The cowboy taxonomist rides again

One of the perennial problems I face is responding to the question “What do you do?”

“Genealogist” doesn’t quite cover it (and constitutes a dangerous open invitation to tell me about Granny Murphy). “Software developer” isn’t right either, because all the software I do is connected to Irish genealogy and heritage. Same for “writer”, same for “teacher”.

Poster - Destry Rides Again (1939)_01
That’s me, in the red hat

Twenty years ago, out of sheer badness I occasionally used to answer, “I’m a cowboy taxonomist”.  Taxonomy is the science of pigeon-holing, and at the time I was deeply involved in developing the software that underlies almost all of this website. It entailed dozens of interrelated categories and sub-categories, all ready to store information about genealogical sources.

To my surprise, I found I enjoyed it. As I put it to a poor, puzzled soul I once cornered as a party: “I have no interest in looking at every single gravestone transcript in Co. Tyrone. But I really, really want to know where they all are.”

When I originally collaborated with The Irish Times in putting the results of this cowboy taxonomy online, the plan in the back of my mind was that I’d use that income to keep on expanding and populating those pigeon-holes. And to some extent, that’s what happened. To misquote John Lennon, now I know how many pigeon-holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.

But many other things got in the way over the years, and the expansion slowed way down.

The collaboration with The Times is now ending, and one of the unexpected side-effects is that the classifying juices have started flowing again.

Already, the way newspaper transcripts is handled has changed completely – you can now compare, county-by-county, what years of what relevant newspapers are online (look at Waterford, for example). General Register Office records likewise, now down to local registrar’s district level.

And I have plans. Map the surnames in Pender’s Census. Rejig the old step-by-step wizard to reflect the revolution in online access. Master the explosion of new gravestone transcript sites. More record-images, more maps –  Irish research ever simpler, ever more transparent.

Which suggests another response to that what-do-you-do question: “OCD genealogist”. Or is that just tautology?

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