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

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Jumpstart Your Family History in Ten Steps: Step Five -- Begin to develop your own personal methodology

There is a huge difference between trying to dig a hole with a pick and shovel and that of using a huge backhoe like the one above. By taking advantage of the tools provided by modern technology we can literally move from the pick and shovel methods of genealogical research to using powerful tools that are analogous to the powerful backhoe. Ironically, many wouldbe genealogists reject or ignore the advantages of technology for a variety of trivial reasons.

There is a gap between theory and methodology. In theory, genealogy is supposed to be a voyage of self-discovery. It is often represented as easy and fun. In my experience, self-discovery is often a painful process, it usually means giving up some habits and attitudes that are comfortable but do not let us advance and overcome our inherent limitations. This series is intended to outline, in ten arbitrarily selected steps, how to become started in doing genealogical research. The number of steps is certainly not as important as the concepts.

When I began researching my family history over thirty years ago, I very quickly concluded that unless I traveled to Salt Lake City, Utah and visited the Family History Library, I would be unable to ascertain the extent to which my accumulated relatives had already documented my family lines. Initially, I had some family group rcords from my immediate family that recorded my parents' four generations. In reviewing these records, I immediately found inconsistencies and errors. I also had the mixed benefit of inheriting a number of surname books and other records. I say this was a mixed benefit because the books, for the most part, lacked any supporting citations to the sources where the information was obtained.

By the time I started exploring my ancestry, I already had an extensive research background obtained from graduate school and law school as well as my own personal interest in research. Although this previous experience was helpful, it was not focused on the same type of research I needed to do to find historical records. That only came from years of application and persistence in trying to learn how to find genealogically significant records. Most of the supplemental information came from books and then, as I indicated in the last post, from classes and genealogy conferences.

During this same time period, I was also undergoing a huge transformation because of my interest and involvement in technology. I had the opportunity to become involved in computer technology from the very beginnings of the time when individuals were first able to take advantage of owning and using computers.

Now, what happens today is that genealogy is saturated with technology. Early on, all of the genealogists I met and interacted with were entirely paper-based and I was instructed in the very "traditional" methods of doing genealogical research. However, because I was intimately involved in computer technology, I began to adapt and change my methods as I became more involved in the technology. This process is ongoing and I must say that the technology today is changing even more rapidly than it was when I first began. This series of posts reflects my opinions about the methodology of becoming involved in family history or genealogy today but my methods and opinios with undoubtedly change in the very near future.

The basic outline of the traditional paper-based genealogical reasearch process dates back to the earliest times. I have referred to this booklet before, but it is a case in point. This is the third edition of a set of lessons developed back in the early 1900s, now over a hundred years ago.

It is available online for free from the Internet Archive. This is the link:

Except for the parts concerning the religious basis for genealogical research relating to the beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, anyone familiar with traditional paper-based genealogy will immediately recognize that this particular methodoly has not changed substantially for over this time period. Some of the pertinent headings in the book are as follows:
  • Material and Sources of Information
  • Note and Record Books
  • Sources of Information
  • Personal
  • Bibles, Etc.
  • Correspondence
  • Libraries
  • Foreign Research
  • Use of Tradition
  • Care of Genealogical Information
Superficially, it would appear that what I am doing here is translating this same methodology and adapting it to computerization and the availability of records instantly online. But that is not the case. The changes in methodology are more than superficial adaptations of traditional research methods to a veneer of technology. What has happened involves much more than just a new set of tools to use, i.e. computers instead of paper and pencils. The changes really involve an entire restructuring of the work flow and the approach to the subject of genealogical research.

But despite all the changes, each individual needs to assess their own goals and develop their own methodology. There is always a tendency to return to traditional, paper-based methods of research. I still see those I am helping writing down notes with pencil or pen and adding printed copies of records to an ever increasing pile of paper records. The idea here is to move away from this traditional methodology. This does not mean simply copying your paper-based methods over to computer programs. It includes a whole new concept of the workflow.

To accomplish this, it is necessary to adapt to the current devices and programs. For example, instead of writing notes; using a smartphone or a tablet to make images of documents (where allowed) or maintain to-do lists and note taking. The main obstacle to accomplishing this transformation is adapting to and learning the operation of the programs and devices. In fact, this may be the most serious issue facing those who may want to adapt but do not yet have the skills in keyboarding or entering data in tablets and smartphones to take advantage of the technology. But fundamentally, the real issues lie more in the adaptation of research methods.

There are still five more steps and it is time to move on to the next one.

Here are the posts in this series.

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