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.