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

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Reasonably Exhaustive Search Revisited

Given the transition of original source documents to digitized copies on the Internet, what constitutes a reasonably exhaustive search? Can you ever claim a search to be exhaustive? Who determines when the search reaches the exhaustive stage? Is an objective standard a standard or merely a convention?

All of these questions and many more have their origin in the huge numbers of digitized original source records that are being added to the Internet daily. As an example, is adding literally millions of records a day to its online database called the Historical Record Collections. The concept of a reasonably exhaustive search in the genealogical community comes from The Genealogical Proof Standard propounded by the Board for Certification of Genealogists.

If you do a reasonably exhaustive search on Google for the exact phrase "reasonably exhaustive search" you will find 20,200 of results. Is it reasonable to look through all these? How many would I have to look through to constitute reasonable? One page? Two pages? All 20,200? If I enter the name of an ancestor into Google, is that enough to constitute a reasonably exhaustive search? How many different variations of the name do I need to search on? What if I get thousands of results as would be the case with a common name or even some uncommon names?

The concept of a "reasonably exhaustive search" was developed well before there were millions upon millions of online sources. It is a concept that balances the cost of making a search, such transportation and time spent, against the expectation of finding the sought-for information. It also implies looking at a wide range of high quality sources. But what constitutes an exhaustive online search? And what constitutes a high quality source online? As I have just pointed out, you may get thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of results from a search for any given name. Even if you are an experienced, well trained and talented professional genealogist, can you assure me that you have done an exhaustive online search for information about a particular person?

How do I determine whether any given source is "high quality?" Is an entry in the 1940 U.S. Census high quality? If there is no ready distinction as to the quality of a source, then how do I know when I have looked at a sufficient range of sources when there my be tens of thousands available?

More examples. Do a search on Google for the name of my Great-grandfather, John Hamilton Morgan. My recent search returned 10,600 results. I went through six pages of results and the individual results were still mostly relevant and pertained to my Great-grandfather. But what if the opposite happens? What if I do a search for a specific name and find that there are no results? Can I stop? Can I conclude that there are no references to my relative online? The answer is a resounding NO. Why? The answer is a little bit difficult to explain.

I have discussed this in previous posts, but there are two basic different kinds of pages on the Internet (a simplification but still valid); static and dynamic pages. Static pages contain text or graphics and are essentially the same no matter when viewed. Dynamic pages are created at the time they are viewed. For genealogists, looking at a page in the USGenWeb would usually be a static page. However, a search result on the website or the website would be a dynamic page. That is, the page would not exist until you made the search. The contents of the database or likewise, the ones on, are not available to a search engine such as Google. So doing a Google search does not tell me anything about what is locked away in those and millions of other databases.

So in addition to doing my search on Google, shouldn't a reasonably exhaustive search include online databases? Do I have to look at the subscription sites? What about the major libraries catalogs? I recently found a reference to a book that appears to be specifically about one of my direct line ancestors who I am researching. The problem is that the book is apparently only in one library, in Florida, and they will not allow the book to be borrowed through Interlibrary loan. I cannot find a copy of the book anywhere digitized online, but I do find it for sale at a huge price? If I am going to be reasonably exhaustive, I now know about this potential source, does that mean I have to spend the time and money to acquire this one book?

Doesn't it stand to reason that what I consider a reasonable search on the Internet is vastly different than any search by someone who has not spent most of their waking hours searching the Internet? Doesn't the concept start to become almost useless? When I do searches online, some people conclude that there is some kind of magic involved. That is "magic" in the sense defined by Robert Heinlein, that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Do you judge what is reasonable in making online searches by someone who lives on computers or by someone who has no experience whatsoever in doing online searches?

OK, you say, don't just sit out there in the aether and criticize, make some useful suggestions.

I suggest that the simplified concept of a "reasonably exhaustive search" needs to be amplified to include some guidelines for online searches. Further, that the concept of an online search needs to be defined so that there is some minimal standard for determining when such a search can be concluded to be reasonable. Absent this type of discussion and some kind of standard, the concept of a "reasonably exhaustive search" loses any relevance in the online world I live in.

I find this article "How to conduct a "reasonably exhaustive search" for relevant records" by Michael Hait to be a good beginning.

1 comment:

  1. I think the key term we need to understand is “reasonably,” which hinges on the concept of reason, or logic. Where you would logically expect to find pertinent information, that’s where you have to search. I don’t think “reasonably exhaustive” is bounded by cost, time, or convenience, as much as it is by logic.
    Take, for example, your great-grandfather’s birth date. Say you have a family bible with his birth date recorded as 25 April 1863, but it’s obviously recorded in ballpoint pen. You also have an obituary clipping published at the time of his death in 1908 listing his birth date as 25 April 1863. You have his entry in the 1900 census when he was 37 years old listing his birth as April 1865. You have a transcription of his grave marker that lists his birth and death as 1863-1908. That’s four sources, and there’s a lot of consensus between them. Isn’t that an exhaustive search? Obviously not. The family bible record was recorded long after the fact, and we have no idea who the informant was, when they recorded it, nor what the basis of their information was. Both the obituary and the grave marker were certainly based on hearsay information about great-grandad’s birth date. The census listing his birth in April 1865 may have been provided by great-grandad (who lied about his age, because he didn’t want to admit he was really over 40), or it may have been provided by his wife, or maybe by a next door neighbor. We have no idea.
    So what do we have to do? We’ve got to look for records that we can reasonably expect to contain factual information about his birth date. That could include church records, if his parents were members of a church which practiced infant baptism. City, town, or county records if he was born in an area that registered births in the 1860s. Local newspapers that might have printed birth announcements. If his parents were Baptists in the back-country of Mississippi, then we probably aren't going to find any of those, so “reasonably exhaustive” is going to take a lot more work. The records with the answers may not be online. They may not even be on microfilm. We may need to pull out some old-fashioned tools, like visiting repositories, or finding a genealogy volunteer (or a professional) to do a look-up for us if we can’t make the trip to Florida to check that reference book out personally. Just because we have this great tool—the internet—doesn’t mean that our other tools are chucked out the window.