Is a cluttered desk a familiar sight to you? Maybe you and Albert Einstein have something in common. Or maybe you’re more like tenacious photographer Ralph Morse, who captured the now-famous image of Einstein’s desk the day he died.
Many a genealogist has written to me over the years, heaping discontent on their own heads because of their lack of organization. They are sure that those piles of papers, sticky notes and backs of napkins mean failure on their part. I always assure them that it is the sign of a prolific researcher. I also do my best to share strategies that can help ease the clutter.
But as you can see from an iconic and rare photo of Albert Einstein’s desk published in this Time article online, you are in great company indeed. This image was snapped just hours after his passing 61 years ago today.
The story of this photo is as important as the message it conveys. It’s a story of tenacity: the willingness of one photographer to think outside the box and ask for what he wanted. Certainly this is a trait worthy of a family historian emulating.
Like many other journalists and reporters, Ralph Morse jumped in his car and headed to Princeton when he heard the news of Einstein’s death. The difference between him and the others, however, was that he came prepared with a case of Scotch he picked up along the drive.
I appreciate this part of the story because it reminds me of a piece of advice that I always give in my class on how to find living relatives: “Never show up empty handed.” If we’re going to stretch our hand out in hopes of receiving advice, copies of documents or access to genealogical information, there ought to be something in that hand for the person assisting us. For example, I keep a stack of hard-cover photo books I had made up on my various family lines, ready and waiting to be given to any newly found cousins I hope to interview. (Hmm, should I bring Scotch instead? But I digress….)
Morse approached the building superintendent at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (where Einstein’s had his office) with a bottle of Scotch and a request to look inside. He received immediate, and exclusive, access. The result was an entire series of iconic and totally unique photos.
Guilt over a lack of organization has ground many a productive genealogy research afternoon to a screeching halt. And although good organization is certainly worth striving for, it’s not worthy of derailing your passion for family history.
Although a picture speaks a thousand words, I think I’ll give the last word to Einstein himself:
“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
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