Kimmitt Genealogical Research

08 February 2011

NERGC Presenter Interview: John Philip Colletta

11th New England Regional Genealogical Conference

Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place and Springfield Marriott
Springfield, Massachusetts

John is a nationally known and well loved genealogist, having been teaching and presenting at conferences for many years now. He has published numerous articles and three books: They Came on Ships, Finding Italian Roots, and Only a Few Bones. For 21 years he taught workshops at NARA and the Smithsonian, and today he lectures and teaches at Samford (IGHR) and SLIG, as well as at other venues across the country. I've always been impressed by the high quality of his writing, and hearing him in person, a warm and thoughtful personality shines through. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

Polly: You begin Only a Few Bones with yourself at fourteen years old interviewing your Grandmother about family history. I know that the story your grandmother told about Barbara Ring spurred your research, but what sparked this initial interest at such a tender age? 

John: My mother! One summer when I was home from school and not knowing what to do and moping around the house, my mother came across an article in a women's magazine about illustrating a family tree. So she sat me down with a piece of paper and a pen and said, "Here, you can draw me a family tree. Ask me the questions." Of course, she had no idea what it would lead to, and she has told me so several times since.

Polly: I'd like to hear about your transition from doctorate in Medieval French studies to genealogy because I was a French major in college and have also moved into genealogy. What is your story? 

John: It was by necessity. When I finished my doctorate in the 1980s PhDs were a dime a dozen: there was a huge shift in demography. Baby boomers were out of college, tenured faculty was laid off, and so I taught only part time. I had a big decision to make in the mid-1980s. Was I going to be bounced around from university to university teaching beginning grammar and French or would I shift into a whole different field which was growing and for which I had the skills? So I made the shift into genealogy. Everything I was interested in––history, language, paleography, old records, foreign countries––could pretty comfortably be transferred over. Besides I was a teacher. By the 1980s genealogy was no longer the domain of the blue bloods and Mayflower descendants. Genealogists of African-American descent, Jewish, Irish, Italian, Greek, Polish, Slovakian, everyone was doing genealogy. But for most Americans the stumbling block was transitioning to the foreign records and languages, and that's where I fit in beautifully.

Polly: Have you ever worked in other professions besides teaching and genealogy? 

John: Oh yes, I worked half time at the Library of Congress for nearly twenty years to pay the bills. I worked in the US Copyright Office while I was building up a repertoire, and I also taught at the National Archives and the Smithsonian. I really worked at it to get into self employment. I don't know if I'd recommend it to young people as a way to make a living. Today it requires a lot of business sense.

Polly: I’m interested in the process you went through when writing Only a Few Bones. I love how you were initially astonished at your own preconceived notions about the South. Did you feel disappointed that history is not taught more accurately? 

John: I wasn't so disappointed as I was made aware of the fact that when you take 12-week history courses in college, by their very nature they are filled with generalizations. They talk about The Deep South, not distinguishing between the Florida peninsular, the Mississippi Bayou or Texas, for instance. Studying in school you learn generalizations which hold true for most situations, but in genealogy you deal with the specific. Your ancestors take you into corners of American history that just don't fit the generalization. In that particular place, at that particular time, no, it wasn't this way. And we as genealogists learn this and appreciate it because we go down to specific families and countries and we learn on a small scale what the events were at the time and that's often not what the history books say. It simplifies it to zero in specifically on the county of the ancestors. I tried to be as fair and unbiased as I could be in telling the story. I always say, "Look at the records, let the records tell the story."

Polly: How did you keep track of the vast amount of data you collected for the book? 

John: The way they did it in the 18th century, I guess. I have file folders by subject. I have a Context folder for hairdoes, shoes, clothes; a Place folder; and each main character, major family, and major topics also get a folder. I'm writing a book now about a man who was a founder of bronze statues in the 1850s, so I've got folders on New York foundries, bronze castings, and the Washington Navy Yard where he worked for a while casting canons.

I do not digitize every doc or source or record that I find. I'm still one of the few people that will go around with a pad and paper. After I compose an article or a chapter, I take out each folder and review the documentation page by page to make sure I have incorporated all of the pertinent information. It's time consuming but then I can check it off and know my work is complete.

Polly: I assume that you use some technology in your work. Technology has come a long way from word processing, email, online databases, through Powerpoint, social networking, and Skype, to today's virtual meetings and web presentations. Do you use technology reluctantly or are you on the cutting edge? 

John: I whine and complain and rave and rant. I hide, I cry. I find change difficult. My colleagues would recount horror stories of being before an audience of 300 people with no slides appearing, but today there is better compatibility in equipment so I am taking the plunge. Knowing that NGS and FGS both require electronic presentations, as do the New York Public Library and NERGC, brings it home. Nobody under 30 knows what an overhead project is. Archives, universities, just can't accomodate. I've been kicked into the 21st century, but it's magnificent when it all works well. That's just the way it goes. My ancestors probably had trouble shifting from a fountain pen to the typewriter, I guess.

This morning I'm working on a talk I'm giving at NGS in Charleston to a group of genealogical speakers and I'm going to be speaking on the changes over the last 40 years. I have found it extremely difficult to get into the technology. It's not a matter of intelligence or ability. We all have different gifts. I know what I can do well, what I've honed over the years. Technology I am finding extremely challenging. You've caught me at a crucial turning point in my life. I made a decision a few years ago that if I'm going to continue to teach, which I love to do, I absolutely must get with the technology and so I have been transfering my hundreds and hundreds of overheads to Powerpoint, and by the end of 2011 my goal is to be totally transferred over. Fortunately I have Christine Rose. She is a dear friend of many years, and my mentor. She (software) and her husband (hardware) have been very gracious in giving me time when needed and they have offered to help me buy a projector this spring.

Polly: Do you plan to attend Roots Tech? 

John: I seriously considered attending, unfortunately because of other commitments I can't, but that's what I need. I need to get into a classroom and learn about new technologies. A young colleague of mine from the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Joshua Taylor, is going to do a whole presentation on using technology in teaching genealogy. I'm going to be there! But as a self-employed individual I haven't had any institution behind me. And no family geeks. We have to be self motivated and keep up our education on our own and that's hard to do.

Polly: You wrote a very useful handbook on doing Italian Research called Finding Italian Roots. How often to you visit Italy?

John: Not much. I do go biking in Tuscany. Haven't worked much on my father's family in years. The paternal relatives now want a book like Only a Few Bones, but for the Italian side. I'd love to do more research about my Italian ancestors, one or two branches in particular that fascinate me. I've not really done much with Italian research. I do a lot more with my mother's background and my American ancestors simply because the records are here. I am making it known now as a revamping of my career that I can read old Italian very well. I made many trips in the 1970s and 1980s to Sicily in particular, where my father's people are from. But we have to work with what is more readily available, so I mainly stick with American research.

Polly: What sort of things to you do to relax? 
John:  I enjoy my work tremendously. I do love publishing, and I love to see my words in print, but I also know how to relax. I make time for a full life apart from genealogy. I have very dear friends of many years. I have a home that I maintain and "entertain in" which Washington DC is famous for. I do theatre, I love opera, and the National Symphony is spectatular. Biking is a major thing. I maintain quite a serious regimen of biking up and down the Potomac River and out into Virginia. I find that physical fitness goes hand in hand with creative juices. I work better, think more clearly, enjoy everything much more, when I feel fit. On my last couple of trips to France I went biking in Normandy and Brittany, and did no genealogy or historical research!

I also have a great family of four brothers, a sister and Mom up in Buffalo. If you come from a big family, a lot of your social life is already built-in and dictated, so to speak. I've got a great family, we're very close.

Polly: Is there anything you want to say about your NERGC sessions?  

John: I hope people will enjoy them!

F-212 – Friday, 10am – Federal Court Records, 1789-1920s 

F-221 – Friday, 1:45pm – Erie Canal Genealogy: The Peopling of Upstate New York and the Midwest: Really an eye-opener. Everybody enjoys this talk.

S-313 – Saturday, 10am – The Library of Congress: An Introduction and Overview: I've been at the LOC since 1971. It's an astounding, astounding great treasure in this country for research. My only problem is whittling the session down from two hours to one. There is so much to say about resources for genealogists.

S-341 – KEYNOTE Sat. Banquet, 7pm – Hacks and Hookers and Putting Up Pickles: Snares of Yesteryear’s English. This is a wonderful talk and very important for genealogists to understand how language changes: how the meanings of words are different in different parts of the country at different times. There's an imporant message there.

End of Interview
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1 comment:

Maureen Power said...

Great Interview, Polly. Where do you get the time? This makes me want to go see him at the conference.