Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part Two

I begin this second installment in the series with a quote from Cerny, Johni, and Arlene H. Eakle. Ancestry's Guide to Research: Case Studies in American Genealogy. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Inc, 1985, on page 115:

When students of genealogy first learn that it is impossible to prove a lineage absolutely, they resist that fact. They live in an era when advanced technology demands absolutes, the products of societies driven to achieve perfection. Neither resistance, technology, nor the pursuit of perfection will alter reality; at best, a lineage can be proven only beyond a reasonable doubt, just as guilt or innocence is proven in a court of law.  Lineages, like court cases, are built upon available evidence.
I will reserve further comment on the issue of applying legal jargon to genealogical research issues to another post, but I would comment here that proving genealogical research to a standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" would make that research practically impossible. This statement above, to some extent, summarizes my comments in the first installment of this series. Proving an ancestral relationship with "evidence" implies a degree of certitude that is not achievable. Court cases involve adversarial proceedings presided over by a judge or jury who will ultimately make the decision as to which side prevails. There are no genealogical courts, either are there any genealogical judges or juries. The end product of our genealogical research is nothing more or less that a series of conclusions we make based on the sources we discover. Nothing is added to the research process by alluding to any quasi-legal standard of proof.

In an earlier work, Harland, Derek. Genealogical Research Standards. Salt Lake City, Utah: Published by the Genealogical Society, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1963, the author states, at page 20:
It would be difficult to set a general standard for genealogical research, as the methods of compiling pedigrees vary according to the time and locality of each problem. The aim of every genealogist is to conform to the highest standard, irrespective of the time and locality of the problem – it is to carry out searches that will result in complete and correct and connected records.
In the book, Bennett, Archibald F. A Guide for Genealogical Research. [Salt Lake City]: Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1951 at page 51, it states:
Each one of us who would undertake to compile a genealogy is in duty bound to base this record upon the testimony of persons who actually knew from first-hand experience those facts of names, dates, places and relationships which go to make up such a record. Or, in the event no direct, first-hand testimony of an eye and ear witness can be found, he must obtain the testimony of one who, although not himself an actual witness to these facts, learned of them from those who did know by personal experience.
The key concept I see as crucial to beginning a study of the subject of genealogical research is the concept of moving from the known to the unknown. Before we begin to search for information about our remote ancestors we most certainly need to understand clearly what we already know. This particular stage has been referred to as the "Survey Stage" of genealogical research. In my early years, this process involved years of research in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah gathering all of the records previously compiled by my relatives. Today, that task is made considerably easier by the availability of much of that information online.

All too often after accumulating the efforts of other family members, researchers began by accepting on blind faith the work done. Obviously, such work may have been accurate but in many cases, there are discrepancies that can seriously affect the accuracy of subsequent research efforts. Many of these earlier compiled genealogies lack any reference to the source where the information was obtained and are therefore inherently unreliable. It may seem unnecessary bother to document information that we "know" to be correct but had our ancestors done this, we would not be in the position of having to redo the research.

Despite our belief in the accuracy of the previously done work, as we examine whatever has been previously compiled about our family, it is important to integrate both analysis and interpretation without implying a final conclusion. I see the basic outline of the process as follows:

1st Stage:
We begin the process by understanding the need for source documentation as a basis for extending and verifying family lines. Before initiating a search for individuals and families, it is imperative to understand the relationship between locations and sources. Any valid genealogical or historical investigation is source-centric. But at the same time, any consideration of sources need to be focused on specifically identified geographic locations. It is essential that we verify information we already possess. In the process of verifying my own family's efforts, I found much of the information to be inaccurate. Place names were improperly recorded or totally inaccurate. Dates were often missing or obviously wrong. Names were expelled in a variety of formats and variations in the names were not reflected in any actual records. I found incorrect places and dates, thereby rendering whole ancestral lines questionable.

2nd Stage:
All of the previously recorded sources must be analyzed and evaluated for consistency and accuracy. At this point, it is important to proceed systematically, making no assumptions and refraining from the impulse to jump back to research missing information. For example, if a particular ancestor has no source documentation, approximate dates and unspecified places where events occurred, it should be assumed that any recorded ancestral lines beyond the unverified individual are questionable and should be ignored until adequate documentation is discovered.

Research, therefore, is the process of evaluating what is presently known, identifying questions that need to be resolved and missing information that needs to be found and then beginning the process of analysis and interpretation extending the lines by considering sources that may be available as connected to the places where our ancestors lived. Too many people, when beginning genealogical research, assume that all they need to is look for records and copy out the names.

I will expand on this idea in future installments.

Previous installments of this series include:


  1. James,

    With your great understanding of this, you really should get involved the discussion now ongoing at FHISO regarding the Elements of Genealogical Analysis, and help Elizabeth Shown Mills add some essence of understanding to all the programmer-types that are there: FHISO May 2015 Archives


  2. I like how you bring up that although verification is important there is room for interpretation. Great series!