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

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Is Research a Skill or a Talent? Or Both?

[Please take time to read the very extensive comment to this post]

I had a disturbing encounter with a patron the other evening. I was directed to help a patron with some questions and soon felt entirely inadequate. The discussion centered around how to proceed to find the next generation of ancestors in the Family Tree. It became painfully apparent that the patron did not understand the relationship between a record with information about an ancestor and the idea of using that information to expand the entries in the Family Tree.

For example, we looked at one of her ancestral families and I tried to explained that if we searched for an historical record, we might find some additional information about the family members and even find unknown members of the family. The patron then asked how that was supposed to happen. I was not sure I understood the question. I showed the patron the Historical Record Collections with digitized copies of records and tried to explain how searching through these records in the places where the ancestors lived and at the time they lived, might give us some additional information about the family. The patron did not seem to understand the connection between the records and finding additional information about the family. The more I explained, the less the patron seemed to understand.

I went on to try an explain how the records were organized and how a researcher could use the catalog and other finding aids to locate potentially useful records. The patron could not grasp the concept that searching for a record might produce additional information. The patron became frustrated and I eventually had to give up.

On reflection, I realized that we were not communicating. I was not using terms or concepts the patron could relate to or understand. I began to return to my analysis of the research process and ask the question, yet again, about how that process works and what it is that we do as genealogical researchers.

It appears to me that we create a model in our brains that has a series of symbolic elements. We visualize in a general way what we know about the world around us and then ask questions. Putting this into the context of genealogical research, I look at a the information I see about a family and note certain things that raise questions in my mind. For example, I see that there is a multi-year gap when the family did not add a new child to the family. In my mind, I have a rule that says when there is such a gap in certain types of situations, the gap indicates a missing child. I then think about what kinds of documents or records might supply the missing information.

It is this ability to look at the information that was present and known and ask questions based on a set of rules that seemed to be missing in the patron I wrote about above. Information in the Family Tree that seemed obviously deficient to me, raised no such questions with for the patron. When I pointed out a missing or incomplete date or place, the missing information did not seem to trigger any questions. My explanations that a missing date or place or complete name was an open question did not resonate with the patron. Even when it seemed that the patron had understood that information was missing or incomplete, I could not explain the concept that there were potentially documents or records that might contain that same information. The patron kept asking why we needed to look at the Historical Records or search in the catalog.

I have noticed this difference before without realizing the connection. Some people ask questions about everything and some seem to never ask questions at all. Being able to formulate questions is fundamental to doing research. I realized that I do not consciously ask the questions, they are "obvious" and seem to hang in the air over any data I see. A missing date or whatever is a question waiting to be answered. An absence of information is like a magnet, drawing me into the process of finding whatever is missing.

I have been told that I sometimes I cannot help people because I know too much. But on the other hand, I feel that apparently there is some level of innate talent involved with doing research that defies explanation. I cannot explain to you why you need to ask questions if you do not see that the questions need to be asked. It would be overly simplistic to attribute this lack of curiosity to some social convention or another, but I realized that my curiosity was what also drove me to get to the top of the hill to see what was on the other side. Some people see no reason to go up the hill at all.

I am reminded of the children's nursery song, "The Bear Went Over the Mountain." Apparently, I had this song on a record when I was very young and played it over and over again until it drove my parents out of their minds. But I think the song encapsulates the entire idea of research. Here is a video of the song to remind you of the fundamental concept of research.


  1. No question in my mind that it is both. There is also a subtlety that you did not address when it comes to asking questions: whether the person asking the questions has the intellectual ability to understand the answers given.

    The reference you make to knowing "too much" about a subject to be able to assist someone is something that resonates with me. I know a great deal about IT concepts and it can be very easy for me to make someone's eyes glaze over when talking about the subject by assuming too much knowledge and putting too much jargon into an explanation. To use a genealogical example if I were to refer to vital records a non-genealogist would reasonably assume that I am referring to records that are particularly important to a particular task or subject area, whereas a genealogist would know that I mean birth, marriage and/or death records. However it is not just whether the explanation is pitched at the correct level for someone's knowledge of a subject. What is also important is the capacity of a given person to actually understand an explanation.

    Take two people A and B with identical starting knowledge levels of a given subject. Assume that A and B have an identical learning style such that a given way of explaining something will work equally well with either A or B. It is still perfectly possible for A to pick up the new information and concepts much, much better than B if A has a greater ability in that particular area than B. For a given individual there are thresholds across which they simply cannot cross however much instruction they are given. Those thresholds vary by subject area and pursuit for a given person of course. For example I will never be a brilliant painter as my talents don't lie in that direction, but I am good amateur singer both chorally and as a soloist as my talents lie in that direction and I have practiced and worked on my singing over many years.

    To shift back to the example you give, there are two possibilities as to what happened:

    1. Despite trying to rephrase and alter what you were trying to say you did not manage to find an appropriate way to talk to that patron such that they would pick up what you were saying.
    2. Despite trying to rephrase and alter what you were trying to say you would never have managed to find any appropriate way to talk to that patron such that they would pick up what you were saying.

    Both are failures to communicate but I suspect that case number 2 may well have been in play. In case number 2 the patron would never understand what you were trying to explain because the person in question simply lacks the ability to grasp the concept itself. To take an extreme example if someone has the intellectual level of a average ten year old child they will never be able to understand the concept of a probability density wavefunction that the Schrödinger equation's solution produces in quantum mechanics because the level of understanding required is so far beyond what an average ten year old can deal with.

    So we have three factors in play when considering how good someone is at something and how well they can improve:

    1. A person's innate ability to undertake a task
    2. The ability of an instructor or teacher to communicate a new concept
    3. The overall experience level of a person in a task or competence

    Points two and three are fungible but point one is not and thus it represents the ultimate overall destination point if a person has good teachers/instructors and lots of practice in an area.

    Personally speaking I tend to pick up new concepts very quickly and once I have assimilated them it is as if I had never not known them. That makes teaching others very hard for me as I can get frustrated if people don't pick up concepts as fast as I do and I also find it difficult to pitch things at an appropriate level for the person I am speaking to. I suspect that I would have given up trying to instruct that patron an awful lot sooner than you!

    1. Thanks for this very interesting commentary. I am putting a note at the beginning of the blog post to make sure the readers read your comment.

  2. Good Mothers tend to have a bit of an advantage here. They have to adapt their teaching styles to all ages, as their children grow. It irks me that someone, somewhere told you and me both, that we "Know too much" to be good teachers. I'd like to know what that person(s) knows? I have not only a Masters in Gifted education and taught in high school 20 years, but I also obtained an elementary teaching certificate, and taught preschool for 11 years and lower levels for 3 years. I have 7 children and 35 grand children from ages under 1 to 25, and they love my lessons of life, family history, and more. I say non-sense to knowing too much. Hum bug!