Steve Anderson of FamilySearch wrote a blog post recently entitled, "If I'd Only Known! Beginner Genealogy Mistakes." This post got me thinking that I am obviously in the same category. I made plenty of mistakes as a beginner in genealogy and I still make some of the same ones. Being a blogger and sharing genealogy online, adds a whole new dimension to the concept of making mistakes. Now I can go onto family trees spread across the whole wide Internet and find the mistakes I made years ago, now copied again and again by newly minted genealogists.
I suppose the whole concept of mistakes can render us inoperative with anxiety, incapable of acting because of our fear of making a mistake. I occasionally here this expressed by researchers who say they are not going to put their family tree online until they get it perfected. So, as we continue to do research are we going to concurrently raise the bar on our expectations and never share our data because it may contain some errors?
I would guess this is one of the basic reasons I enjoy working on wikis. They are open ended. If you make a mistake, you can correct it or as usually happens, someone else comes along and makes the correction for you. I know there are those of us who are never wrong. I do not find myself in that category. But I have learned by experience that there are a few things we can do as genealogists that will minimize that possibility.
The first thing we can do is keep good notes. Most instruction in genealogical fundamentals talks about a "Research Log." The advantages of such a log, tracking every source consulted, whether or not the source provides good or no information, is a laudable goal. But, the concept needs to be updated. In doing an online search, I might look at a hundred or more websites in the matter of a few minutes. I would spend more time writing down all those "sources" than I would spend doing another search. In addition, the list would be cumbersome and if I put my "search list" on my computer, I would have to do the search over again with the list. Let's say I searched Ancestry.com. What is there to say that in a day or a month or a year, Ancestry.com will not have new records, including the ones I am looking for.
In other words, the concept of a Research Log worked very well when a researcher was confined mainly to static resources such as books and microfilms, but it is an outdated concept for online searches. But what about duplication of effort? Isn't the Research Log supposed to help us make progress rather than run around in the same circle again and again? Well, the concept of sources and source citations is really the best way to prevent that type of duplication. If I maintain a genealogical database program, one of the many available, and if I keep track of all the sources I find and where I found them, I will, of necessity, make some progress. For example. if I find my ancestor in the 1860 U.S. Census record, I can make note of the source citation and where I found the record and I can also keep a digitized copy of the record, all attached to my individual in my family tree on some program. Then, if I need to go back and find that individual in the 1860 U.S. Census again, I already have the copy and the citation.
But what about research strategy and interpretation? Well, if you want to preserve that type of information, you can do so in a variety of forms, including notes attached to those same individuals in your database program. Then all you do is have to remember to look at them.
But what about mistakes? By keeping a consistent immediately available record on your database program, you can make corrections as you go along. I am constantly checking, double checking and adding sources to individuals in my personal database program. Those changes are also finding their way into my online family trees.
But the FamilySearch post talked about researching the wrong family line by making the wrong choice of parent. The only way this type of error can be corrected is through a constant re-evaluation of every node on a family tree. The benefit of having a unified online family tree, such as FamilySearch.org's Family Tree, is the possibility that this type of error will be found and corrected by family members through combined, joint effort. Otherwise, an individual may never become aware of the mistake made at an earlier branch in the tree.
I guess what I am saying is that if you use a personal genealogical database program and actually utilize the functions of the program, the basic processes of doing valid genealogy are pretty much covered. In addition, if you combine your personal program with a unified online family tree, some of the more serious mistakes have a better possibility of being solved.