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 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 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.

6 thoughts on “The “literature search” in the Internet age

  1. I think a “literature search” (or as I was taught back in the dark ages, “preliminary survey”) is still necessary, but I agree that it is not my first step. The point at which I look for previous research depends upon the nature of the problem. It is not unusual for me to look briefly at online trees to identify clues as to where a branch of a family moved, or where an individual might have married or died, if that is not readily apparent from other records.

    I would point out, however, that I do not think of using finding aids such as indexes, or transcriptions and abstracts, as part of the “literature search” or “preliminary survey.” Whether using an online index (which may or may not be accompanied by record images), a published book of abstracts, or a deed index in a court house, they are an essential first step in the process of locating records.

  2. I do think that the preliminary survey or literature search is still necessary, but that the mechanics of the process have changed. The main problem is knowing what sources to check, and this is where the online indexes can really help. I couldn’t possibly know of every genealogical periodical published, but if they all were indexed in one place it would reduce the time needed to search for the information needed to start the search!

    Unfortunately, there is no such index. But the information that is available still goes a long way toward easing the process. For example, I’ve found online a book on the family of my great-aunt’s husband. No one in the family ever knew much about his family at all, and I stumbled across this book thanks to an online source. Of course, I don’t take anything in it at face value, but at least it was written by a professional genealogist (or so it says) and includes sources that I can go back and verify. Without the book, I wouldn’t have known to even start looking in a village 100 miles from where he lived and that now has a population of about 350.

    I don’t put a lot of stock in online trees that don’t have sources (many sites don’t even have the capability of posting the researcher’s reasoning), but again they can be useful as guidelines for further research.

    • Have you used PERSI? The PERiodical Source Index (PERSI), produced by the Allen County Library, does index many (though not necessarily all) genealogical periodicals. It is not an every-name index of course—that would be massive—but it does index the articles by title & subject. You can also order copies of articles directly from the library if you do not have local access.

  3. Michael, I admit I was taken a bit aback by the thought that looking on ancestry for a posted family (or anywhere else for that matter would be considered a “literature” search. I am “old school,” I admit. A literature search for me is seeing if any person has published information about the family, place or the time in question. It is more a matter of context than relationships, in my mind.

    But, if I twist the words around a little and ask myself what does “publishing” mean in the digital age, I might be able to accept the idea that a posted family tree is published but then you have to ask yourself ….is it “Literature”?

  4. Michael,

    I disagree to some extent on not doing an internet literature search up front, though the real question, especially from your perspective of researching for clients, is how much time can be justified on such a search.

    The primary reason I think such an upfront search is necessary is because so often there have long been erroneous assertions on the subject/family of interest, especially tied to erroneous printed research, and those assertions must be rebutted. If you were writing an article on the subject/family you would doubtless rebut such errors. And the only way to find those widespread errors (including ambiguous ones that cite some volume of record extracts without exact page numbers as a “source”), is too look for them. And doing it up front allows adjusting research to look for confirmations/conflicts without having to do another round of research on the same sources.

    The secondary reason is because sometimes there is something useful, even if only as a clue to help guide research, and especially if a possibly authentic though obscure source is mentioned. When finding such references to obscure sources I often put research on the backburner until such sources can be found.

    The one thing you can count on the name-gatherers for in situations where there are lots of descendents interested in the research, is to find a lot of remotely likely sources that might bear on the problem.

    As mentioned above by a commenter, the mechanics for a competent researcher are different. Regarding Ancestry trees I would only briefly look for exact date/place/etc. assertions and for any attached documents, rather then feeling it necessary to examine every tree among a multitude which were part of a circular copy chain. I would particularly look at Rootsweb WC trees search results for those citing sources and having notes and examine those. And I would do some quick google searches using a lot of exact search phrases and combinations (“John Doe” + “Jane Roe” + place/time) to turn up what web pages and google books references may exist.

    As for traditional printed literature I would search WorldCat and the FS library catalog as well as traditional indexes. The problem though, even with excellent printed genealogies, is that often very few copies were produced and it can be exceedingly difficult to lay eyes on same.

    I think the above can be done fairly quickly and efficiently, and would allow a client to have more faith in your research when you can say something like, “John Doe, often asserted in online trees [cite example] to have died in 1856 based on unknown sources, actually likely died in the spring of 1858 as his intestate probate was not initiated until the summer 1858 quarter sessions of the local court [cite]”.

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