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

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Are you doing research?

So how do I know when I move from surveying existing research and doing research myself? The answer to this question is very involved. For example, when do you know you have finished your survey of existing information about your family? Let me give you a hypothetical situation:

Researcher makes a cursory survey and overlooks a huge completely documented and sourced user submitted family tree of his/her ancestors. As a consequence Researcher starts plugging away at collecting U.S. Census Records and a few vital records from online sites. When did the Research begin doing research? Is an individual's research independent of the existing body of knowledge?

What if I change my hypothetical so that the user submitted family tree is entirely complete but not documented at all? Does this change when a person completes a survey and begins doing research? Yes, these questions are similar to the old standby, if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear was there any sound? (By the way, the tree question is a lot easier to answer, Sound is generated regardless of whether or not someone is present to hear it, the question is usually framed in terms of whether or not there is a "noise" which is intended to differentiate between a sound and a perceived noise. Even though there is physically no real distinction).

The difference between the question about the research and the question about the sound are only superficially similar. Since completing a survey is usually considered part of the research process, just because you don't do an adequate job of surveying what has been done on your ancestral lines, does not mean that you are doing research. In another example, when a PhD candidate makes a proposal for the subject of a doctoral dissertation, it is necessary to show what research has been done already before the candidate is allowed to proceed to do "new" research.

Now I readily admit that we aren't doctoral candidates and most of us never will be, but there is a fundamental principle here. The principle is that research, by its very nature, implies ploughing new ground. I speak from experience since it took me more than ten years to find out all of the information that was already known about my family. Even now, many years later, I do not feel secure that what I am doing is really adding anything to what is already known and recorded about my family unless I find something I know that no one has discovered previously.

You may find yourself in different circumstances, with little or no information about your family and you may complete the survey process in a matter of hours or days. But the important point is, even if you entirely ignore existing information about your family, your lack of knowledge of what has already been done does not mean that you are finding "new" information and thereby doing "research."

So, returning to one of the initial questions, when do you know you have finished your survey of existing information about your family? Looking to the Genealogical Proof Standard, it is when you have made a reasonably exhaustive search of a wide range of high quality sources. In my case, that took a long time and to some extent is still going on. Unfortunately, I often see people diving into original source records before making any effort whatsoever to ascertain what has already been done.


  1. Thank you for more in your series on the theme of sources.

    I disagree with your thread this time, asserting that that it is not ~research~ "unless I find something I know that no one has discovered previously."

    For example I recently have worked on a mysterious cousin whose second husband's family had been the subject of two published genealogies, one self-published, the other in a respected State-wide genealogical magazine.

    The former gave practically no sources and seemed to be largely conjecture.

    The latter gave sources for sundry statements in my cousin's husband's branch. Looking at the cited documents, they did not say what the writer asserted: there was no romantic tract name, there was no statement regarding a daughter with the same name as the 2nd wife, and some assertions were made in the magazine which none of the cited items addressed at all. So had the research been "done"? Certainly not, quite aside from the additional documentation I'd found concerning the 2nd wife, of whom the published writer was not aware (having not himself cast his net to records across the river).

    Many items published, whether in paper or on websites or in trees, have honest misunderstandings of actual documents. Some have deliberate fabrications. Others are full of conclusions and surmises that may seem plausible but crumble when closely examined.

    In the case of the so-common latter type of genealogical work, the new seeker usually would be better off not wasting time to try to "confirm" what is said, but would be far more productive and efficient to begin with actual records wherever they may be.

  2. This question has had some bearing on the families I have chosen to research - I tend to focus much more on families who (as far as I have been able to tell up to this point) have not had a lot of research done on them previously.

  3. I agree with Geolover. And even though I try to find what has already been done on my family (which, on my mother's side, is not much), I want to have copies of the original documents for myself, anyway, rather than depend on someone else's word about them. Therefore, I do start accumulating them early on, as I may be able to see something in an original document that someone else may have missed.

    Some of us are possibly going to be Ph.D. candidates some day -- I'll be starting my master's degree next year, the Good Lord willing, and am open to the idea of a Ph.D. later on.

  4. I skipped the preliminar survey because I didn't know about it. When I did learn about it, I mistakenly thought that since I had skipped it, it was too late to correct this. This summer I finally realized that the second statement is NOT so. If you have not checked for other research, STOP and DO SO now!. It is never to late to check on those who have done prior work.
    So far, I have found no significant prior work. But as I approach each person on my family tree, I will check out what research has been done for that person, NO MATTER how much research I may have done for myself.
    Then, of course, comes the stage of evaluating that research and perhaps verifying the information in it.