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 FamilySearch.org 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.