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

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

What to do when you are lost in genealogy

The classic example of being lost takes place in a thick, dark forest. But the feeling or condition of being "lost" really depends on your understanding of your perceived situation. In the past, when I have been lost, I have really been lost. One time, I even ended up in the wrong state.

Many people feel lost when experiencing an unfamiliar situation. Confronting the complexity of genealogical research can make you feel lost. Fortunately, there are some common rules for those who find themselves lost. Over the years it is evident that the real danger and damage to being lost comes from disregarding these rules. Some of us have taught these rules to our children with varying results. I did not put these rules into any particular order and you may wish to rearrange them.

Rule Number One:
When you find yourself lost, stop moving around and stay in one place.

If I translate this rule for genealogists, I would say a little bit more. I would suggest that much of what we see as problems with online family trees, to take one example, comes from people who do not recognize the fact that they are lost. Even when they have taken a wrong turn by adding someone who is unrelated or any of a number of other choices, they fail to recognize that they are lost. But the rule applies, none the less, but in genealogy it is necessary to review your trail. Are you supporting all of your entries and conclusions with records or documents? Are you recording your sources? (i.e. leaving a breadcrumb trail that you can follow back to where you got lost?).

Rule Number Two:
Stay on marked trails and don't travel alone.

Genealogist tend to work alone. For some reason, they wait until they are really lost before seeking help. If you find yourself wondering where you are and what you might be doing, seek some help from someone who may have done some research in the area where you find yourself.

Rule Number Three:
When you find yourself alone and aren't sure where you are going, stay calm, find a place to stop and don't try to hide the fact that you are lost.

Too many genealogists take the attitude that they are right and everyone else is wrong. They are like the people in the wilderness who just keep walking even though they should have long since reached safety. Working on an unsecure genealogical line does not make any sense at all. You should stop at the first hint that there is a problem and start looking around at your surroundings. This applies doubly to genealogists. If you don't know the territory, you will probably make a mistake in adding new unsupported information. One simple example is people who add names to a family when the places attached to those names do not match the family's location at the time.

Rule Number Four:
Find a safe place to stay where you can keep warm and dry.

One of biggest issues with genealogical research is identifying when you left the trail. When you find yourself lost, don't try to backtrack. Unlike being physically lost in the forest or where ever, you need to go back to the first place in your research where you could positively identify an ancestor with validly evaluated sources. Then redo your research until you can see a positive way to proceed.

Rule Number Five:
If you must keep moving, always go downhill.

This rule applies more frequently in the southwestern part of the United States, where I live, than in other localities. It can be translated to say, unless you know what direction to go stay put. A related rule says to follow the water, i.e. go downstream. After reading many, many accounts of people who were lost, the biggest problems begin before the person leaves home. They are either too young, too naive or limited in some other way to be wandering out into the wilderness. The same goes for genealogists. Take some time to learn what you need to know about doing genealogical research before you march out into the wilderness of genealogy.

I am reminded of a couple of examples where the lost person lit a fire to signal that they were lost and ended up burning down have the state of Arizona. Unfortunately, some researchers not only fail to recognize they are lost, when finally do, they do even more damage by adding even more wrong information. If careful, competent people are telling you that you are lost, perhaps you need to start listening to them.

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