Megan Smolenyak, greatest Irish genealogist on top of her game
She’s traced Barack and Michelle Obama’s roots, who’s next?
The people that you’ve researched range from Barack Obama to Bruno Mars. How do you pick your subjects?
When I have free reign, which is what I do on the Huffington Post, it is mostly driven by people I like. If I like your music, there’s a good chance I’m going to peak into your past. That’s why Katy Perry is there. And lately a kick for me has been multiculturalism and that’s one of the reasons it really appealed to me to look into Bruno Mars’ past. … So if I like your music, if I like your movie, if I like your TV show, there’s a good chance I’m going to do your roots.
How can someone with little knowledge of genealogy begin to trace his or her roots?
This is counter-intuitive, but I actually suggest that people start offline. These days, everybody’s first instinct is to jump online, but I suggest you do a little homework first; go through your attics and drawers and closets, and see what bits and pieces of family history you have. And talk to your elders. Gather those clues; it could be diplomas, it could be a family bible with names on it, all sorts of pieces like old letters and that kind of thing. A lot of us are sitting on tons of information and of course, your older relatives are living libraries. They have stuff locked up in their brains that you want to make sure you capture.
Do you have any tips for approaching a roadblock in the research process?
Oh boy, classic brick walls. We all hit them. On my Army cases for example, I’m really, really stubborn. I’ll just keep on backing up and coming at another way to break down the wall. I’ll brainstorm everything I possibly can. And at a certain point, once I feel I’ve exhausted everything possible, I kind of sit back. It’s weird, there’s a sort of serendipity thing that happens.I always say our ancestors want to be found as much as we want to find them. You’d be surprised how many times when you really have done everything you possibly can think of that all of a sudden an email will fall out of the sky from some posting you did six months ago that you’d forgotten about; some little clue will happen; a new record set will be released; or you’ll be using a new newspaper site and trip across an article on your ancestor or something.
With all the new resources available today, has the process of genealogy and tracing one’s roots changed?
Obviously with all the stuff that’s online now it’s much easier to get a running start and I do not miss the tedium that used to be a part of it – the amount of effort it took to look up each individual census record, for example. I think actually this is the best time ever to be a genealogist because we have all these tools. I’m so glad I was here when the Internet came along and DNA testing. I mean, to have these two toys to add to our toolbox is just amazing and it’s opened up possibilities for so many people who otherwise would have been stymied in their research. It’s the perfect time to be a genealogist, but the underlying methodology is still the same: link by link, prove every connection.