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

Monday, October 28, 2013

Some further thoughts on Research -- Part One

Looking for names and source records online is not necessarily research. I have had an interesting experience recently reading a book about research. The book is:

Mann, Thomas. The Oxford Guide to Library Research. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

I don't recall ever having any formal training about how to do research, but I started learning about the subject many years ago while in high school. As I continued my studies at the University of Utah, I gained a number of additional insights into the research process. I have recently written a couple of posts on the subject, but I keep getting more insights and decided it was an important subject and key to advancing in our own quest to learn about our ancestors' history.

One key phrase from the book at page 61 struck me a  good summary of something I have taught in classes many times:
The most efficient way to do library research is to match your retrieval technique to the library's storage technique, for in this way you will be exploiting the internal structure of the system. (emphasis in original).
The idea here is that knowledge of the library's internal structure is an important key to retrieving information. This concept does not just apply to libraries however, it is also key to finding information online. Unfortunately, this particular edition of this book was published back in 2005, years ago in the online world and practically ancient history, but the concepts apply even if the author's views on searching online are woefully outdated.

I have always been puzzled why so many people come to me and complain that they can never find what they are looking for online. On a recent Skype message concerning the FamilySearch Research Wiki, one of the participants asked a rather simple question that she could not answer. I looked up the answer and got a comment back a few minutes later wondering how I could find the information so quickly. My thought on the comment was why she couldn't do the same thing in the same amount of time?

Research is skill. I have learned that there is a huge difference between watching someone do something and trying to do it yourself. You can sit on the shore and watch people swim all day, but until you get in the water and start swimming none of the examples mean anything at all. It is same with research. But unfortunately, you don't get to watch others do research very often. You can learn by trial and error, like I did, or you can learn the principles and try to apply them by practicing. Most of the instruction on how to do research focuses on the Research Cycle or similar types of training. What is missing from this type of instruction is a basic understanding of internal structure of the library, the Internet or archive or repository or whatever the location of the information to be researched.

One thing I have said many times in the past is that to be able to do research on the Web you need to understand how programmers think. What I mean by that statement is that you need to understand what happens when you type a search term into a search engine and why getting a million or more results is irrelevant to your search. The number of results reflects a lack of focus. It is fairly easy to search for something and get no results whatsoever, even when you are using Google.

To illustrate this, try searching for a single word, such as genealogy, for example. I just searched on the word genealogy and got 313 million responses. This is entirely useless. Why is that the case? For one thing, the word genealogy is used in a lot of different contexts other than our use of the term for family history. In fact, this general search on Google brought up paid-for advertisements from online genealogical database programs such as If you were really trying to find a general idea of what genealogy is all about, then you might be quite frustrated. But there is a simple way, if you know how Google works, to get started with an understanding of genealogy. Change your search for the word "genealogy" to search for "define genealogy."

This simple change makes a world of difference in the results of your search and there were no ads. It also illustrates the internal structure of the Web and how it operates.  Now things get complex and that is the real problem with learning how to do research in any context. It is not a simple task. Research is a challenging, yet very rewarding pursuit. In some subsequent posts I will continue to explore the inner workings of research. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. I was recently told that doing my research, via, was not doing research or real genealogy/family history. If it weren't for what I find on, the documents, census' and other things, without the help of the trees which I use only for possible hidden/lost children, I wouldn't be able to do anything. I am home bound, cannot get away from the house for very long, therefore going to the FHC and off to SLC or other places is virtually impossible for me.
    I would be interested in your take on this. Am I just doing the "internet thing"? I also use Google and other sites but Ancestry is my main source of documentation. Please, do advise. Thank you