Tuesday, September 18, 2012

SLIG Series: Bill Litchman

1. When did you first start researching your family history? Was there a moment when you knew you were “hooked?”

I started researching family history (if you can call it that) when I was about age 13-14 by writing a letter to my paternal grandmother asking her about family information. My father had told me that she was interested in family history and, while he “knew nothing about it,” she would be delighted to share with me. Well, he was right. She responded to my letter with hand-copied notes from her personal family history note-book detailing dates and names from the Marblehead (Mass) town records. She had personally read through these books to find family members with whom she was familiar. Of course, having only met her once for a day or two on a trip when I was nine, I didn't know her or any of the family that she knew so all these names and dates were completely unfamiliar to me. But... when I received that letter, I was hooked – line and sinker!

2. Do you have a pet ancestor? Can you tell us a little bit about what makes this person so special to you as a researcher?

My father told me a very exciting story of a fisherman lost at sea, with his mother ship gone from sight over the horizon, and he was miles and miles from shore with his dead (frozen) fishing mate in the dory with him. In the story, this man rowed himself 60 miles to Newfoundland with his hands frozen to the oars to be saved from sure death by a member of our family. Though the fisherman was not an ancestor of mine, he became a pet. This fisherman, because of his heroic efforts to save his own life, brought two halves of our family together after being lost from each other for 50 years. The rescue happened in 1883. In 1985 I wrote to “any Lushman/Lishman family in Grey River,” Newfoundland, as a result of this story heard from my father 30 years before. Sure enough, I got a letter back and from that single contact and others which have come from it, I've been able to find and connect over 1500 members of my lost Canadian family, all descended from the father of that single rescuer of the fisherman. I have only touched the tip of the family iceberg here – there is much, much more.

3. What record set to you believe is the most under-utilized? What advice would you give students in using this record set?

There are many under-utilized record groups including court records. With the advent of the internet and the use of computers, we face the danger of over-simplifying the character of research into the expectation that complete family structures are to be found online for the asking. It will take a lot of education and experience for those who are entering this field now to realize the shallowness and non-documentation danger of the view we get through records which are currently available online. Once we get weaned from sitting in front of our computers, then we'll begin to realize the depth of information which is available to us. Court records are under-utilized because they are hand-written, not indexed, and rarely microfilmed/digitized completely. We see only the calendars and dockets but the rest of the testimony, with the personal details, are hidden away in vaults and archives to be visited only by those who know what is there for them. The language of these records is technical, abbreviated, and cryptic. In addition, our court system in this country is so complex and multi-leveled, that what is not found in one court could easy be found in another nearby. Frustration points are common and sprinkled liberally throughout the process of attempting to use these records. There are hundreds of pages of court documents hidden away in archives which have rarely seen the light of day.

4. What books and periodicals would you recommend for intermediate to advanced researchers? Are there any lesser-known texts you advise?

The best periodicals available to intermediate researchers and above are those journals which publish peer-reviewed original research. These journals, when read cover-to-cover will educate the reader better than most layman-level survey articles or books. It requires work to go through this research material enough to cover much of the field but it is worth the reader's while. Research techniques, analytical thinking, and creative uses for evidential documents are all outlined in a way that the author intends to be instructive in these articles. The reviewers are there to protect the unwary reader by improving the presentation and eliminating error before publication. The beginner will only be confused by many of these articles and until they have risen to a certain level of understanding and sophistication they will not realize their full potential.
To get to that level, perhaps some books might be helpful such as Val Greenwood's book The Researcher's Guide, or Kory Meyerink's Printed Sources, or Laura Pfeiffer's Hidden Sources, and finally The Source. The Source is interesting because it has gone through three editions, each of which retains something of the earlier but adds a bit new. Reading all three editions can provide a good review (there is more than can be assimilated in one go) as well as an advance in new directions. Of course, reading is not enough, it is far better to read and then go and do; delve into the records, feel them, see what they contain find out how hard they are to use, discover the gems within – all as a part of real research.

5. What is the most rewarding thing about being a genealogical educator? What advice would you give for those who would follow in your footsteps?

I have been very fortunate in my role as an educator in genealogy. There are few genealogical lecturers and educators who reside where I do and few who visit my city even as large as it is. Over the past 25 years or so, I have been able to provide beginning and advanced seminars, classes, and lectures which have drawn serious students of this field to my side. By that means, I have been able to follow their progress in learning and have marveled at their creativity, cleverness, and use of good research techniques which we have unearthed and discussed together through these seminars. Then, the reward comes when the student picks up what they have learned and runs faster and farther than ever I could, eventually to turn and look back to give a hand to those who are following them The most important part of education in this field is the sense of sharing and giving which permeates those who are involved. What a blessing it is to be among such generous people!

6. Why would you recommend a student attend SLIG in general?

The level of excellence prevalent amongst the staff of this institute is such that every student, regardless of how experienced, will come away with new insight into this intriguing world of learning. Our field is so broad and so finely divided that no single person, as expert as they may be, knows everything there is to know about all aspects of the work in this field. There is always room for learning. How exciting that is.

7. Will you tell us a little bit about what makes your SLIG course unique among genealogical education offerings?

One of the most difficult things to teach in any field of creative work is the ability to think analytically. Analysis is specific to the problem. To think creatively at the same time you are tied to the evidence is not a rote process. There is no defined series of steps which will bring you to a successful solution (proof) for every problem you tackle. For this reason, there is no algorithm which will work every time. No computer can replace the human brain with its ability to think analytically and creatively. Each student brings with him or her their own equipment for solving problems, once the evidence has been exposed; then analysis can direct the next steps by realizing the connections, patterns, and new pathways which will bring to light either new evidence or new places to find it – or – new ways to combine the evidence already in hand. To teach this creative thinking is always a challenge. It requires mentoring, open thinking, and a willingness to accept a challenge, even to the point of making mistakes, to learn how to think creatively. Always connected with this learning process is the doing. The practicum course is one way to tackle this challenge.

8. Do you have a website where students can learn more about you?

I have a website on which is posted a number of research papers and projects on which I have worked. The site doesn't explain much about me but does present the papers.

9. Will you share something with us that students may not know about you? Perhaps a non-genealogical hobby?

My interests are broad so I have developed professional capability in several fields. I play music professionally enough to play for dances (English country dance, contra dancing, square dancing, and other community dances). I also have a PhD in the field of physical chemistry and have taught chemistry at the university level (including graduate courses and research) for over 30 years. I am a professional square dance caller with over 55 years of experience, having traveled in most of Europe, England, Canada, and America. My areas of leadership cover squares, contras, English country dancing, ballroom, international folk, quadrilles, historical dance, and other forms of community dancing. I have been a professional-level archivist in the field of music and dance for the past 40 years.

10. Any parting thoughts or advice?

Your mind is the most wonderful tool you have. Keep it clean, exercise it, don't ever put it on a leash. Develop it.

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