When is the last time you thought about “why” you are interested in researching your ancestors? Have you run into any ethical dilemmas in your genealogy? Today we’re spotlighting our friend and colleague, Dr. Penny Walters. She teaches at Bristol University and lectures widely on several family history-related topics. Penny has also authored the books: Ethical Dilemmas in Genealogy (2019) and The Psychology of Searching (2020), available on Amazon in paperback or on kindle www.searchmypast.co.uk.
As an adoptee who discovered her biological parents through DNA, she has developed many lectures around that topic as well as researching in England and Wales. You can view several presentations on RootsTech by Penny.
Interview with Penny
I’m the mother of six children, I work as a part-time University lecturer teaching Masters’ psychology in a Business program, and I live in Bristol in the UK.
How did you get started in family history? Do you remember an initial “spark” or incident that inspired you?
I became interested in researching my biological family after I had my first baby.
Did you have any experiences as a child/teen in school or at home that helped you be more inclined toward family history?
No, not really; as an adopted person that line of questioning was something of a no-go area. I became more inspired after my children were asked to compile family trees for school projects, and I was upset that I knew nothing about my bio-family background.
What mentors influenced you to get started in family history and genealogy research?
No mentors as such. I became interested to get more engaged with the process after I got a membership for Ancestry.com and realized the huge potential of the available record sources.
What personality traits, hobbies, or professional pursuits have helped you in your genealogy research?
I am very keen, interested, have an enquiring mind, and a huge ability to think laterally to look for record sources. I am fascinated by social history and try really very hard to think what life was like at the time of the people I’m researching, which enables and triggers lateral thinking.
The jokey question, ‘why are you looking for dead people’ resonates with many people. I was adopted and lived my life as a single child, but I have six children, whose family dynamics with siblings; and heritage/ ancestry fascinated me. My children’s ancestors were from outside the UK, Jamaica, and Ghana.
Why do you think genealogy is important?
I think that it’s very interesting to get a background context to your ancestors and this, in turn, informs your identity.
What is the most rewarding part of researching your family’s history?
Going back as far as I have. Each person enthralls me.
What has been the most difficult part of your genealogical journey?
Not knowing what records are available, wasting time with a scattergun approach.
What are your research interests?
Ireland and Wales; and social history.
How do you preserve your family history?
My tree is online at Ancestry and I need to get more organized with this. I have printed many items and each ancestor is in a plastic wallet in 2 lever arch files: 1 for my family and 1 for my bio family.
What is your favorite way to share genealogy and family history with others?
I lecture and do presentations, hoping to inspire people. I have also written two books, one asking why do you even ‘do’ genealogy (The Psychology of Searching), and the other book is something that I would like everyone to consider beforehand and engage in some introspection about revealing their findings in Ethical Dilemmas in Genealogy.
If you had all the time in the world to spend on family history, what would you do?
I would visit each and every person in my pedigree’s hometown.
What’s the best discovery you’ve made about your family?
I’ve been humbled by my Irish ancestors fleeing a famine, and my Welsh ancestors working in coal mines and bringing up 10-15 children.
Who is your most interesting ancestor?
I don’t have a specific one, I find them all fascinating; especially as I haven’t met any in my bio family. None have done anything noteworthy, each one seems to have literally raised many children and worked themselves to death. Therefore, I am honoring them, in micro-histories. “Say their name.”
The Psychology of Searching
Ethical Dilemmas in Genealogy
Dr. Penny Walters has been a University lecturer for 30 years, teaching Masters’ Business studies at Bristol University. Penny’s interest in genealogy started after having her first child and then wondering about her biological parents, as she was adopted. Penny has 6 mixed-race children, who have all enjoyed discovering their roots through DNA ethnicity results. Penny lectures internationally in-person, writes articles, and is sought after for a wide range of webinar topics. Penny has authored the books: ‘Ethical Dilemmas in Genealogy’ (2019) and ‘The Psychology of Searching’ (2020), available on Amazon in paperback or on kindle www.searchmypast.co.uk