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

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part Twenty: Research is more than looking

There is a fundamental relationship between documents and records and acquiring genealogically significant information. Every discovery of a document or record will also suggest additional documents that may be found. Searching is a repetitious activity and is limited to a single discovery. Research produces a chain of documents and records that lead to answering questions. Research also goes well beyond merely finding records or documents, it includes wringing all the information from them until they are dry. Most historical documents and records will answer more than one question about an ancestor. Genealogical research usually produces more questions than it does answers.

At this point, it is important to realize that the research process is not lineal, it is organic. The traditional Research Cycle would have you believe that discovering information about your ancestors was an orderly and systematic process. This representation of genealogical research is basically flawed. Because every document or record discovered may contain unexpected information, genealogical research jumps from topic to topic, family line to family line and from individual to individual. Anyone who attempts to tame this chaotic process will always feel overwhelmed and frustrated. One of the most dramatic examples of the organic nature of genealogical research is the diagram drawn by the program from the information in the Family Tree. Here is a diagram of the descendants of one of my ancestors, Joshua Tanner, down only four generations:

This diagram highlights, in a very limited way, the underlying organic nature of genealogy and further illustrates, with gaps and missing lines, the overall nature of research. At the same time, this diagram also shows the challenge that some of us face in choosing a research topic. The lines and dots here each represent a family in the Family Tree. The dot in the center is one single ancestor. There is a similar pattern and diagram that could be produced for each of my ancestors. This shows that I have literally tens of thousands of relatives, i.e. cousins for each of my lineal (direct line) ancestors. What is obscured by this diagram is that many of these lines share the same individuals. In reality, my ancestors and all of their descendants are more like a huge cloud with an interlocking internal structure. If we could somehow connect all of these descendant nodes in more dimensions and include geographic links, we would begin to see the complex nature of the relationships. Producing more categories of relationships, such as occupation, religion, etc. would become so complex that only at a very large scale would the overall patterns be discernible.

Failure to recognize that these macro-patterns exist is one of the fundamental ways in which most genealogical research fails. I can illustrate this with a simple example. My 3rd Great-grandfather, George Jarvis and his wife immigrated to the United States from England after joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After living in Boston for a number of years, the traveled to Utah and ultimately settled in St. George, Washington, Utah. As they traveled to St. George, Utah, they stopped and met some settlers in Toquerville, Utah, a town near St. George, the Parkinsons and the Stapley families. Years later, Eliza Ellen Parkinson married Henry Martin Tanner, my Great-grandfather. Ultimately, George and Ann Jarvis' Great-great-granddaughter married Henry and Eliza Tanner's son, Leroy Parkinson Tanner, my Grandfather. Henry Martin Tanner also married Eliza Ellen Parkinson's cousin, Emma Ellen Stapley.

Any traditional methodology for doing genealogical research would likely never discover this deep, and rich relationship or realize that these families knew each other for generations. Why will true research find these types of relationships? Because it proceeds serendipitously from topic to topic and from individual to individual. Those researchers who try to impose a rigid, linear structure, locked into compartmentalized filing systems, impose their own pattern on the data rather than allowing the data to reveal its own underlying pattern. The new graphically oriented tools such as are for the first time revealing one type of two dimensional relationships that have been previously obscured. The next step is to extend those relationships into three dimensions.

There are some programs out there that appear to be graphically three dimensional. However, they are graphic tricks. Their apparent additional dimensionality is not based on any additional criteria showing three dimensional relationships. When I refer to this ability, I mean that the software would show that the Jarvis family, the Parkinson family and the Stapley family knew each other and that their descendants intermarried. I am not talking about two dimensional relationships visualized in three dimensions. I am waiting for a graphic representation that will show that my mother and father were second cousins. To do this, the software must recognize this type of extended relationship.

The difference here is between shallow, two-dimensional relationships and rich, many dimensional relationships that only become apparent as research proceeds in an organic fashion. The problem I face in conceptualizing this type of organic research (growing in different directions at the same time) is that all two-dimensional representations are inadequate to show these complex and in many cases, beautifully chaotic relationships.

This extended series has all the hallmarks of continuing for some time. The goal of this series is to explore the concept of genealogical research and expand that concept to include the multi-faceted, organic nature of the process. This includes expanding the idea of research to include a truly multi-dimensional view of our shared ancestry.

Previous installments of this series include:

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