Genealogy deals with information defined in its broadest sense. For example, from the standpoint of a genealogical researcher, a large library is full of information but most of that information is "noise" in the sense that the quantity of information interferes with our obtaining a meaningful signal, i.e. finding relevant information we can use to construct a family pedigree. Again, in a general way, what we do as we search for our ancestors is to try to filter out or focus on just those items of information we are seeking and reject all of the others.
If I am sitting in front of a microfilm viewer searching through an historical record for a particular surname or set of surnames, the unwanted name listings are "noise." Likewise the physical elements of the record, such as the quality of the writing and the image itself can interfere in our searching process. To some people, the noise levels in genealogical research are so high that they give up and avoid genealogical research altogether.
In the diagram above of white noise, it is entirely possible that there is a meaningful signal hidden in this background-type noise. As long as the information is at the same level of intensity as the rest of the signal, the information is undetectable. The information would only become evident if we were to selectively filter out the unwanted portions of the signal and focus only on those particular frequencies that contain the information.
Currently, the genealogical noise level is increasing at an alarming rate. There are billions of records on thousands of websites and even more in repositories scattered all over the world. Some people try to calculate how much information we consume on a daily basis. On study, a few years ago, estimated that U.S. households consume 3.6 zettabytes of information in the year 2008. A zettabyte is 1,000,000,000 trillion bytes. It is no wonder we feel we are in information overload.
If we are to survive in an information saturated environment, we need to develop methods to cope with all this information. Here are some of my suggestions, purely from a genealogical standpoint.
1. Focus on a short list of research objectives.
One of the realities of the online genealogical databases is that they are now sending us "research hints" by the tens of thousands. From a research standpoint this is both good and bad. In reality, all of these suggestions are like the white noise above. We need to filter out those signals we are interested in and somehow ignore the rest. Some researchers simply tune out. But the danger here is that they will waste valuable research time looking for information that is being supplied to them in the online stream. My suggestion is to select a workable number of research objectives (names or families) and ignore any signals you receive about any other families no matter how enticing they may seem to be. The research hints are not going to go away and so you can wait to look at others that interest you until you are ready to process that particular area of research.
2. Spend time processing and evaluating the information you gather.
I have noticed a rise in the number of "sources" attached to individuals in online family trees that do not apply to the individuals to whom they are attached. Apparently, the programs have suggested "near matches" and the casual researcher has simply attached the record without regard for its application to the specific individuals involved. This is sometimes characterized as the process of assuming the "same name is the same person." But with the research hints this goes well beyond the issue of a simple match. The suggested research hints may be virtually identical to the people in your family tree and it is only through careful evaluation and reference to other sources of information that the match can be rejected.
3. Don't get caught up in the details.
I frequently talk to genealogical researchers who are fixated on a particular individual or fact. For example, they are looking for a specific birth, death or marriage date that may not exist. When you are working on a genealogical puzzle, all the pieces may not exist. You can waste a huge amount of time looking for a specific date concerning a specific event. The best way to look at this is to consider the subject of your research as a river of information that you are studying intently and grabbing out the information you need as the river runs swiftly by. If you try to dam up the river and search it, you will not only spend a lot of wasted time, you will likely miss much of the information that would have answered your question.
4. Don't limit your inquires unnecessarily.
Some researchers paint themselves into a corner. They refuse to go online or they don't read books or whatever. In the genealogical community, we have a tendency to note those members of the community that lack computer skills and therefore fail to find the information now online. But the reverse of this is that most of those researchers who are focused on Internet sources are now ignoring the huge collection of books that have been accumulated over the past thousand years or so. Even when those books are digitized and available online, the researchers fail to search them. Broaden your perspective. Look in all types of records.
5. Keep careful notes but attach the notes to specific individuals.
Many researchers learned to keep notes in high school or college. They meticulously record their findings in notebooks. This seems like organization and so the notebooks and notes proliferate. But in reality, all these notes are useless to anyone but the researcher. It is time to start focusing on attaching all this information directly to individuals and families in a genealogical database program. Recently, I have been advocating adding all this information to the FamilySearch.org Family Tree and thereby not only organizing it, but also preserving it in a form that others can see what and how we did our research.
OK, so those are some of my thoughts on the process of filtering down the vast quantity of information out there in the world.