Family History Collaboration

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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
Topics

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

Many family historians tend to think of genealogy as an individual hobby. Some genealogists lament that no one else in the family cares about the family’s history. Usually, that is not the case. Family historians can, and should, interview all persons who have information about the family. The memories and other information obtained through interviews are invaluable in creating a family tree and building a foundation from which to start traditional research. In addition, the genealogical community has numerous avenues that can help you to expand your research. From message boards, to genealogy classes, to genealogical societies, the resources part of this network will prove to anyone that family history is a collaborative pursuit.

Contents

Interviews

Your research next moves to conversations and interviews with family members, friends, former neighbors, and perhaps people familiar with the history of a specific area. Their knowledge will supplement your own memories and provide a degree of perspective. Now is the time to capture the precious recollections of the oldest folks. Do not risk losing their important contributions.

Conducting Interviews

Your recollections, and those of others, are unique and vital to your family’s story. As these memories undergo the rigors of examination, selection, evaluation, and recording, they become the foundation upon which additional research will be built.

Learning the date and place of your grandparents’ marriage from family conversations could save weeks of frustration and expense in locating the official record of that event. One family’s belief that “Great-Grandpa was a twin” was a key element in subsequent record searches in England. Although untrue, this conviction ultimately helped locate a sibling’s birth record. Both men were born in the same year, the elder in January and the younger in November. Both fact and fiction have their place in your study, and both can provide important clues for future searches.

Oral interviewing is the primary technique by which memories are collected from family members or family friends and acquaintances. Information obtained in this manner can be extremely useful as long as one acknowledges that “human memory is a fragile historical source; it is subject to lapses, errors, fabrications and distortions.”[1]

Good interviews do not just happen. You must prepare well for interviewing others. The American Association for State and Local History Book Series offers instruction in The Oral History Manual by Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan. This guide gives techniques for planning, conducting, and transcribing an interview and includes checklists, reproducible forms, summary sheets, and extensive illustrations.

An important caution for new family historians who do not have interviewing experience is that “an interview is not a dialogue. The purpose of oral history interviews is to learn the narrator’s story.”[2] Other essential considerations include making advance arrangements and letting the narrator know what topics you want to discuss. Compile a list of questions, but let the narrator carry the discussion as long as it does not go too far astray. Watch for signs of fatigue and do not overstay your welcome. It is far better to have a narrator count the hours until you return than the minutes until you leave. If you take notes during the interview, examine them as soon as possible after the meeting. Elaborate on entries that are unclear. Consider topics that were not covered or questions that remain unanswered.

The use of a digital or standard audio recorder (with the permission of the person being interviewed) is most successful if you have practiced with the recording equipment in advance. Be sure to bring spare tapes and batteries to the session. As soon as possible afterwards, transcribe the resulting tapes. An interview at risk due to equipment failures or unintelligible conversation might be reconstructed from your notes and recollections if they are still fresh in your mind.

Video cameras and tape recorders can produce powerful supplements to your written record. Tips on how to use such equipment, as well as interviewing techniques, can be acquired from written guides, such as Rob Huberman and Laura Huberman’s How to Create a Video Family History. Again, common sense prevails: make the narrator aware of the use of such equipment well in advance, practice with the equipment so that its use will not distract the speaker, and review the results as soon as is practical.

Camcorders move interviews away from the realm of “two chairs and a table.” Interview sessions can be more informative when speakers perform routine tasks as they talk. Your grandmother may agree to bake bread without a recipe as she has done for years. A grandfather might demonstrate how he painstakingly sands the rungs on the seventh baby cradle he has made. Use the camera to tour the family home, filming the rooms and the outside environs. Visit the schools attended and parks frequented. Capture the past—even the recent past—as part of your family history worthy of preservation.

Of course, a personal visit may not be practical. You may not know where all your relatives are, especially if your family has been separated by divorce or adoption. To overcome this obstacle, try to gather relevant names and addresses from those with whom you are in contact. And make use of online networking resources (see #Network to Expand Your Research below) to find family members or others who can assist you with research.

Preserving Interviews

It is important to regularly refresh or make copies of cassettes, videotapes, or DVDs—migrating them to new formats—as they will degrade over time. Complicating things further is the fact that machines to play or read them may become obsolete and hard to find or replace. In a relatively short time, for example, the cumbersome reel-to-reel voice recorders were replaced by cassette players and mini cassette players, and home movie cameras were replaced with video cameras. The list of machines that have become obsolete in just a few short years is long and serves as a warning that popular machines used to read information today may not be available for long. Parts for existing machines will also be hard to find and it will be even more of a challenge to find someone to operate or repair them.

Even when they are stored under the best conditions, tapes have been known to self-destruct within just a couple of years, and some CDs and DVDs have been rendered useless in fewer than five years after they were created. Heat, light, high humidity, and dust are just some of the things that will hasten the deterioration of everything from paper to digital images. Storing records under ideal archival conditions will help to preserve them, but it is still advisable to convert these treasures to new media at least every two years.

Experts recommend creating an inventory of documents, photographs, digital albums, video tapes, cassettes, computer files, and heirlooms that have special meaning. It’s one thing to gather and archive your precious personal history items, but another to ensure that they will be available and viewable well into the future. The keywords are migration and flexibility: migrate your digital data from format to format through the years and be flexible. Changes in technology are hard to predict, and it’s important to be able to adapt. It pays to update your inventory on a yearly basis to make sure that the medium you have chosen is still valid.

Evaluating Traditions

Tradition is “the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, etc., from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or by practice, in other words, a story that has come down to us by tradition.”[3] Some cultures, such as African American and Native American, hold tradition in high regard as a way of preserving a past for which few written records survive. Anthropologists have found that when tradition is used to transmit culture and family history, the completeness and accuracy of the spoken word are likely to be carefully maintained by the storyteller.

Discovering information about the parents of an Austrian woman who had married a Native American of the Lakota Sioux tribe depended upon oral interviews with those who recalled the woman through tribal tradition. The details proved surprisingly accurate and led to the discovery of death dates and burial information about the woman’s parents. The mother and father had followed their daughter to the Dakota reservation but soon departed. Oral tradition placed their destination as Chicago, and in this city were found the father’s estate papers, which indicated that contact had been lost with one daughter—a daughter who resided on an Indian reservation.

Unfortunately, not all traditions contain as much truth as the one described previously. It is not uncommon for less-factual stories to follow a pattern, perhaps of separation, lost wealth, or thwarted opportunity. One common theme is that of the “separated brothers.” Usually, in this account, three brothers immigrated and separated soon after their arrival in the United States. While there can be truth in such an account, it occurs so often as to be suspect.

Be skeptical about tales of unclaimed wealth. Southern variations may cite treasure buried to conceal it from Union soldiers during the Civil War. The East Coast version may include a castle and inheritance in Kent, Devon, or Surrey, denied the American immigrant. In the Midwest, lost wealth stories are linked to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, i.e., the desperate family who watched the hired wagon speed away with their possessions before any family member could board.

Most traditions do contain a core of truth, an element that is surprisingly accurate and useful in research. The difficulty in proving these truths might be because the storyteller has assigned the activities to the wrong generation. More than one researcher has found “blended” generations a challenge to sort: was it Jacob’s father or his grandfather who fought in the American Revolution? Or an imagined lack of records might discourage verification. To overcome these problems, a researcher must hone and refine the skills of problem solving. One way to do this is to study articles in which tradition or oral history is verified or disproved. Del E. Jupiter’s “Matilda Madrid: One Woman’s Tale of Bondage and Freedom” depicts methodology used to detect myth and evaluate evidence given in the 1887 testimony of a former slave woman.[4]

Consider all the stories, even those that seem doubtful. Attempt to substantiate each story through verification by others when possible (ask a second party to repeat the story but do not offer leading questions) or through public documents. Include the traditions in your written record, but carefully identify them as “tradition” and note the sources of the information. These citations will be useful as you analyze information with an eye to proving or disproving parts of it.

Note taking and interview skills and the assessment of memories and traditions are critical first steps in the research process. You will come to appreciate the necessity of preserving these memories and personal attributes of people who could move out of your life at any moment. Public records and archival collections, in all likelihood, will outlast the relatives and acquaintances who have knowledge of the family to share. That is why people, not records, provide one of our first sources of information.

Interviews also provide opportunities to locate and identify home sources. You may find a bounty of home sources including heirlooms, manuscript materials, and personally held copies of public records. Your interview notes should contain an illustration (sketch, photograph, or photocopy) and description of the item, the name of the item’s holder, how the item was acquired, and as much explanatory information as can be obtained.

Your personal knowledge and memories, the home sources you locate, and the interviews you conduct are the first steps in family history research. Findings from such seemingly humble origins will thrust you into the larger arena of public records and, perhaps, more detailed facts, but you will return to these beginning steps often—each time with an awareness of the information previously collected.

Network to Expand Your Research

Networking—making contact with others who share similar interests—can speed your research progress. Have a research question? Try networking. At a crossroads and not sure in which direction to turn? Try networking. Need someone to talk to about your successes or frustrations? Again, try networking. Networking can take place online, by correspondence, or in person, and can include society membership, classroom participation, and workshop or national conference attendance.

Online

The Internet has changed the ways family historians communicate. E-mailing is a quick, inexpensive, and effective means to communicate. Technology allows the easy flow of e-mail with attached documents and photographs. It’s common to hear stories about an individual who has shared a piece of family history with a distant cousin and then received copies of long-sought documents or photographs in return. A brief and polite e-mail to a potential, newfound, or well-known relative is often the beginning of a wonderful exchange. The website MyRelative.com is a great resource useful in determining the relationship between you and the relative. (You can also look at media:Relationship chart.jpg) When communicating via e-mail, traditional courtesies should be observed.

A mailing list is simply an e-mail party line: every message that a list subscriber sends to the list is distributed to all other list subscribers. Genealogy-related mailing lists can cover surnames, U.S. counties and states, other countries and regions, ethnic groups, and other topics. Subscribing to a mailing list is one of the best ways of connecting to people who share your interests. Many websites host mailing lists, including RootsWeb.com (with over 29,140 lists), Ancestry.com, and Genealogy.com.

A message board is a computerized version of the old-fashioned bulletin board. There are message boards focusing on surnames, localities, and many other topics. By posting a message to the appropriate message board, you create a record through which other researchers can find you. You’ll find message boards on Ancestry.com, RootsWeb.com (with over 161,000 message boards), and Genealogy.com.

Some websites allow you to add “digital sticky notes” to content. On RootsWeb.com, these notes are called “Post-em Notes” and can be added to the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), the WorldConnect Project, or to other databases. Post-ems allow you to attach your e-mail address, a link to another website address, or other information to the records of any individual. On Ancestry.com these notes are called “Comments and Corrections.” Use these to add to an individual’s record alternate names or other comments about the person, both viewable by other researchers. On the Ellis Island website, you can add annotations to individual records. All of these additions to records are viewable by other researchers and could potentially help in your research and connect you with other researchers. Search for your ancestors and leave your calling card attached to their names.

Online family tree databases can help you locate others interested in the surnames you are researching. These resources include member trees on Ancestry.com, and WorldConnect on RootsWeb.com. You can initiate contact by e-mail. A number of online services also allow you to locate living individuals who may have family information to share.

Note that if you contact someone via regular, snail mail, research courtesy encourages that a self-addressed, stamped envelope (commonly referred to as an SASE) accompany genealogical requests in which no payment is enclosed or expected.

Repositories/Libraries

There are many libraries, archives, and societies that have excellent and well-known collections of genealogical research materials. The names and contact information for repositories of importance to family historians are given within the chapters and appendixes of this book. Several of these repositories, particularly the smaller ones, maintain lists of researchers and the local area families they are researching.

The LDS Family History Library (FHL) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, is perhaps the most widely known repository of genealogical materials. The FHL has been acquiring and preserving genealogical data since its founding in 1894. The library has collected vital information on hundreds of millions of deceased individuals. This data includes print and microform copies of records from all over the world, which are made available at the library in Salt Lake City and at Family History Centers throughout the United States and in many foreign countries. Many of the records described in The Source have been microfilmed and a good portion are indexed and accessible by visit to the library or a family history center. A catalog of FHL sources is available online.

Societies

Family historians are usually willing to share findings and exchange ideas and research experiences. This camaraderie results in a vast system of societies working to preserve and make records available and to promote educational opportunities. Participation in society activities as a member and volunteer allows you to pay back some of what you will reap as the beneficiary of society activities and projects. Societies also provide educational opportunities, including instructional articles published in their periodicals, local skill-building sessions, and one- or two-day seminars featuring nationally-known professionals.

Hundreds of genealogical and historical societies across the country seek to preserve records and provide instruction to family historians. Many groups form at the county level because of the research significance of local area records. Organizations also exist to study a single surname or the descendants of a particular couple. Ethnic or religious origins account for many such groups, such as the Polish Genealogical Society of America and P.O.I.N.T.—Pursuing Our Italian Names Together. Other societies bring together researchers with common locales of origin, for example, the Palatines to America and Germans from Russia societies.

Virtually all states have a state genealogical society, a state council, or both. In addition to major projects, a state-level group might coordinate the efforts of local societies within the state. Their publications (newsletters and journals) supplement those produced by local societies. Some state organizations, such as the Ohio Genealogical Society, offer chapter membership throughout the country. Other state organizations operate on a less-structured basis.

At the national level, a number of organizations serve individual genealogists or societies. The Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) is an umbrella organization for genealogical and historical societies and research institutes such as libraries and archives. The National Genealogical Society (NGS) is comprised of individual researchers. The oldest society in the United States is the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), which celebrated its sesquicentennial in 1995.

Volunteer Efforts

While most societies undertake valuable indexing and preservation activities and produce periodicals and other publications that benefit the genealogical community, there are also efforts by family historians working independently of societies. The availability of online indexes and databases are often the work of these volunteers, as are some national ventures to provide access to local records. The USGenWeb Project is a volunteer-driven site that publishes historical information and resource material such as cemetery indexes and newspaper abstracts. The sites they maintain often provide important local detail about an area’s history, geography, and settlement, along with an overview of record availability and access and research tips.

Professional Groups

Family historians interact with professional genealogists in several ways. Professionals write articles and books and present lectures that provide new information and give examples of methodologies to help in difficult research situations. Professionals often lead efforts to protect records in jeopardy and to make them available for wide use. Many (but not all) professionals conduct research on a contract basis for others and can assist a family historian with a quest that seems impossible. The research that professionals do ranges from an entire lineage to small but significant tasks in their field of expertise.

In the United States, there are several groups that serve the interests of professional genealogists and their clients, as well as those of the genealogical community. The Association of Professional Genealogists (PO Box 40393, Denver, CO 80204-0393) is a membership organization that does not administer tests, award credentials, or otherwise endorse individual researchers. The association does offer arbitration in the event a dispute arises between any association member and the general public. The APG website lists members’ names, contact details, and areas of expertise.

The Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) (PO Box 14291, Washington, DC 20044) is a certifying body that is not affiliated with any group. BCG screens applicants through a testing process and successful candidates earn the initials CG (Certified Genealogist). A roster of certified genealogists is at the BCG website.

The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGen) offers independent testing without membership. This program, established in 1964 by the Family History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is designed to examine and accredit researchers in specialized geographic areas. Those who successfully complete the program receive the initials AG (Accredited Genealogist). In 2000, the LDS Church transferred its ownership and administration of the program to ICAPGen, PO Box 970204, Orem, UT 84097-0204.

The American Society for Genealogists (ASG) was founded in 1940 as an honorary society, limited to fifty lifetime members designated as Fellows (identified by the initials FASG). Election to the ASG is based on a candidate’s published genealogical scholarship. A list of Fellows and news of the ASG Scholar Award is at the website.

Education

Continuing education is a hallmark of genealogists, who recognize an ongoing need for skill and knowledge building. After the how-to guides (see Bibliography), local class offerings, regional workshops, national conferences, and week-long institutes loom. Institutes are intensive, multi-track programs oriented toward a variety of interests and skill levels. Institutes that have operated for more than a decade include the Genealogical Institute of Mid-America, Springfield, Illinois; the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research, Birmingham, Alabama; the National Institute on Genealogical Research, Washington, D.C.; and the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Education can come via the Internet as well. For example, National Genealogical Society offers a number of online courses on their website.

National conferences are held annually in different parts of the United States. For nearly four decades, the BYU Family History and Genealogy Conference at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, has served the genealogical community.

Two national societies offer annual conferences that draw more than a thousand people to scores of lectures and a large display arena featuring vendors of family history products and services. Contact the National Genealogical Society, Conferences, 3108 Columbia Pike, Suite 300, Arlington, VA 22204-4304 or the Federation of Genealogical Societies, Conferences, PO Box 200940, Austin, TX 78720-0940 for details of their upcoming conferences. For a full range of educational events of all kinds, use the Federation’s online calendar. Ancestry.com also offers Ancestry.com webinars online classes on a variety of topics.

References

  1. History with a Tape Recorder: An Oral History Handbook (Springfield, Ill.: Oral History Office, Sangamon State University, n.d.), 2.
  2. Ibid., 4.
  3. Definition from http://www.answers.com/tradition
  4. Del E. Jupiter, “Matilda Madrid: One Woman’s Tale of Bondage and Freedom,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 91 (March 2003).
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