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

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Genealogical Research Process

First Winter Snow by James Tanner
The first question I would ask is this: what is the goal of genealogical research? Next, what does it mean that a person is a genealogist or family historian? (Note: In this post, as I have in past, I use both the terms "genealogy" and "family history" as synonyms). If we were to conform with the common definition of a genealogist from the Mirriam-Webster Online Dictionary: "a person who traces or studies the descent of persons or families," most of us would find ourselves severely confined. I would use a much broader definition: "one who researches and investigates, records and organizes family relationships and history." We are certainly not limited to a particular line of descent or, in other words, limited to investigating descendants only. The vast majority of genealogical researchers investigate their ancestry going back in time, although those who trace the descendants of a specific ancestor are quite common.

My questions above go beyond a definition of genealogists or genealogy. What are our goals? If someone handed you your entire documented genealogy going back 12 generations, would you consider your "job" to be finished? Why or why not? I would submit that some of the reasons genealogical research has any attraction at all is because it is open-ended and difficult. From my perspective, if genealogy were easy, I would have no interest in it at all. So making genealogy "easy" is one way to substantially lessen its appeal. My mental analogy is comparing genealogy to mountain climbing. When George Mallory was asked why he want to climb Mount Everest, he responded, "Because its there." (From an interview "Climbing Mount Everest is work for Supermen", The New York Times(18 March 1923). In this sense, I agree with Mallory; I do genealogy because it is there. It is both a mental and a physical challenge. Since I can no longer climb the high physical mountains of my youth, I look to the infinitely higher mountains of genealogy in my old age.

When I climbed a mountain, the goal was easily defined: to reach the top. The goal in being involved in genealogy is more amorphous. It is even more difficult to define when you have reached your goal.

No one is born with the skill of doing research. It is true that we may be born with certain skills that endow us with qualities that make learning the things that are necessary to do research easier. But, nevertheless, research is a skill that must be acquired by practice. However, the analogy is better understood if you view climbing as an activity and the individual mountains as waypoints. I climbed my first mountain when I about seven years old. We were driving by a volcanic cinder cone on the Colorado Plateau called appropriately, Cinder Knoll,  and I asked if I could climb to the top. My father let me go and I ran up to the top of the hill. I can still remember standing on top and look out across the Plateau. I could see for miles. That process of opening up my view of the world changed my life. From that point on, a lot of what I did involved climbing and mountains.

I had a similar experience with genealogy. When I first began to investigate my ancestry, it opened up a new vista. I was transported from being time-bound individual into a part of the seemingly endless stream of family extending back into the past for generations. Just like with mountain climbing, I spent much of my time from that point on investigating my family. In fact, now genealogy has largely replaced mountain climbing. Although, I did spend an afternoon with my brother-in-law last weekend, walking in the canyon and talking about the cliffs and climbing.

There are many skills in mountain climbing. I began the process of really learning those skills when I found a book called the freedom of the hills. Here is the reference to the 50th anniversary edition:

Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills : 50th Anniversary 1960-2010. Shrewsbury: Quiller, 2010.
In genealogy, my beginning in really learning the skills of genealogy began with a book. That book was:

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. 2013.
Of course, my introduction was with a much earlier edition of the book. As this book points out, one of the most prominent activities in doing one's genealogy is that of research. Research is the equivalent of the physical activity involved in climbing.

In high school, or some equivalent educational experience, many of us were introduced to the world of "research" by doing a "research paper." This activity consisted mostly of taking notes on 3" x 5" cards and turning those notes into a short essay on some subject we selected, either from a list supplied by the teacher or from topics we made up and got "approved." As a result, many students (perhaps most) were soured on the whole concept of research. I find that very few people, outside of professions requiring research, voluntarily do research just because it is there.

But both climbing and genealogy share this same activity if we substitute the word "explore" for the word "research." Both involve the systematic investigation of the unknown. When we research our ancestors, we investigate, study, inquire, analyze, scrutinize and review what we do know and then move on to investigate etc. what we do not know with the expectation that we will learn more. As we climb the foothills of genealogy, we keep seeing glimpses of the elusive peak, just beyond view, and we keep going. The goal of genealogy is the process of learning and our increasing understanding of our own lives and how we fit into the stream of history. In this sense, we are climbing a mountain whose top we will never reach.

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