Evaluation and Goal Setting

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Basics of Family History Research

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Family History Research
Home Sources
Family History Collaboration
Basics of Family History and Technology
Basics of DNA
Basic Record-keeping
Evaluation and Goal Setting
Family History in Time and Place
Family History Etiquette, Ethics, Legalities
List of Useful Resources for Beginners

This article originally appeared in "The Foundations of Family History Research" by Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, FUGA, and Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

This wiki is replete with potential sources for exploring your family history. Some records will be easily accessed and have a reputation for yielding the kind of biographical information that is essential for building reliable accounts of individuals and families. Most sources, such as census records, will be visited and revisited many times. A good way to become comfortable with sources is to first collect all records, private and public, that pertain to you; then do the same for your parents and grandparents. Confining first-steps research to the twenty-first century provides a good foundation for earlier and often more difficult research. This approach enables you to learn general methods for locating, comparing, and evaluating records and acquire good record-keeping procedures. At the same time, research is being done from the present to the past.

After working with various sources you will be able to rank them according to priority and reliability with more precision. You will soon learn that although records that are accessible and most likely to solve problems should be consulted first, no record should remain undiscovered. A family history is the sum of information from all records, and even the hard-to-find or difficult-to-interpret source materials should be consulted.

Research Notes

Two basic record-keeping skills assume great importance in evaluating research. The first is making notes or a transcript. The second is drafting a summary of findings. Clear and accurate recording will help you and others easily understand notes or summaries after the interview, record, or other event has cooled in your mind.

Notes can be informal, such as key points jotted down during an interview of a family member. Keep the entries concise and to the point. If you choose to abbreviate certain words or terms, a key to explain the abbreviations should accompany your notes.

A transcript is a more formal form of note taking. A transcript is a full and complete copy of an original record that may be too fragile to photocopy. Instead, a written or typed copy must be created. Every detail is left intact and there must be no alteration of original wording, intent, or length.

Whether creating notes or a transcript, all opinions or conclusions made by the note taker should be set apart by brackets. This allows the reader to differentiate between original content and the note-taker’s commentary. Enter the full date when the note or transcript was made, the site of the note-taking, and the name of the note-taker on each page. Pages should be consecutively numbered. Instructions on note-taking and transcribing (or its condensed versions, the extract or abstract) are in the BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, pages 2–8.

Research Summaries

The second skill is to draft regular summaries of your findings. Summaries serve as a report to those who are interested in your work, such as relatives or others searching the same family. Summaries can also encourage in-depth analysis of evidence by providing a new look at material that previously appeared only in chart form. Two ways to summarize findings are narratives and timelines. Both take information from family group sheets and reassemble it into a new format. Whichever style is used, it is critical to link each entry (name, date, place) to the source of information from which it came. This is usually done through references, either using footnotes or endnotes to cite the source.

The most basic summary style is to present the information in narrative form. Novices and experienced researchers alike can benefit from creating short narratives at every stage of their work. A narrative can be as simple as an informal collection of paragraphs about an ancestor or as elaborate as a multi-generational family history suitable for publication. For most researchers, the simple paragraph narrative is the precursor to publication. You need not be an award-winning author to present your findings in this manner. Compose an accurate and concise summary of your research steps and a condensed version of your findings. For added interest, see Patricia Law Hatcher’s “Adding Detail to Your Narrative.”11

The family history timeline, or chronology is another excellent summary tool. This is an outline of events, organized by dates, in the life of a particular person or a span of time in the existence of a family. A timeline can be an effective research tool. In “The Perspective of Timelines,” Laura G. Prescott notes, “Timelines provide us with an orderly, encapsulated view of the past. They are clear and structured ways to help us make connections, solve puzzles, and interpret lives.”12

The timeline will reveal gaps in research by highlighting omissions of data. For example, the lack of a timeline entry for a man who was living in this country in 1930 needs either an explanation or more census work. It may prove helpful to introduce historical events into the timeline but keep in mind that local events often influenced a subject’s life even more than some national events. The opening of the Brooklyn Bridge was a marvel to many but probably did not alter the lives of most non-Brooklyn people. However, as a local event, its influence was significant. A timeline should thus include events of regional significance that may dictate the availability of records (a tornado that destroyed a courthouse, for example).

Consider timelines and narratives to be research status reports that point out inconsistencies, omissions, and potential pursuit opportunities. Regardless of how findings are presented, the resulting summaries should insure that others can reconstruct your research activities. This is achieved by using endnotes or footnotes to give full citations to the source of the information and when and from where the source was acquired. Elizabeth Shown Mills’s Evidence! gives examples.

Finding Compiled Information

At an early point in our research, it is critical to investigate the possibility that someone may have published a genealogy or has otherwise made available information on your family. How frustrating to spend years researching a family only to learn the entire line was thoroughly researched and well documented in an award-winning family history. It is equally frustrating to spend hundreds of dollars in search of a date of death when the information was posted on a genealogy website long before you even started research and remains there today.

Conduct a general survey to learn what is in print or published online on your ancestor or on the family name. Many libraries have been the recipients of published and manuscript family histories. Begin by checking, online or off, the catalogues of the libraries which serve the areas in which your family lived. Then search the catalogues of the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana. These three repositories hold some of the largest collections of family histories.

A number of Internet sites, including Ancestry.com and ProQuest, have published local and family histories online. A project of Brigham Young University is to digitize family histories, many of which are out of print. One easy way to access those that have been digitized is to use the link from the history’s title entry in the Family History Catalog.

Use the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) to learn what articles may have appeared in genealogical and historical periodicals since 1847. This major finding aid is available in print, as a CD-ROM, and online.

If you are fortunate enough to find collected information on your family or about an individual in your family, the compiler’s work and the sources used to compile the work should be checked for accuracy. Always verify information with the original. And if you are sharing data with others, provide the sources from which the information came and, when appropriate, give credit to the original assembler.

Collecting Evidence and Analyzing Data

Experienced genealogists are distinguished by an ability to locate and acquire all available evidence and then interpret the information. All genealogical conclusions should be based on accurately recorded, carefully documented, and well-analyzed records. No possible clue should be ignored, no stone left unturned. This is true even where there is a scarcity of records. Rachal Mills Lennon’s words on Southern research are universally applicable:

The most common cause of stalemates in Southern research is a tendency to conduct look ups rather than investigations. Pressed for time, researchers seek shortcuts. They typically search for the specific name of the key individual and limit themselves to indexed records. When that basic look up fails to yield an answer, many are tempted to give up—blaming meager results on ‘poor recordkeeping’ or ‘record destruction.’”13

This is a good practice to avoid for all researchers no matter where research is being conducted.

In addition to exhausting every source, analyzing data and assigning people to the correct families requires a combination of common sense, a knowledge of history, and a marshaling of sources. How-to books will give some suggestions, but it is very difficult to explain analytical techniques in a brief discussion. The most comprehensive discussion on the association of evidence and family history research will be found in chapters 14 through 17 of Professional Genealogy, edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills. These chapters cover problem analyses and research plans, research procedures, and transcripts and abstracts. Note particularly chapter 17, “Evidence Analysis,” by Donn Devine, who is both an attorney and a professional genealogist.

One basic concept is that you seek proof for asserting that any two records apply to the same person. Far too many erroneous pedigrees have used slapdash “name’s-the-same” assumptions. Say, for example, that a birth record for a John Smith dated twenty-five years prior to the marriage of another John Smith in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, was found. Because the bridegroom is known to have been approximately twenty-five years old when he married, can he be correctly assumed to be the John Smith of the birth record? No. He may well be, but without analysis of other records and the family situation, you cannot responsibly make such a conclusion. The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, provides a succinct discussion of the standards of proof, data collection, and evidence evaluation. Although written for the professional, this work will benefit anyone researching family history.

Examples of the analytical process and evaluation of evidence, along with troubleshooting techniques can be found in Marsha H. Rising’s The Family Tree Problem Solver. Although not for novices, this book introduces sophisticated research strategies that will be more usable as the family historian grows in experience. A helpful presentation on how detailed record analysis can reveal important information and interpretative clues is “Secrets of the Great Migration Study Project: Squeezing More out of the Early New England Records,” by Robert C. Anderson.14


Coming soon...

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