Thursday, June 27, 2013

Cutting through the fog of history

We are all inundated in a fog of historical documents. Most of the time, as genealogists, I think we feel that the documents are hiding from us. In reality, they are there, but we see too much and have limited ways of distinguishing which of all the documents that exist pertain to our own research. So how do penetrate the historical fog that seems to surround us in every direction?

Fundamentally, we need to understand the fog. We need to know the extent of the documentation and the limitations. In short, we need to know the context of our searches; what is and what is not possible. Unless we understand this need and do something about it, we will be forever wandering in the fog and never find what we are seeking. For example, one part of this overwhelming fog is on the Ancestry.com website. There are presently, 31,344 collections with billions of entries. If we add in all the collections on MyHeritage.com, FamilySearch.org and findmypast.com, we certainly have a formidable fog of sources.

Fortunately, each of those vast collections of documents have more or less useful tools for navigating our way through the mass of data forming the fog. I say "less" because the indexes created by any one or all of these programs as only as good as the ability of the indexers to read and interpret the original documents. For this reason, the first step in making our way through this fog should be to limit the size of the fogged area, i.e. through filtering out collections that have nothing to do with our own particular search. Each of these programs give us the ability to search a single database, rather than confronting the entire set of collections all at once. My rule is always to search the individual databases and use global searches only very judiciously, if you expect to find the target ancestor quite easily.

In Ancestry.com, searching an individual collection is quite simple. All you do is go to the "Card Catalog" (also see all collections) and find individual collections that may apply to the area where your ancestor lived at the time of the target events. So, if my ancestor lived in Navajo County, Arizona in 1920, I would limit my search to Ancestry.com collections that might have documents pertaining to that time and place.

As we move into other online documents or even those yet to be digitized, we can use the same method to open up our view of the documents and bring them out of the fog. You might notice that the task of searching for relavant documents can be made a whole lot simpler by focusing on the time and place of an event rather than randomly making our way with huge general searches. The fact is that the fog becomes almost transparent, the more we know about the time, surroundings, background and history of the events we are researching.

This background information comes from extensive study of the history of the area where our ancestors lived. You will always be in a fog as long as you don't know the background and history of the events and people you are searching.

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