Sunday, July 30, 2006

Holding Family History Hostage

I'm sorry, but stuff like this article -- Man finds 188-year-old Bible in dump bin -- really irks me. It basically glorifies a fellow who's -- in my view -- holding family history hostage. He's hanging on to a family Bible that he found in a dumpster, waiting for the top bid, which he believes should be at least $1,000. Yes, he found a family member and sent him a copy of the family details, but he'd rather sell the Bible itself to a rare books dealer.

The reason this irritates me so much is because there are good folks out there who regularly rescue and return family heirlooms, usually for just for the cost of their original purchase and mailing -- and sometimes not even that. And they do this regardless of the actual value of the item.

What about Marge Rice (check out the Marge-o-Meter) who's personally returned over 1,000 photos to family members? What about Joe Bott and the other good folks at DeadFred, which is also crowding the 1,000 mark (BTW, keep an eye on for an upcoming article about both Marge and DeadFred)? What about the amazing Tracy St. Claire of And yeah, even I've been known to do the odd rescue here and there.

So how 'bout it? How 'bout a little credit for the folks who do this just because they can and not because they expect to "make a killing" on someone else's family treasure? How 'bout a few kudos for them? If you agree, why not send an email to Marge (, Joe ( or Tracy (via her website) today? And if, by chance, you're sitting on someone else's family treasure (it's amazing how many people accidentally wind up with other people's stuff) and don't know how to rescue it, please consider submitting it here for possible rescue.


At 12:29 PM, Blogger Woody Sue said...

Wow! I read the article yesterday.
I spend a lot of time looking for family Bibles. And this man is holding family history hostage. So what that he sends a copy of the
"inportant" pages to the found decendent. The family member ought to have the whole Bible.

I have a distant cousin that supposedly has the family Bible.
And he won't share it or the information. He won't communicate.
And when I was visiting my daughter
at her home in the same city he lives in, he wouldn't answer my calls.

I am not a theif. I simply wanted him to share. He won't. And when I find more wonderful facts and stories about the family, I am not
sure I want to share with him or his sister.

And what do you do about family members who won't send copies of
family imformation or certificates.
They think it is an invasion of privacy. Or none of anyone's business. I give up! At least for awhile.

At 10:45 AM, Anonymous Tracy St Claire said...

I actually can see his side of things.

It doesn't go into detail about what kind of Bible this is, but wouldn't it be worth the MOST to a family member? People purchase microwaves and washer/dryers and stereos and all sorts of gizmos for $1000. They throw away perfectly good but "old" PCs and get another for $1000 from Dell. Why doesn't a family heirloom surface in the world of going into debt for, when all sorts of other things do? Maybe the family truly doesn't have the means, but if they are driving a late model car (mine is a '97 Sable) and are middle class, then they had a decision and walked away from it. It is apparently for sale.

I am in the same situation, in the reverse. I have over 1000 Bibles, and I have a few that merit substantially valuable status. One is worth maybe $2500, one maybe 10x that amount. Their contents are not (yet) posted on Bible Records Online because I do not know how I would handle the "holding my family hostage" accusation. I no longer have a job, as I care for my autistic 6-year old daughter full-time. The tens of thousands of dollars I invested (you aren't reading this, are you Allister?) in Bibles are all I have for retirement, as my 401K & such was liquidated for living expenses and I cannot yet bear to send the Bibles with info onto the eBay chopping block. So I, too, charge somewhere in the neighborhood of retail for a Bible unless a person is actually listed in the Bible -- then it usually goes free.

Of course, I also didn't find them in dumpsters and paid sometimes more than I should have for the Bibles. Most times families are very glad to get the Bible and pay the price. It is well worth it. I know I would turn over ever financial brick I have to obtain the missing-since-1938 Charles Woolverton Geneva Bible (1560 or so). Even if it was in the 5 digit category, I would look at it like financing a car.

What is your family history and treasured heirlooms worth to you, anyway? In comparison to car? An XBox or a high-end microwave? God forbid a kitchen makeover? Examine your own priorites before throwing stones. If someone is willing to pay more for your family Bible than you are, that is sad -- again, assuming you are not reading this at the library.

At 12:31 PM, Blogger Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak said...

Hi Tracy,

Well, I'd almost say that you're the exception that proves the rule -- but the reality is that your situation is so far removed from what this fellow did that I can't begin to compare the two.

You do noble work on a daily basis because you can; it's like a mission with you. You have independently invested untold sums and countless hours in rescuing other family's treasures. Where are all the articles about you?? Why isn't someone out there celebrating what you do day in and day out instead of this fellow who got lucky?

This is a fellow who found a single family Bible in a dump and is selling it, even though he's in contact with the family. It's one thing that he did this, but why is he being touted as some sort of hero when there are folks who rescue others' family treasures on a routine basis? And I guess as someone who receives plenty of emails about orphaned heirlooms, I'm not at all surprised at the discovery of a Bible in a dumpster in the first place. I see this kind of thing all the time (in fact, I think it's an alarming epidemic), so why is this news?

Of course, as you point out, the article doesn't go into his personal circumstances. Perhaps he desperately needs the money. And as you also righfully point out, why isn't the family willing to pony up to rescue their heirloom -- especially since they're supposedly into genealogy?

It may be a stretch for them -- or it may just be the equivalent of a new microwave, as you say. Like you, I'm perplexed. If a family Bible were ever to surface on ANY of my family lines (hasn't happened yet), I'd gladly pay for it. And while my circumstances aren't like yours, this has been true since my starving student days (when I first started my grants program, for instance, there were months when it was reaallly borderline whether I'd be able to cover the utilities). And like you, I have invested thousands of dollars and hours in other people's roots (poor Brian knows and somehow tolerates this).

By venting my frustration, I wasn't targeting you. In fact, just the opposite. You're exactly the kind of person I think deserves the praise instead of this one-time-lucky fellow. After all you've done for so many, there's no way I would ever hurl a "holding history hostage" accusation at you if you felt the need to sell some items on eBay (I suspect you'd probably turn around and use the proceeds to rescue more Bibles -- or at least, would have to fight the urge). I only wish I were clever enough to dream up a way that you could make a decent living doing something that benefits so many.


At 12:36 PM, Blogger Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak said...

Hi Woody Sue,

Really sorry to hear about the relative who won't communicate. I've run into this as well.

Once you get into your extended roots, you deal with so many relatives that you're bound to run into some folks with different views (if you want to really test this, try cold-calling for DNA samples for a genealogy project!).

Unfortunately, I don't have any magic solution. The more years I spend doing genealogy, the more I content myself to interact with the ones who do care and reciprocate. I'll try to communicate a couple of times (some folks have good intentions, but a lot on their plates), and then move on to to the next 3rd cousin twice removed!

Here's hoping you find some genealogical playmates soon!

Take care,

At 1:05 PM, Anonymous Tracy St Claire said...

I don't know, Megan. I see over and over again that genealogists are cheap. I hear on many forums that genealogy should be free -- "keep genealogy free!" but someone is always paying for it. They begrudge spending money on Ancestry or other subscriptions while gladly paying for their daily newspaper, magazines, church, NPR, Starbucks or whatever else gives them information or pleasure.

I spend a lot of money personally to keep Bible Records Online free and pretty much ad-free, along with providing full size and color reproductions of the bible pages themselves. The bandwidth for this costs a fortune, and I have a lot of people who have helped me financially and content-ly along the way -- Randy Kiessig, John Murphy, Tara Hawkins and many others -- and I have decided to keep it up instead of going to black and white or limiting the size of the images, because so many are hard to read in the first place. It **all** comes back around.

But genealogists need to know that genealogy is not all taking. For free genealogy to work in the long run is for everyone to post as much information (original, source information like cemetery photos or transcribing things from censuses or the library) to the Internet as they have received free from the Internet. If you have been the recipient of a free photograph of an ancestor from DeadFred -- go to your antique mall and make someone else's day. If you found a Bible transcription at my site, go to your historical society and transcribe one for me.

But in all the organizations I have peripherally belonged to -- knitting, astronomy, religious -- I have never heard so much complaining about paying for legimate services and products. Of course not everyone -- I have many beautiful people I have traded stories and sold Bibles to (the money made it possible to purchase many additional Bibles)-- but I also have encountered many people who were offended that I was asking money for a Bible -- they would pay X and nothing more.

Anyway...ask not what the genealogy community can do for will come back.

At 1:49 PM, Blogger Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak said...

Hi Tracy,

Yes, there's a lot of validity to what you say. If I'm to be very honest, I deal with this on almost a daily basis since I make a living doing genealogy. I still routinely run into folks who are surprised that I get paid to speak, for instance. We seem to be the only field that expects our professionals to work for free!

My husband (the classic NGS, non-genealogical spouse, but one with waaay more tolerance than most) is especially astounded. He comes to many of my talks and hears the gripes about subscription fees for online services. Never mind that they're frequently available for free at the local library or that someone invested lots of money in scanning and transcribing millions of records. There's a peculiar sense of possessiveness -- they're MY ancestors, so what gives you the right to make money off of them? As someone who's been doing genealogy since the all-snail-mail days, I'm delighted to have such easy access to so much for so little, but I know a lot of folks don't agree with me. Brian often makes the same comparisons as you about folks thinking nothing of running out and buying the latest video game, but balking at $30 to attend a family reunion.

And yeah, I agree that you get what you give. I occasionally run into the guy who slams down the phone when I'm trying to give him a piece of his family history back (and I confess, I get especially frustrated by those who submit orphan items to be rescued and then never respond once I've done the research to locate a family member, about 1/3 of the cases I "work"), but for every slammed phone or non-response, there's someone who writes a note about how the 100-year-old bridal book arrived just in time for their daughter's wedding or how that DNA test you encouraged them to take helped add 750 relatives to their family tree or whatever. And how do you quantify that? Still, like you, I wish more people would put greater value on their roots than the latest gadget (and I say that as someone who's fairly gadget-addicted!).

Take care,


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