Archive for the ‘Amateur Genealogy’ Category

When you find a document that may be about one of your ancestors …

On 13 January 2013 Nancy of the My Ancestors and Me blog, posted a question:

When you find a document that may be about one of your ancestors (or may just as well not be about one of them), what do you do with it?

She continues:

I have several documents (a will, a census record, etc.) about people who are probably my ancestors but I don’t have enough information (yet) to make a good case for a relationship. I haven’t been adding the names or documents to my genealogy program or to the notes section of my genealogy program, either. But then when I find some other information that might support this person, I have to go searching for the previous information/document I found.[1]

I will respond to this question from the perspective of a professional researcher.

It is important not to actively seek records that do not relate to the problem you are trying to solve. This will cut down on these “other” documents.

There is a very big difference between focused research, that is, searching with a purpose, and “random” searching.

Focused research begins by defining a specific research goal, like a question that you want to answer, and seeking records relevant to that goal, records that will answer your question. These records may provide information relevant to other goals or questions, but you should follow up on these clues by identifying them and pursuing them individually.

If you are researching in an organized, focused manner, you will never have records that “may or may not” be related to your research problem.

Sometimes, when appropriate, you may have to conduct a broad survey of specific records. For example, you may wish to find any person with a certain surname in a certain location at a certain time. This broad survey still fits within the process of focused research, as long as you:

  • Have identified a specific question that you are hoping to answer by conducting the survey;
  • Keep good records of what indexes or record groups you have searched and what specifically you have searched for;
  • Keep good records of all results;
  • Analyze each of the results, identifying what information may be relevant to your goal and defining any follow-up research that you may need to conduct in order to meet your goal;
  • Conduct all follow-up research in order to bring meaning to the results of the survey.

Searching broadly is not the same thing as searching randomly. Searching randomly produces far more “false positives” than relevant information.

Another aspect of focused research is that genealogy database software is most effectively used differently than many people currently use it. Many users use their software as a “shoebox” to store records that they come across that “might” be related to their ancestors.

I have found it far more effective to use a word processor to gather information and analyze evidence in a file related to a specific research goal. Once I have enough evidence to prove a fact or relationship, I can add that information into my database, either linking it to the separate file or copying the proof narrative into the Notes field. In other words, I use the database to record conclusions, not research-in-progress.

I hope that this explanation helps to answer your question. Please let me know if anyone else has any additional suggestions.

SOURCES:

[1] Nancy, “You Genealogists with More Experience than Me, …,” My Ancestors and Me blog, posted 13 January 2013 (http://nancysfamilyhistoryblog.blogspot.com : accessed 25 January 2013).

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “When you find a document that may be about one of your ancestors …,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 25 January 2013 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

The “literature search” in the Internet age

Many genealogy guides advise that we should first conduct a literature search when researching a new family. Traditionally, this has meant examining published work. The Internet has changed both the nature of “the literature” and how (or if) we conduct these searches.

Before the Internet,  compiled genealogical work products appeared in self-published books and society journal articles. To a certain extent one might even consider the examination of published queries in society journals as part of the literature search. In this way, researchers could “gather clues” from and build upon the previous research of others.

Another part of the process—especially if researching a family that had not been previously researched and published—was looking for ancestors in published indexes, abstracts, and transcriptions. Some of these were printed in books, others in society journals.

The early days of Internet genealogy (the mid- to late-1990s) reproduced the traditional literature search online. There were a few sites that allowed uploading of GEDCOM files, where researchers could connect through the online publication of their research. The USGenWeb system of sites published genealogy indexes, abstracts, and transcriptions of records. Conducting a literature search then consisted of looking at both print and online sources.

It is now 2012. The nature of what we find online has changed. I recently had a discussion with a fellow genealogist about whether the literature search is still necessary.

To answer this question, we must review the two main reasons for conducting a literature search.

First, we would look at previously-published research. There is a lot of this online now.

As I discussed in an earlier post, we can’t ignore it. On the other hand, a lot of it—especially the Ancestry.com public trees—would not qualify as genealogy. I recently discovered that one of my ancestors, born in the mid-nineteenth century in New York, had been attached as the mother of a woman born in North Carolina in the eighteenth century. At least in the days of printed research, the mistakes were at least generally geographically centered. No “shaking-leaf” mistakes.

So how much of the online trees should we bother to look at?

There are a few wiki-based family tree sites. In theory, the collaborative nature of these sites will make them more likely to be accurate. Many families, however, have only one member-contributor, so there simply is no collaboration. The accuracy is only as good as the researcher.

Nearly every Ancestry.com search will bring at least a few public trees. As already noted, many of these are simply examples of bad—some might say nonexistent—research. One way to find the better research is to look for “Public Stories.” These often contain user-transcribed records or personal memories. The trees that contain them are usually the work of genealogists who are trying to put together a good family tree.

Online trees of course suffer from the same weaknesses and shortcomings as their offline equivalents. Not all researchers have the same level of skill. This is as true now as it ever has been. The only way to know how reliable a published tree is, is to evaluate the evidence. Unfortunately, very few online trees have source citations. Even fewer have proof arguments that explain the reasoning behind the conclusions that have been made.

You can of course contact the creators of most online trees. They may or may not respond. If they do respond, you might be able to ask for source citations (if they have them) or ask them for their reasoning for certain conclusions. This will help in the assessment of the research.

Second, we would find our ancestors in published indexes, etc. The most important aspect of this is to understand what records exactly have been indexed, and obtaining the original source record for the reference. The reason this is important should be self-evident.

Given the focus of this blog on professional research skills, I would also like to address the question from the perspective of a genealogist researching a client project. How much of a literature search is it necessary to conduct?

The Internet has changed every aspect of how we research. Because of Ancestry, FamilySearch, and the hundreds of other websites that have brought them online, we now have direct access to digital image copies of original records. In my opinion, the ease of access to these records makes much of the literature search unnecessary during the beginning stages of our research.

When we have direct access to the original records, why would we waste our clients’ research time looking at online family trees compiled by researchers of questionable skill? As skillful researchers ourselves, we should (presumably) reach the same conclusions based on the same records.

In my opinion, it is also too tempting to accept the conclusions made by previous researchers. For this reason, I generally skip the previous research aspect of the literature search. I prefer to look at the records themselves and form my conclusions based on these records alone. This removes the potential to be biased toward a previous conclusion.

This is not to say that I do not still conduct a literature search. The difference is that I generally do not look at previous research until closer to the end of the project. After I have found the records and reached at least tentative conclusions, I may go back to see how they match up with previous research, to see if I may have missed some crucial element of the subject’s life. If I get stuck on a line, an online family tree might provide me with the clue that gets me past it.

What do you think about the literature search in this age of the Internet? Is it still necessary?

Please leave your comments below.

Those Genealogy Police are at it again!

Yesterday I received a horrible email from the Genealogy Police(tm).

Can you believe that they told me that I should use death certificates in my research? I don’t want to use death certificates! They are so gloomy. Genealogy is supposed to be fun!

And they said that court records would be a good source of information about my ancestors. If my ancestor was a criminal or was sued, well, I just don’t want to know about that.

The way that I do genealogy is perfectly fine. It makes for a great hobby! I can trace my family tree all the way back to Moses through Charlemagne, King Henry VIII, and I’m third cousins with Brad Pitt. (That explains my good looks.)

I don’t cite my sources for any of this because the “genealogy police” actually think that a citation should provide detail about my sources to an extent that would allow me or someone else to actually know what we had looked at. If I can’t do it their way, then I just won’t do it at all!

Besides, I’m just doing this for my kids anyway. I’m not a professional, and all I care about are the stories.

Now that I got all of that out of the way…

Obviously all of the above was written with tongue firmly in cheek. And I am sure that I have ticked a few people off. I apologize to all who are offended. But I felt that this was the only way to make my point.

Over the past two or three years I have read several blog posts that–believe it or not–are very similar to what I wrote above. These posts of course do not complain about someone telling them to use death certificates or court records (or any other record group). They complain that someone emailed them about a lack of documentation or faulty analysis or some other “standards” issue. Why is it that what I wrote above seems so over-the-top ridiculous, but these other posts get dozens of “likes” on Facebook and “attaboy” and “attagirl” comments? There is no difference.

When genealogists write about the need for standards in genealogy—yes, even for non-professionals—they are usually doing so to try to help.

Meeting standards does not suck the fun out of genealogy.

Meeting standards in your research—even if no one other than yourself ever knows it—increases your own personal confidence in the accuracy of your research. Whether you are in it as a professional or in it just for yourself (or your kids), you should care about the accuracy of your research. Do you want to research your family tree or someone else’s? Do you want to honor your ancestors or someone else’s?

Meeting standards in your research makes you a better researcher. The standards were written by professionals with decades of experience—those whose research skills have been repeatedly demonstrated and found to excel. Becoming a better researcher, in my opinion, makes genealogy even more fun. It opens doors. It breaks down brick walls. Becoming a better researcher allows you to identify with confidence far more ancestors than otherwise. These “new” ancestors all have their own lives and stories. If you love the stories (and who doesn’t), then more ancestors = more fun!

So who are the Genealogy Police anyway?

I’ve never seen them. I have been “doing genealogy” online since I was twenty years old. You can still find some of those old posts I wrote in 1997 or 1998 online. They don’t meet standards. I didn’t know there were standards. They don’t cite sources (though I sure wish they did so I could find some of that information now).

Despite all this, I have never been visited by the Genealogy Police. Never once have I been shot down by some genealogist with a pompous attitude telling me I was doing it wrong.

I have, on the other hand, received messages over the years from genealogists who helped me become the researcher I am today. They taught me about examining sources. They taught me about indirect evidence. They even taught me about citing sources.

But this may come down to perception. I wanted to learn. So I did not take criticism as negative, I took it constructively. I recognized my weaknesses and my mistakes, and I made the attempt to correct them.

I won’t say that there may not be some overzealous genealogists out there who attack people (always privately) about a comma or a semicolon or a faulty record or a disproven connection. They may exist. Luckily they have never emailed me.

So the next time the Genealogy Police visit you, please ask yourself: is this genealogist really attacking me, or are they trying to help?

Another word on “Evidence-based” and “Conclusion-based” genealogy software use

Recently I was researching a client’s ancestor and I found myself thinking about the recent discussions on “evidence-based” and “conclusion-based” genealogy software use. This case perfectly illustrates my difficulties in using genealogy database software. The case has not yet been concluded, so I am unable to publish the specifics here.

In this particular case my client’s ancestor (“S. B.”) was born ca. 1764-1765, based on analysis of several sources, including pre-1850 federal census records, the 1850 federal census, a Revolutionary War pension deposition, and an obituary.

A man with the same name was identified as a son in the 1762 will of the presumed father (“M. B.”). Obviously this immediately presents a problem, but the census records are vague enough, and the other sources late enough in life, that the possibility of the date of birth being pushed forward a few years remained, so it was possible that S. B. could have been an infant when his father wrote his will.

The most important evidence came when examining the other probate records related to M. B.’s estate. S. B. served as the administrator of the estate, in 1762-1763. By checking a 1759 compilation of laws in effect in the state, I confirmed that a person appointed executor or administrator of an estate had to be at least 17 years of age to serve as such. This would mean that S. B., son of M. B., had to have been born no later than 1745. In other words, there was simply no possibility that my client’s S. B. was the son of M. B.

Writing the report in MS Word, it is very easy to quote the relevant portion of the probate law, and cite the law book. This law provides the crucial evidence to prove that M. B.’s son S. B. was born before 1745. No other record provides this information, either directly or indirectly.

In a genealogy software program, how would one:

(1) enter a “fact” or “event” for S. B. or M. B. to reflect the existence of the probate law?

(2) cite the probate law?

I am sure that there is a way, and if I relied on genealogical software in my research, I would have to figure it out. But I have a feeling that it would be a bit convoluted, whereas it is much easier to accomplish simply using a word processor with footnotes.

The next question is then–how would this be handled differently by an “evidence-based” software user and a “conclusion-based” software user?

I am open to all comments.

If you would like to cite this post: Michael Hait, “Another word on ‘Evidence-based’ and ‘Conclusion-based’ genealogy software use,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 23 March 2012 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

“Evidence-based” and “Conclusion-based” software use

My discussions of genealogy research conclusions have taken an interesting turn. (See “What is a conclusion?” and “Simple and complex genealogical conclusions.”)

While my posts deal with the use of proof in forming conclusions, Randy Seaver, prolific author of the Genea-Musings blog; Tim Forsythe, author of Ancestors Now; Russ Worthington, author of A Worthington Weblog; and others have taken it a step further in discussing how they use their genealogy database software. This new turn is particularly interesting, considering that I rarely use any genealogy software in my research, especially my research for clients.

Read the following posts to witness the development of the terms “Evidence-based Genealogists” and “Conclusion-based Genealogists”:

I would like to applaud all of the bloggers mentioned above for giving so much thought to how to apply research standards to how they use their tools. Every day more genealogists start using one of the genealogy database programs. I hope that they all come across these posts, so that they will also give this discussion some thought.

I would quibble about one word being used, though. Rather than calling oneself an Evidence-based  or Conclusion-based Genealogist, it would be more accurate to call oneself an Evidence-based or Conclusion-based Software User. Using the word “genealogist” as opposed to “software user” implies that there are two separate approaches to genealogy, rather than simply two separate ways to use the software.

I also want to address a related topic, that of “evidence-based” and “conclusion-based” genealogy research. So as not to confuse the issues, this will be discussed in a separate post.

Again, to all of the bloggers who have taken part in the discussion, thank you!

The Genealogical Proof Standard – it’s not just for professionals!

Though I started researching my genealogy (in the loosest sense of the word research) when I was about eight or nine years old, I have been involved with genealogy off and on throughout my entire life. I started researching at the National Archives (Archives I in Washington, D. C.) at age sixteen, when I was still in high school. By the time I was nineteen I was spending every Saturday cranking through microfilmed federal census records, passenger lists, and military indexes, looking for my family.

I learned everything I could about the records available where my ancestors lived: Stamford, Connecticut; Harrisonburg, Virginia; Schoharie, Suffolk, and Saratoga counties, New York; and other places. Doing this I was able to find out quite a bit about my ancestors, but there were plenty of brickwalls. Inch by inch I would creep forward, relying often on derivative sources and a network of other researchers found through word of mouth and (eventually) surname email lists and message boards.

Learning methodology–”how to research”–never entered my mind.

Fast forward a few years. After a couple of years without active research, I learned that my wife was pregnant with our daughter. The pending addition to my family inspired me to jump back in with renewed excitement.

Internet genealogy had changed significantly within just two or three years! Those old surname- and location-specific mailing lists and message boards barely scratched the surface of what was available online.

But more importantly, I started to read about research methodology. Elizabeth Shown Mills’s Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian and Christine Rose’s Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case taught me that research does not end when you find a record. These books taught me the importance of evidence analysis and other skills that I learned to apply to my research.

Not client research as a professional genealogist. My professional career came later. I learned to apply proper research techniques to my own family research first. (And one of these days I will go back to some of my older research and bring it up to par.)

As I learned about the Genealogical Proof Standard, and started to apply it to my research, the brick walls amazingly started to crumble before me. I was able to “form logically-reasoned, clearly-written conclusions” based on a “reasonably exhaustive search for records that contain pertinent information,” and by “analyzing” and “correlating” the information and “reconciling conflicting information.” These conclusions carry so much more confidence because they meet the standards.

One comment I have heard from time to time is that the Genealogical Proof Standard or the more detailed BCG standards are “just for professionals.” In my experience, and I would venture to say the experiences of all other researchers who apply them to their own personal research, the Standards are definitely not “just for professionals.”

The Standards are for anyone who wants to accurately research their family history.

No “genealogical community”?

My recent article “The Genealogy Paradigm Shift: Are bloggers the new ‘experts’?” was apparently not the only response to Thomas Macentee’s Geneabloggers post entitled, “Open Thread Thursday: Do We Eat Our Own In The Genealogy Industry?

James Tanner posted the article, “Well Said Tom, Here’s My Response,” on his Genealogy’s Star blog. In this article, James writes,

I don’t think that historically there has been a “genealogical community.” I believe that the bloggers are in the process of creating such a community. Before there was the “professional, journal writing” genealogical group but I don’t think you could view them as a “community.”[1]

I hope that James will further explain this statement. No genealogical community?

How about the National Genealogical Society? It has been around since 1903! Or any of these societies:

  • The New England Historic Genealogical Society (est. 1845)
  • The New York Genealogical & Biographical Society (est. 1869)
  • The American Society of Genealogists (est. 1940)
  • The Board for the Certification of Genealogists (est. 1964)
  • The Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (est. 1977)
  • The Association of Professional Genealogists (est. 1979)

Or any of the hundreds of local, county, state, or regional historical and genealogical societies throughout the world?

When I was corresponding with distant historical societies and genealogical societies or other researchers working on the same families, on paper with envelopes and stamps, I felt like part of a community.

Certainly, this was a small community, especially if compared with the thousands of GeneaBloggers and members of the “online genealogy community.”

But it was a community.

To me, a community is a group of people with common interests and common goals, working together, offering each other support. How can anyone look at the accomplishments of genealogists of the past, including the organizations that they formed and progress that they made together and claim that “historically there has [not] been a ‘genealogy community’”?

Without the genealogy community of the past, we would not have the online genealogy community.

SOURCES:

[1] James Tanner, “Well Said Tom, Here’s My Response,” Genealogy’s Star blog, posted 14 Dec 2011 (http://genealogysstar.blogspot.com : accessed 18 Dec 2011).

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “No ‘genealogical community’?,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 18 Dec 2011 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

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