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

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part Three: Looking at Sources

Before I go any further with this series on research, I need to discuss the concept of "sources."

The entire idea of researching genealogy is built on an assumption, proven in fact, that various individuals and organizations keep records and have done so for thousands of years. Whatever the motivational interest, records have been kept from individuals writing letters and diaries, to commercial operations, to national governments keeping track of their armies and treasuries. Some of the oldest writing in the world was used to record grain and livestock transactions. See The British Museum, Explore/Writing. It took thousands of years before writing became so pervasive that records existed about the lives of individuals, outside of royalty and other important people. The earliest records of most of our ancestors only go back as far as the 16th Century although tax records go back much further, such as the Domesday Book, compiled in England in 1085 for the purpose of determining what taxes were owed at the time.

With the advances in printing and literacy, eventually, records accumulated at every possible jurisdictional and societal level. To genealogists, these written records (and occasionally oral ones) are the source for the information that goes into compiling a family tree. Discovering these records is the main activity of genealogists. A record becomes your "source" for genealogical information when it contains information about your family. Basic genealogical references are guides to where these records may be found and how to use them to compile family histories. For example, one basic book about genealogy in the United States is called simply, The Source, A Guidebook of American Genealogy. (See Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006). This book is primarily an explanation of what kinds of genealogically important records are available and where they might be found.

Records have been preserved for a variety of reasons including being preserved specifically for genealogical research. Today we have entire libraries dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of genealogically important records. As computers and the Internet became the central way information is disseminated, large online collections of genealogically important records became the main place where genealogists began their research. Because of the advantages that accrue from access to digitized records available to individual computing devices, the number and variety of these online records has become a virtual explosion of information.

As the number of records online has increased, genealogists have attempted to keep pace with the number of records by creating catalogs, lists and wikis that attempt to organize these huge collections. Notwithstanding the huge amount of information already online and the vast amounts being added daily, there is still an even greater amount of genealogically pertinent information locked up in the world's paper-based, written records.

If the basic genealogical activity is discovering records that pertain to family history, it is important to distinguish between the quality of the information found and the quantity. Quoting from a commonly used genealogical course book, (Harland, Derek. Genealogical Research Standards. Salt Lake City, Utah: Published by the Genealogical Society, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1963, p. 19).
Far too many so-called genealogists judge success in research by the number names they have collected in their searches, rather than by the method and approach to the genealogical problem and the care with which the search ave been made. "Name gathering" is not genealogy.
The information contained in various records may well be inaccurately recorded, contradictory and in many cases, entirely misleading. The process of becoming a competent genealogist or family historian is essentially an evolution from blindingly copying information to incorporating methodologies for interpretation and evaluation.

A genealogical researcher first must identify and find the records. But at this point, the research process has just barely begun. Records do not exist in isolation, they must be interpreted in context. It is all too easy to find a name in a record and immediately assume that the named person is your ancestor. It is only by careful analysis of the record, its context and possible limitations, that you can safely assume the record is pertinent. In addition, as I alluded to previously, any inconsistencies and contradictions in different records must be resolved. When a record is appropriately evaluated and any issues with the record resolved, then the record should be incorporated into an organized structure so that the researcher and any other member of the family can see where the information was obtained. Maintaining a "source-centric" family history means that every fact is supported by a reference to a record (source) where the information was obtained.

Fortunately, for many beginning researchers, this task has become fairly simple. Several of the large online, genealogical database programs have incorporated methods of automatically searching for pertinent records and then attaching them as sources to the appropriate individuals. The part of this newly developed automatic system that cannot be supplied by the online providers is the evaluation and resolution of the inconsistencies and mistakes in the original records. Although the results of these online, automated searches can be amazing, they can also be entirely wrong.

When I say I am doing genealogical research, what am I doing? The answer to this question is, to some extent, highly personal. But there is a general consensus. Genealogical research is primarily an activity involved in identifying and searching records. Any record found to contain genealogically pertinent information can become a source through proper evaluation and interpretation. Any information recorded in the family history derived from that "source" should be attributed to the record through a process of citation. It is important that these "citations" contain enough information that the research and any subsequent researchers can readily identify and locate the original record. One major advantage of the online, automatic or semi-automatic record hinting programs is that the citation to the record, once incorporated by the researcher into a family tree, is preserved with a link to an image of the original record.

As a side note, presently, in many cases, there exists the capability to electronically attach digitized copies of the original source record. This should be a mandatory and consistent research method. Any time it is at all possible copies of all original records should accompany the citation attached to any family or individual.

Well, at this point, I have gotten a start to analyzing and commenting on the research process. Stay tuned for future installments.

Previous installments of this series include:

1 comment:

  1. I plan to look for the book that you mentioned "The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy". Thanks.