Friday, July 20, 2012

The Evolution of Methodology

I remember the first time I saw a copy of the U.S. Federal Census. I was researching in the old Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and somehow decided I needed to look at the census. I had only the most vague understanding of how I might use the Census or even what I might find, but I searched through a huge cabinet of rolls of microfilm until I found one roll I thought might help. I looked at the Census in one of the hundreds of microfilm readers and quickly gave up. The images were unreadable to my inexperienced eyes and I have no idea how to find what I was looking for (if I knew). That ended my census experience for many, many years.

Did I attend a class on the census or look for a research guide? I didn't know such things existed. Did I ask for help? Of course not. I simply ignored the census for years. As it turned out, my own lines were not overly census dependent. Most of the "missing" information would not have been supplied from census records but many of my early conclusions may have made more sense had I used this resource.

My awakening to sources first came about through reading. I have mentioned this before, but my basic understanding of genealogy started from reading two books:
  • Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1990. 
  • Eakle, Arlene H., and Johni Cerny. The Source A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Pub. Co, 1984 and the later version, Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997. 
 As an interesting aside, I never dreamed that I would be working with Arlene Eakle in a common enterprise at Family History Expos back in those early days.

In today's online world of genealogy, it is very common for researchers in the U.S. to start with the Census records (and end there too). But during most of those early years, I was mainly trying to understand what was known and what was not known about my family.  Significantly, what took me many years of effort and multiple visits to the Family History Library, would today take no more than a few minutes looking at online family trees. The main difference was significant. Because I did not have an instant overview of "my family," I was forced to look at every connection, one by one, and verify, as much as I knew how at the time, the information and resolve any conflicting claims. Today, it is too easy to simply assume all that online information is correct and wonder what to do next.

My investigations centered mainly on looking at the thousands of family group records submitted by my family members at various times. These records were on paper and collected in huge binders. Sometimes I would find multiple copies of the same family with the usual variety in details and accuracy. Most of my efforts were focused on resolving those contradictions and eliminating the unbelievable ones.

I think I instinctively understood the need for sources to verify the information in the records I was examining, but of course, I had no idea of the extent of the records available until I began reading, as I pointed out above. Despite my understanding of the need for sources, it took me a long time to understand the importance of recording those sources as citations. I am still not fully convinced that the format of the citation has any real value, other than consistency and making journal editors happy, but I am more inclined as time goes by, to record more about the source rather than some artificial minimum amount of information.

The real transition came from the formal requirements of taking classes in genealogy from Brigham Young University. The years spent taking classes helped to focus my research and organize it into something coherent, something others could understand and reproduce. Writing papers for university level classes, some of the hardest classes I ever took, may not seem like fun, but it does train you to think more systematically. I remember one comment from a professor at BYU who sent back a long note to my first paper scolding me for "sounding like an attorney." I guess to some extent, I will never get past that issue.

So where am I today? Still evolving. I usually start out helping someone with their "genealogy" by asking a whole lot of questions. I don't think that is what most people have in mind when they start, but I have found it necessary to establish what the person is really thinking about.

I am sure that my methodology will continue to evolve as new technical resources become available and as I keep learning how to do what I have been trying to do for the past thirty or so years.

1 comment:

  1. Your professor might have better approved of my style: I come from a long style of classroom teachers and spent 30 years copy-editing textbooks. I frequently sound like a teacher.
    But my mother always said I'd make a good lawyer, because I kept trying to be accurate to the last detail when I was talking.
    This makes me doubt that there is that much difference in sounding like a lawyer or sounding like a teacher.

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