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

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part Eighteen: Acquiring Research Skills

If I sit down at a microfilm viewer and begin searching for an ancestor, am I just searching or am I doing genealogical research? What is the relationship between searching and genealogical research? This may seem to be a question with an obvious answer, but I suggest that even though searching for an individual record can be a part of your research, "research," as a concept, involves much more than merely searching for ancestors.

My introduction to stamp collecting and collectables in general serves as a good example of the difference between a mere search and conducting research. As I have written previously, I started into my stamp collecting activity when I was about 9 or 10 years old. My interest went well beyond accumulating a box of stamps, I soon began to buy and trade stamps with other collectors and organized clubs and other stamp collecting events. I checked books out of the library and read about stamp collecting. It took me a while to appreciate the value of the stamps, but I soon became rather selective and specific in my collecting interests. The component of my activity that is pertinent to a discussion of research, is what I did to qualify myself to trade stamps on a rather sophisticated level. I soon learned that there were certain things I needed to know to keep from being taken advantage of by older, more experienced stamp collectors. I even got to the point, early on, of displaying my stamp collection at stamp shows or conventions.

Genealogy requires a certain skill set and genealogical research involves an additional, specialized skill subset all its own. These are all "learned skills," that is, they are not innate. You have to spend time learning and practicing before you understand how and why research works and how to do it effectively.

Let's assume you are just starting out exploring your family history. One of the first and most basic skills you need, is to understand the connection between documents and records and discovering information about your family. If you have already acquired this particular insight or skill, then you probably think the connection is obvious. However, my experience in helping people just starting their own research, is that the connection between discovering records and documents and adding information to a family tree is far from obvious. One of the best ways to gain this insight is to participate in an indexing program.

The activity of searching records can be time-consuming, tedious and very frustrating. It is even more frustrating if you equate searching with the entire research process. OK, so if I am not happy with the "traditional Research Cycle," what do I suggest in its place? Let's look at research as answering questions. What are the questions? That is the first step. You have to know enough to ask questions.

Too many people have come to me over the years and said something like this: I need to find my Great-great-(whatever) grandfather (mother, whatever), can you help me? The question here is "can you help me," not: who is my ancestor? The concept expressed by this petition is that the ancestor is sitting in a pile somewhere and I am supposed to help them "find" the ancestor. So what is the first question? I suggest that this is the first research question to answer:

What is the first documented (verified) location where an event occurred in the life of the ancestor? If there are no such documented events, then the only alternative is to move one or more generations towards the present time and ask the question again in each generation. Why is this the question to ask? Because any genealogical related records are going to be found associated with the records created from a specific event. At this point we need to think of records being created like a stack of pancakes. Each entity and jurisdiction, at every level, has the capacity to create a genealogically significant record. For example, military records may be created by the national government, in the U.S. today, birth and death records are maintained and created by the states, marriage records are created by the counties and so forth down to schools, churches, fraternal organizations, co-ops and all sorts of other entities and organizations. Without a specifically identified location, you are essentially sitting in the middle of a lake shooting at the water and hoping to hit a fish.

Now we are finally to the next book. This one is the following:

Anderson, Robert Charles. Elements of Genealogical Analysis. 2014.

The purpose of this book, as stated, is to help solve genealogical problems. In my view, what we do in genealogical research is solve genealogical problems. To solve those problems, we have to be able to formulate meaningful questions and find satisfactory answers. Those answers are supplied by historical documents and records. 

Well, I am just getting going with this series. I still see a long row to hoe. 

Previous installments of this series include:

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