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

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part Twenty-five: The not-so-final conclusion

All things, both good and bad, come to an end sometime and this series is no exception. I guess, what it boils down to is that genealogical research is a rather complex activity and encompasses a huge spectrum of individual interests and goals. On the one hand, there are those who are satisfied in copying a few names into an online family tree. At the other end of the spectrum, there are professional genealogists who adhere to a complex system of proof statements and citations with the aim to publish their conclusions in journals and other publications. Some of those at the professional level also provide genealogical research services to clients for pay.

Due to this dichotomy within the genealogical community, we find several areas of tension, with substantial pulls from all the views of how genealogical research should be done. The overriding issue is accuracy and consistency. No matter how the process is characterized, it is essential that the conclusions reflect the broadest possible selection of historical documents and records. It is also extremely important that each and every record or document consulted by recorded so that the researcher and any subsequent researchers, can reproduce, if necessary, the method by which the conclusions were derived.

The main activity of genealogists (family historians or whatever) involves identifying, locating and searching historical records of all kinds for information about their (or their clients') ancestry. Once those documents are searched, any pertinent information is recorded with a citation to its exact location. As the researchers assembles the information, he or she begins the process of evaluation and interpretation. In some cases, it may be helpful to future investigators for the researcher to record their thought processes, but always recognizing that the discovery of additional documents or records or a re-interpretation of the existing records can completely change or modify any previously made conclusions. All genealogical conclusions are always open to modification and abandonment.

Complex issues of copyright law and plagiarism have influenced genealogical research for decades. For a variety of reasons, researchers have come to believe that they own their historical discoveries and conclusions. This attitude manifests itself in a variety of ways from the publication of research findings with claims of copyright protection to the hoarding of information with a refusal to share that information even with close family members. Whether this protective attitude originates with the hoarding compulsion or from an expectation that the researcher will be compensated by recognition or monetary gain, the results of these claims acts as smothering blanket on the entire research process. As a result, each generation of researchers has been forced to redo much of the work done by previous researchers. This is especially true when the previous research efforts were lacking in source citations.

Any genealogical conclusions that lack adequate documentation of both the source of the information and the thought process of the researcher, will always require duplication of effort.

Genealogical research is essentially a process that includes both methodology and theory. The methodology can vary and the theory has been sadly neglected over the years. As with most aspects of our modern society, technology has had a significant impact on the entire genealogical research process. The availability of online, digitized copies of a substantial number of historical records and documents will continue to change the way research is conducted, i.e. the methodology, but will have little impact on the theory. The difficulty is that the theory of how and why genealogical research is conducted is far from fully developed. It is very difficult to talk about genealogy or family history, as such, without encountering such a wide response to make communication almost impossible.

Part of this difficulty has come from the incorporation of inappropriate terminology, borrowed from other activities, that impedes the process of understanding and applying effective research activities. This spectrum of terminology and jargon was recently epitomized by the recent trends to make genealogy "entertaining." This particular trend obscures or completely abandons the core activities and motivation and the need to adequately research and identify ancestors. This is being advocated at the expense of attracting people to "family history" at a casual and unstructured level.

Previous installments of this series include:

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