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

Friday, July 24, 2009

How do you do research? Looking for the arrow

When I was young, I had a relatively powerful bow for shooting arrows. Unfortunately, once shot, if I missed the target, the arrows often disappeared into the brush at the back of our large yard. I would sometime spend an hour or so looking for the arrows. Many times the arrows ended up being quite a distance from where I assumed them to be. But by systematically searching along the paths of the arrows, I almost always found them, eventually.

The key to this analogy to genealogy is the word "eventually." I was almost always surprised at how far the arrows would go. The techniques I developed in looking for arrows or lost balls, frisbees and other objects has helped me in finding my ancestors and helping others with the same goal.

One of the most common challenges in searching for ancestors is "what do I do now and where do I look next?" In working with both beginners and those more advanced in their searching, I find that there is a common misunderstanding of the "research process." Knowing how to do research is a learned skill (with a measure of art thrown in). Some people think you learn how to do research in school, but unfortunately, writing research papers in grade school or high school, usually does not give any real understanding of the methodology of research beyond merely copying from a book or online sources. Having taught at both the high school and college level, I find that most students just don't "get" the idea of basic research. That same disability carries over into the adult world of family history. It is very difficult to help potential family historians develop the healthy combination of scepticism and inquiry that can result in true research.

Many writers have compared genealogical inquiry to detective work. I tend to think that overly romanticizes the subject, but some of the detective-like tools may be helpful. What is even more helpful is understanding some basic concepts of research.

Research involves asking questions. there may be no need to do research if you have already documented the answer, but it is nature of historical inquiry in general and especially in family history or genealogy, that finding the answer to one question merely invites further inquiry. There are always more questions than there are answers.

Here are a few steps to developing a research methodology:

1. Ask the right question. Often the question asked determines where you go to find the answer. For example, one way of asking a question might be "Where was John Jones born?" But before asking that question, you might want to ask, "What kind of records might show John Jone's birth information?" Formulating the question is the first step in the research process. It is important that the question be simple and direct, such as "In what year did _____ immigrate to America?

2. Where are you going to search? Once you focus on a research question, it is important to realize that all family history records relate to a place. This does not mean that the records will still be where they were created. Neither does it mean that the records can be easily found. What it does mean is that to answer a historical question, you must have a place to start looking.

3. Who has the records? This question leads to the common "courthouse burning" issue. Not all public records and very few private records were kept in county courthouses. It is important to understand the full breadth of record keeping activities, so that you do not miss looking at whole classes of records. I suggest reading any of the following or similar books:

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1990.

Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006.

When I suggest reading, I mean read, from cover to cover. This is a good way to get a fundamental idea of the variety of records that might be available to answer a research question.

I certainly haven't exhausted this subject. I will address other issues in future posts.

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