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

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part Twenty-one: What if I want organization?

Despite their limitations, genealogical database programs have evolved to organize and store family information. Although researchers may disagree with the utility of any particular program, there are enough programs out there that nearly all researchers can find one that suits their particular needs. If you need to see users evaluations of most of the programs available today, you can go to for current reviews of over 900 programs.

If your level of research is highly sophisticated and you are at the level of publishing serious, academic oriented books or journal articles, there are many professional research and citation programs that can provide that level of support. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries supports three programsEndNote, Zotero, and Mendeley. These programs also have corresponding mobile apps. Of the three, Zotero is a free, open-source program available for Mac, Windows and Linux. An example of a genealogy-specific program for organization is Evidentia2 available from

Doing genealogical research is more than just gathering source citations. It is the process of answering questions from historical records and documents and then answering the questions that arise as a result of answering the initial questions. A good example happened today while we I was assisting one of my friends with some research in Puerto Rico. We were examining Catholic parish registers for information about the birth of his great-grandfather. When we found the record of the birth, we also found a notation about the same ancestor's third marriage made by the parish priest. We had not asked the question (yet) about the documentation of the individual's marriages, but the answer came through looking for entirely different records. In addition, the information then raised additional questions. Of course, digital images of the records were captured and the information integrated into my friend's records.

Unless you thoroughly understand the organic nature of research, you might even be annoyed at being "distracted" by irrelevant information. As a matter of fact, my friend and I were even more "distracted" by adding in a number of Record Hints from the Family Tree in the middle of our continuing search of the parish records. The distraction is not a problem as long as you remember your original question and continue to work on its solution. At this point, I usually find someone objecting to any consideration of a distracting research issue. This reaction is similar to the problems faced by scientists whose discoveries are influenced by their pre-existing beliefs. This type of situation is evidenced by the current disagreements over such subjects as climate change and the regulation of power companies. You can think of a distracting discovery as a furtherance of your research objectives or an interference.

The questions you choose to investigate are also influenced by your pre-conceived notions of what actually happened in the past. From my point of view, imposing an artificial organizational structure on your genealogical data impedes rather than assists discovery. I sense this whenever I am helping someone who want to have everything "organized." The epitome of this attitude is the genealogist who blindly adds people to a pedigree without evaluating sources and watching for inconsistency. This name gathering my appear to be "research" and "organization" but it is does not qualify on either count. During the past week, I was helping a patron in the Brigham Young University Family History Library that had some issues with the "Record Hints." It turned out that she did not want to consider any such hints for people she did not want to "research." It also turned out that she did not want to spend the time attaching records to the people she did not "like." She was extremely "organized" but entirely ineffective in her research. Don't substitute organization for research.

Now, before you get all bent out of shape over the issue, I must clarify. Any legitimate research effort involves an effective way to organize the results. What I am saying is that the organization should not dictate the direction of the research. When I am asked what "line" I am working on, I usually respond "all of them." I take advantage of the time and place to do my research, that is, I answer the questions appropriate to the resources I have on hand at the time. The analogy is the Research Wiki. From a certain perspective, my contributions to the Research Wiki would be considered inconsistent and somewhat chaotic. On the other hand, I consistently add information and correct existing entries. Over time, the amount of information increases dramatically and I answer a lot of questions. I will often go back to the topics and areas I have worked on in the past and add more information and corrections. Combined with all of the work being done on the Research Wiki by others, the total amount of data increases dramatically over time.

Genealogical research today, is in the same category as my work on the Research Wiki, I may not spend a huge effort on any one line for any appreciable period of time, but over the past 30 years or so, much of the basic information that went into Family Tree about my own lines was initially entered into computer programs by my efforts. Now the research task has shifted from initial data entry to correcting and augmenting the additional information added by other sources. Genealogy is not unique in this overriding dependency on collaboration, but since the Internet and computerization of the data, the task of the researcher has been substantially modified.

In the next installment, I will discuss the need for formal codification and presentation of research results.

Previous installments of this series include:

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