Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.Although the biblical reference is directed to spiritual knowledge, it can also be applied to the practical world of research into more mundane and common subjects. William Shakespeare noted:
Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven. See Henry VI, Part 2, Act IV.Here is another quote attributed to Confucius:
To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledgeWhat then is research? Seeking out what we do not know. Can we proceed until we know what we already know? Think about it.
I had a rather simple experience recently that pointed out the need to know what we know. I was teaching about adding sources to the FamilySearch.org Family Tree. While demonstrating the Family Tree, I recently began asking class members for a volunteer to sign into the program so I can use their portion of the Family Tree for my examples. That way, I am approaching the information for the first time and can comment on what I find and do not find. In this instance, the portion of the Family Tree we looked at had one individual with several sources attached. However, the information that had been transferred to the details section of the individual entry was rather sketchy. For example, the entries lacked birth and death information. In clicking on one of the sources listed, I found a World War I Draft Registration Card listing the birth date and place where the individual was born. That information had not been extracted and included in detail summary part of the individual's entry.
It was interesting to find that a "source" had been listed but the process of extraction of the information available from that source had not be completed. This caught my attention because it was the second time this past week that I encountered a similar situation. In another experience, I was helping a friend search microfilm records, when he noted that he had a pile of documents at home and he wasn't sure what he already had that might help to explain some of the inconsistencies we were finding from our search of parish registers.
In each case, the person doing the "research" was failing to understand and implement one of the most basic tenets of the process: begin with what you know.
As we become more involved in genealogical research, one of the major challenges is keeping track of what we have already found and thereby knowing what we do not already know. It can be exhilarating to reach out into the unknown, but without an adequate base of knowledge about where we are it is very easy to get lost.
Where do most commonly go off into the unknown without a sufficient anchor to reality in doing genealogical research?
What I find most frequently is a lack of specificity in geographically locating events in our ancestors' lives. Many times the location of an event, i.e. birth, marriage, death etc., is entirely missing. In some cases, the information that is recorded is contradictory or inaccurate or both. Here is an example from my own section of the FamilySearch.org Family Tree:
Marriage: abt 1820, England
This entry certainly shows that the researchers knew what they were talking about. In this particular case, the husband was supposedly born in Rovenden, Kent, England and the wife was born in the same place. What is even more strange is that there is a "Life Sketch" for the couple that includes the following:
They were married in the Rolvenden Church by Banns on 20 October 1822, neither of them could write as evidenced by the "X" marks on their marriage certificate. The marriage was witnessed by Charles Stapley, Sarai's brother, who married Samuel's sister, Sarah Bryant, just a few weeks later on 1 December 1822.It is also interesting to note that there is no source listing in the Source section for marriage records. Where did this information come from? A possibility is the following book:
In this case, how do we know what we know? More importantly, how do know what we know is correct? The question is not easily resolved or answered. It is facile to state that research involves moving from what we know to what we do not know. What is more important however, is to know how and why we know what we know. See quote from Confucius above.
In the particular case of the Bryant family above, it is evident that someone has done some serious research on the family, but without properly recording where the information was obtained, there is no way I can verify that what has been recorded so far is correct. Like Hansel and Gretel, we need to leave bread crumbs along the trail so we can return the way we came. But unlike Hansel and Gretel, perhaps we should use something a little more permanent than actual bread crumbs.
Previous installments of this series include: