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Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Back to Basics: Thoughts on a methodology for resolving complex genealogical issues

I do not care for the term "brick wall" when used to refer to complex genealogical problems. I believe that use of the term implies the existence of an external force that is preventing the researcher from discovering information about a target ancestor. Usually, in those situations where an ancestor's identity eludes discovery, the solution lies in applying a consistent research methodology with more depth and covering much broader social, historical and geographic areas than usually anticipated.

The much-cited Genealogical Proof Standard requires a reasonably exhaustive search of a wide range of high quality sources. This level of research is required to minimize the probability that a conclusion will be overturned by undiscovered evidence. In the myriad of the online articles attempting to define a reasonable exhaustive search, the general consensus seems to involve looking at a variety of very commonly available sources. In the end, what does or does not constitute a reasonably exhaustive search is essentially left to the discretion of the researcher.

I do not take exception with the concept of a "reasonably exhaustive search" but I do take exception with the lack of a standard methodology that will produce such a result. The most commonly used method of beginning a research project today is to look at one or two of the large online database programs. Because of the huge number of sources now contained in and and their accessibility in FamilySearch Centers and public libraries, these are the most consulted sources of information. In my experience, most researchers obtain some success in this first effort due mainly to the availability, in the United States, of all of the years of the U.S. Census.

However, even if a search in either or both of these larger databases produces results, the researcher is left without a firm idea of what to do next. Many researchers stop with the Census and unfortunately, by starting with a search of the Census, they are distracted from gathering information about their family from what they already have in their homes and available from family members. I have many experiences where I have helped people begin their research and only after weeks or months of trying to understand their family have they looked at that old pile of papers given to them by their parents or other relatives, only to find out, everything they have spent time on to that point is already in those records and more.

When I suggest having a standard methodology, I am not trying to reinvent genealogical research. The way to do genealogical research dates back to lessons taught over 100 years ago. The very first step in this process involves carefully recording the personal recollections of the researcher and the members of the researcher's family. The Lessons in Genealogy book illustrated above, makes this point clear on page 18. The Lessons first suggest having an appropriate place to record the information to be gathered. In our day, this would mean becoming familiar with one of the many database programs easily and freely available. Next, gathering and recording what information is already obtainable from family documents.

If you have been instructed in basic genealogical research you probably recognize the Research Cycle. But it is important to keep the Cycle in mind and review it from time to time. The Cycle is simple:

  • Identify what you want to know
  • Decided what you want to learn
  • Select records to search
  • Obtain and search records
  • Carefully record what you find and where you look
  • Evaluate and use the information
  • Start over with new objectives
Yesterday I taught a class and had a very interesting discussion about doing research in Oklahoma about the Seminole Indians and another group called the Black Seminoles. The researcher was kept commenting that she had found this record and that record, but it was obvious that she had no idea how to organize or evaluate the information she had found into a coherent, usable format that would allow her to make progress in finding her ancestors. Her search was random and not based on any method that would produce progress. 

There are two major problems with the Research Cycle as it is usually presented. First, the person who undertakes research fails to do an adequate survey of what information may already be available and second, the researcher is entirely unaware of the huge number of sources that can be searched. 

Now, moving on the issues encountered by experienced researchers, if you think about it, they are in the exact same position as a beginning researcher only the objective of the research has moved a bit back in time. Unfortunately, research often creates tunnel vision: concentration on one particular research issue and failure to appreciate the wider scope of the research project. Most of the time, from my experience, the researcher has failed to adequately document preceding generations and has only a bare minimum of information to connect the remote ancestor to the family. 

If you viewed my recent Webinar presentation on Breaking Down Genealogical Brick Walls, you would recognize the relationship of my approach to the Research Cycle. We have a huge pool of genealogical research experience to draw from in addressing complex research issues but we fail to use the lessons from the past to address the present challenges of finding an elusive ancestor. 

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