically, will your descendents, or even your favorite genealogical
society, be willing to sift through piles of documents or layers of computer
files? And will they know the conclusions you intended to draw? I don’t see
anyone in my family raising a hand for that job. Along with this comes the
responsibility of letting those who read your work know where you got the
information. That doesn’t mean your source citations have to be perfect, as long as they contain enough detail for others to find and
evaluate what you looked at.
3. Share your information with
others by publishing or distributing it.
While publishing a family
history book may be the ultimate goal for many of us, it can also be
intimidating. But publishing doesn’t have to be a huge, one-time proposition. If
you have a blog or family history website, you can publish some findings there.
You could also write an article for your local or state genealogical society
publication. Perhaps you could send copies of a report you write for yourself
to others researching the family. There’s no right or wrong way to get the word
out. Even the simple step of making multiple copies of a family summary and
giving them to a number of people (say, all of your siblings and first cousins)
is valuable. I inherited significant information on two family lines that way. Online
family trees and wikis make it easy to collaborate with other researchers, as
long as caution is used when merging material. And that book you’ve always
wanted to write someday? Maybe a series of mini-books would be a more
I realize that this is easy
advice to give, but tougher to follow. If I intend to take it, I’ll need to
make compiling and writing up my research more of a priority. But walking
through that elegant gallery admiring what should have been ground-breaking
work, only to discover that it completely lost its impact because it was never
communicated effectively, was a powerful lesson. And it’s one I think has real
significance for all family historians. Who better to learn it from than a
master, and what better place than a royal palace?
(Images of pages from da
Vinci’s notebooks, illustrating his mirror writing, are from Wikipedia Commons
and are in the public domain in the U.S. The photo of the embryo studies page, taken
by Luc Viatour, www.lucnix.be, is considered
one of the finest images in Wikipedia Commons.)
2012, Shelley Bishop