Archive for the ‘Research Skills’ Category

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.

Is primary information truly reliable for genealogists?

“Just how accurate are the memories that we know are true?” “All our memories are reconstructed memories.”

— Scott Fraser, in TEDtalksDirector, “Scott Fraser: The problem with eyewitness testimony,” online video, uploaded 10 September 2012, Youtube (http://www.youtube.com : accessed 12 September 2012).

As genealogists we often look for ways to categorize the records we are using. We call sources original or derivative, based on the generation of the format we are using. We call information primary or secondary, based on the involvement of the informant in the events being reported. These designations are arguably an important aspect of our analysis of facts and details that appear in the records we find about our ancestors.

But how important are these designations, really? How much do they affect a record’s accuracy?

Is primary information necessarily more reliable that secondary information?

Our first sense would be “of course.” Someone who was an eyewitness to an event would be a more reliable source that someone who did not witness the event. This may be true, but just how much confidence can we have in primary information? Can we consider the testimony of an eyewitness inherently reliable?

This is where we must be more careful in our analysis of records. As Scott Fraser explores in the video below, the memories of even eyewitnesses can be flawed in surprising ways. This is no less true in our family history research than in a murder trial. “The brain abhors a vacuum,” Fraser remarks. “The brain fills in information that was not there, not originally stored—from inference, from speculation, from sources of information that came to you as the observer after the observation. … It’s called reconstructive memory.”

Making the designation between primary information and secondary information is a useful exercise in our process of records analysis. It is important to consider the involvement of the informant in the event being reported. However, it is equally important to consider other factors, for example:

  • how much time had passed between the event and the creation of the record;
  • what was the mental condition of the informant at the time of the event;
  • what was the mental condition of the informant at the time of the creation of the record;
  • what potential biases may have affected the reporting of the event, either intentional or unintentional.

As genealogists, finding records may seem like the bulk of what we do. Yet I consider the skilled and knowledgeable analysis of these records to be just as important, if not more so. Finding a record is a small part of the process; understanding the record–what it says and what it doesn’t say, its reliability, its significance–is vital for us to achieve reliable and accurate results.

In other words, determining the reliability of even an eyewitness’s testimony is the only way to determine the accuracy of our conclusions. Part of this process is understanding and considering the nature of human memory.

Take a look at this video for a more detailed exploration of the subject:

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “Is primary information truly reliable for genealogists?,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 13 September 2012 (https://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.]

Free webinar tomorrow – “What is a ‘Reasonably Exhaustive Search’?”

There is still time to register for my webinar “What is a ‘Reasonably Exhaustive Search’?” Legacy Family Tree will be hosting this webinar, tomorrow (12 September 2012) at 2pm EDT.

The first requirement of the Genealogical Proof Standard is that we “complete a reasonably exhaustive search for all relevant records” related to our research objective. This presentation discusses what a “reasonably exhaustive search” entals, why this is necessary, and how to conduct a search. A case study explores how failing to identify all relevant records can lead to missing information and forming inaccurate conclusions about your ancestors’ lives.

To register visit http://www.legacyfamilytree.com/webinars.asp. You will receive a confirmation email after you complete the registration process.

Attendance at the webinar will be restricted to the first 1000 to sign in. There are already many more than this number registered, so it is important to sign in at least thirty (30) minutes early. If you are unable to attend the live webinar, the recording will be available to watch free on the Legacy Family Tree website for ten (10) days.

A more permanent copy of the lecture will be available for purchase on DVD directly from Legacy Family Tree here. Feel free to also pre-order the DVD  whether or not you can attend.

I look forward to seeing you there!

For more articles about conducting a “reasonably exhaustive search,” read:

You can also read any of the articles included in the category “Genealogical Proof Standard” on the right, for details about other very important research and analysis skills.

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?

Charging for genealogy: what is it worth?

This post has been inspired by Thomas Macentee’s 2012 update to the 2011 “Genea-Opportunities” series of blog posts.[1] Longtime readers may recognize that it was this discussion that originally led to the birth of this blog in its current incarnation. The third topic Thomas has proposed for this week is “What Do You Mean It Isn’t Free?”

Despite the subtitle of this blog (“Genealogy as a Profession”), I have never discussed the central question that most aspiring genealogists struggle with: what do we charge for my services?

One resource that is often recommended is Chapter 10, “Setting Realistic Fees” by Sandra Hargreaves Luebking in the book Professional Genealogy. In this chapter Ms. Luebking puts forth a relatively simple two-part formula to calculate your rates: (1) Salary + Expenses + Profit = Targeted Income; and (2) Targeted Income / Billable Hours = Hourly Fee.[2]

Using this method, if your “targeted income” is $80,000, and you can work 20 billable hours per week (x 50 weeks = 1000 hours), then your hourly fee would be calculated as $80 per hour. Simple enough.

Unfortunately I disagree that this formula can produce a realistic figure. To me, one should set their fees based on external factors rather than internal factors. Think about every job you have ever had. You did not walk into the interview and say, “This is how much you have to pay me.” Being self-employed, of course, you have the option to set whatever rate you decide. You can base this on anything that you want.

My own rates are based primarily on a broad survey of other professional genealogists. What do others with similar skills, experience, and education charge? This, in my opinion, is the fair way to set my fees. It has less to do with what I think I need, and more to do with what the market allows.

I believe that the market should control our rates for two reasons: the dangers of overpricing and the dangers of underpricing.

The danger of overpricing

Suppose you are an aspiring professional genealogist. You have decided to quit your job and start taking clients full-time. You have never conducted any research other than on your own family. You have never completed a genealogy course of study, other than a few local society meetings and regional conferences. You use the equation above and decide to come out of the gate charging $80 per hour, in order to maintain your lifestyle.

With your first few clients, you realize that you are in over your head a little bit. You have a few unhappy clients–not because their expectations were too high, but because you could not deliver value equal to your rate. Suddenly these unhappy clients have told their friends who told their friends, and to a small but growing group of people “professional genealogy” is now considered a scam.

This hurts all of us–not just you or your clients.

The danger of underpricing

Some prospective clients will try to get anything they can for free. They will write to you for advice, asking specific questions about their family, and eventually start asking you for “favors” to pick up records, etc. Part of the problem is that many genealogy consumers are on fixed incomes and quite frankly can’t afford to hire a professional. Another part of the problem is that genealogical research skills are often undervalued even among professionals, and this attitude spreads to consumers.

Underpricing is quite often a result of undervaluing what your skill is worth. Again this is why we must conduct market research. Find out what other genealogists with similar skill, education, and experience are charging. And, equally important, be honest with yourself as to what your level of skill, education, and experience really is. If you have been researching the same family for 25 years, this is different from a professional genealogist with 25 years of experience researching hundreds (or thousands) of different, unrelated families.

Doing market research

The greatest resource for conducting market research into what other genealogists charge is the Members Directory of the Association of Professional Genealogists. Here you can read the profiles of all 2000-plus members of the APG–not all of whom take clients.

The members’ profiles provide general qualifications: education, experience, qualifications, specialties. You can search for specific locations or specialties or even keywords using the Search function of the Directory. But don’t stop there. Most profiles do not provide specific information on rates. However, many professional genealogists have their own websites. Follow the links to their sites for more information. Don’t stop at one, either–look at a few dozen. Find those most similar to yourself, and average their rates. You can make small adjustments as needed based on your local average cost of living. (Living in Manhattan is a different scale than living in Kansas.)

In general–in my opinion–your rates should reflect the value that you are able to provide based on your skills, education, and experience. Have I repeated those three factors enough yet? These three factors are among the most important when it comes to many other aspects of professional genealogy as well–not just setting your rates.

What do my fellow professional genealogists think?

SOURCES:

[1] Thomas MacEntee, “GENEA-OPPORTUNITIES – 2012 UPDATE,” Geneabloggers blog, posted 9 July 2012 (http://www.geneabloggers.com : accessed 9 July 2012). Thomas MacEntee, “GENEA-OPPORTUNITIES (LET’S MAKE LOTS OF MONEY),”  Geneabloggers blog, posted 18 April 2011.

[2] Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, “Chapter 10: Setting Realistic Fees,” in Professional Genealogy (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2001), pages 193-202.

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “Charging for genealogy: what is it worth?,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 11 July 2012 (https://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.]

Assessing the reliability of a statement

Several weeks ago, the following question was posed on the APG Members mailing list:

I need to get an idea of whether people think that a statement (follows) in a letter can be reliably accepted as proof of relationship.

Belle (Skinner) Capwell wrote a letter in 1930 to Kate Black, saying, “Sally Goodrich Cheney [Kate’s great-grandmother] was a sister of my grandmother Betsy Goodrich Skinner.” Betsy (Goodrich) Skinner died in 1876, when Belle (Skinner) Capwell was 14; Belle’s father, Daniel Skinner, died in 1881. So Belle might very well have gotten this relationship information firsthand from her grandmother or father. The Cheney family had moved to Illinois before Belle was born, so she might not have known them, unless they came back to NY for a visit.

The Goodrich/Goodridge genealogy by Edwin Alonzo Goodridge included Betsy (and Sally?)’s father, Edmund Goodrich/Goodridge, but Sally was apparently born after the family moved to NY from Newbury, MA, and the list of children in the genealogy includes only the three born in Newbury. I’ve been trying to locate records in Chautauqua Co., NY, where Edmund died, that might tie him to Sally, but so far have had no luck (he lived with Daniel Skinner at his death, and there is no probate file).

I do still need to investigate deeds for him in Chautauqua Co., but in the meantime, I want to get an idea (Elizabeth?) of whether a genealogical journal editor would accept that statement in the letter as proof. Belle wrote the letter to Kate because Belle wanted to join the DAR and was hoping that Kate might have info about the Goodrich family that might lead her to Revolutionary War ancestors.[1]

This researcher has raised a very important issue in evidence analysis by genealogists. How do we assess the reliability of this statement? For that matter, how do we assess the reliability of any statement in any record?

Here are the first questions that I ask myself when assessing any statement:

  • Who made the statement?
  • Who did they make the statement to?
  • Why did they make the statement?
  • What was the informant’s knowledge of the event being reported?
  • Did any reason exist for the informant to deliberately make a false statement?

In this example, the researcher had already identified the responses to most of these questions. Sometimes analysis does come down to asking yourself specific questions and formulating specific answers.

First, let’s clearly delineate the statement being evaluated: “Sally Goodrich Cheney [Kate’s great-grandmother] was a sister of my grandmother Betsy Goodrich Skinner.”

This statement provides evidence of a sibling relationship between Sally (Goodrich) Cheney and Betsy (Goodrich) Skinner. Our objective is to evaluate the reliability of this evidence.

Who made the statement? The statement was made by Belle (Skinner) Capwell, granddaughter of Betsy (Goodrich) Skinner.

Who did they make the statement to? The statement was made to Kate Black, great-granddaughter of Sally (Goodrich) Cheney.

Why did they make the statement? Belle was contacting Kate, her first cousin once removed, for information about their mutual Goodrich family. We do not know whether Belle and Kate knew each other. However, the structure of the sentence explicitly expressing the relationship between Belle’s grandmother and Kate’s great-grandmother implies that Kate did not know Belle personally, but that Kate may have known her great-grandmother Sally. Belle’s appeal was through the relationship that Belle’s grandmother had with Kate’s great-grandmother, rather than through a direct association.

The more specific response to this question is that Belle made the statement in pursuit of her goal to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, a lineage society. Though the proof standards required by the DAR in 1930 were far shy of those required by the DAR today (and even further shy of what the BCG might require), there is still the assumption that, by contacting more distant family members, she was striving for a certain level of accuracy. (Remember these were the days before the Family History Library and the Internet, before even the WPA and their work with historic records, when many records were not yet centralized in state repositories but held in private hands or spread out among various courthouse attics and basements. Research was different then.)

What was the informant’s knowledge of the event being reported? This question is vital, but the answer is much more complicated than you might initially believe. One might immediately think, “Belle was not present at her grandmother’s birth, so her knowledge has to be secondary.” But take a look at the statement we are evaluating: this is a direct statement about the relationship, not about the birth. Could Belle have had direct knowledge that Sally and Betsy were sisters? To answer this, we have to look at the relationship between Belle and her grandmother Betsy.

The researcher had obviously already taken this into consideration: “Betsy (Goodrich) Skinner died in 1876, when Belle (Skinner) Capwell was 14; Belle’s father, Daniel Skinner, died in 1881. So Belle might very well have gotten this relationship information firsthand from her grandmother or father. The Cheney family had moved to Illinois before Belle was born, so she might not have known them, unless they came back to NY for a visit.” This shows that Belle almost certainly knew her grandmother for the first 14 years of her life. We do not know (from the limited information provided) how old Belle was when she wrote the letter, though this could affect the reliability somewhat.

So, as the researcher here noted herself, Belle could have learned of the relationship from her grandmother. Imagine Betsy sitting there talking to her granddaughter, mentioning “my sister Sally.”

It is not entirely unlikely, either, that Belle had met her grandmother’s sister in person. Migrant family members often returned to visit the family left behind. Illinois was not too far from New York. So the possibility definitely exists that Belle had met Sally.

Did any reason exist for the informant to deliberately make a false statement? Regardless of whether or not Belle and Kate knew each other, the bottom line is that they were part of an extended family. The letter was an inquiry about their family history. While the potential for bias existed in Belle’s desire to join the Daughters of American Revolution, this potential bias would most likely manifest itself in the lineage application itself. It would not likely apply to a statement in a private letter from one “cousin” to another, inquiring about their mutual family.

So, after asking ourselves just these first few questions, it becomes apparent that Belle was likely stating the truth of Sally and Betsy’s relationship as she understood it, and that she was in a position to have had personal knowledge of this relationship.

In other words, the statement of the relationship is probably highly reliable.

The next step in assessing the reliability of a statement, after examining the context of the statement itself, as demonstrated here, is to compare this information with that provided by other records. Yet the information provided by each of these records must itself be assessed internally, in the way discussed here, before it can be compared effectively with other records. When contradictory evidence is discovered, researchers must consider how reliable the conflicting statements are in determining which is most likely to be accurate.

SOURCES:

[1] Christine Crawford-Oppenheimer (email reserved for private use), e-mail, “Assessment of reliability of a statement in a letter,” to APG Members Mailing List, 9 March 2012. Reprinted with permission of author.

If you would like to cite this post: Michael Hait, “Assessing the reliability of a statement,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 9 April 2012 (https://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.]

EvidenceExplained.com website launches

I have mentioned the books Evidence! and Evidence Explained on numerous occasions in this blog. These two books by Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, have highly influenced my approach to record analysis and source citation.

Today, 1 April 2012, Ms. Mills announced the launch of a new website based on the books: EvidenceExplained.com.

Across the past year or so, many of you have queried the genealogical mailing lists, asking when the 2nd edition of Evidence Explained would be available in a downloadable format. The wait is over.

EvidenceExplained.com has now launched—not just as a vehicle for providing electronic downloads of an updated 2nd edition of EE and the QuickSheets, but also as an educational venue and a forum for issues relating to citation, evidence analysis, and record usage and interpretation.[1]

Through this site, for the very first time, one can download electronic editions of not only the 2009 2nd Edition of Evidence Explained, but all of Ms. Mills’s Quicksheets also published by Genealogical Publishing Company. All of these reference works should be on every serious genealogists’ bookshelf. These electronic editions now provide a means to have them with you everywhere you go–even those research trips where you just couldn’t.

As she mentions in her announcement, the site also includes several forums, i.e. “Citation Issues,” “Evidence Analysis Issues,” and “Record Usage and Interpretation.” These forums already have several discussions that are worth participating in, and, if you have a question of your own, you should post it to the forums for advice from other scholarly genealogists.

Visit and explore EvidenceExplained.com, and if you do not have these books in your library, get them now!

For more on Evidence Explained, read the following posts:

SOURCES:

[1] Elizabeth Shown Mills (email address for private use), to APG Members Mailing List, e-mail, 1 April 2012, “Electronic edition: Evidence Explained.”

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