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

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Single Record Researcher

I have observed that genealogical researchers go through several developmental stages. I characterize the first stage as the "Census and Vital Records" Stage. It could also be characterized as the "Single Record" Stage. Some researchers move through this stage quickly, others never seem to get past it.

At the Single Record Stage, the researcher finds a record about his or her ancestral family and immediately moves on to the next generation. The move to the next generation is usually made using family tradition rather than the information contained in the one, found record. The significance of the information contained in that one record is entirely lost. If that one record turns out to be a U.S. Federal Census Record and if the person examines the record, they often note that there is a discrepancy between the estimated dates in the Census and their memory of birth dates.  Even if I explain the reason why birth dates in census records are not accurate, the idea that their own, traditional date may be wrong never occurs them.

How do we move past this stage in our genealogical development? Today, some of the larger, online genealogical family tree programs generate record hints. The users of these programs get the idea that adding record hints is sort of like moving up to the next level in a video game, but they don't seem to realize that despite nearly 100% claimed accuracy, many of those hints do not apply to their family members. They may accumulate many more than just a single record source, but mixed in with valid sources there may be ones that do not correspond to the family at all.

As you accumulate genealogical data, you are creating a pattern. Many commentators have compared that pattern to a puzzle, but the puzzle analogy breaks down because genealogical relationships are much more complex than the one-to-one relationships between puzzle pieces and the rest of the puzzle. This is particularly true when related individuals have intermarried. My own parents were second cousins and this type of situation creates some interesting descendancy patterns as well as family dynamics.

Until a researcher begins to see the patterns in the genealogical foreground and the significance of the background information, both the accuracy and the consistency of the genealogical pattern suffer. A U.S. Census record, for example, contains many levels of information, including some or all of the following:

  • Names
  • Dates
  • Places
  • Occupations
  • Numbers of Children
  • Ages
  • Marital Status
  • Linguistic Background
  • Origin
  • Naturalization Status
and many more categories. As the researcher begins to acquire a certain degree of sophistication, the pattern created by the Census record becomes apparent. Some of the search engine algorithms employed by the larger, online genealogical database programs use these patterns to increase their accuracy. But no matter how sophisticated the program, There are levels of patterns in the data that the programs cannot comprehend or utilize. For example, the position of a family within a greater ethnic neighborhood is lost on a computer program and barely discernible to a seasoned researcher. These higher level patterns are only discoverable by asking why questions. 

Let's suppose that the early researcher finds an ancestral family living in Pennsylvania in the very early 1800s. Do the historical events known as the Whiskey Rebellion and the German-American tax revolt have any significance in the lives of these ancestors? There are in fact, patterns upon patterns upon patterns in history and our ancestors were either players in or subject to those patterns. 

I have been writing about this topic for many years now and it seems that the issue still arises repeatedly. Every new crop of researchers has to go through the same process and it is inevitable that some will continue their progress and others will stall at some level or another. Doing genealogical research is an evolving activity. I was looking at a source the other day that I just used to solve a significant issue with one ancestral family. I realized that I had a digital copy of that same source on my computer. But at the time I first copied it, I did not look carefully enough at the record to realize its significance. 

How do we move forward in our recognition of important historical patterns? We continue to learn, study and examine. After spending some time learning about the research process, we go back to that same census record we gathered early on and find out that it contains a wealth of information that we previously ignored. 

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