Sunday, February 9, 2014

Genealogy Lessons Learned

As a self-taught genealogist, everything I’ve learned, I learned through trial and error in bits and pieces. Citing my sources became more of a habit after learning about and reading Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills. But analyzing sources?  Wasn’t I analyzing a document when I decided if it belonged to my ancestor or not? I didn’t even know what I didn’t know! So I decided to become a participant in a study group for the book, Mastering Genealogical Proof by Thomas W. Jones.

In the last couple of years, I had been toying with the idea of becoming a certified genealogist. For years, I’ve been dabbling in family history research, but I began to realize my research was not up to professional standards. This study group seemed like a good idea. Let me tell you, it’s kicking my butt. I thought I understood original and derivative records; primary and secondary information; and direct and indirect evidence. Working through the exercises in this book has shown me how little I understand these concepts. So, in order to keep them front and center in my mind, I decided to blog about what I’m learning. These are not my ideas–they are the result of knowledge gained through reading Mastering Genealogical Proof by Thomas W. Jones.

One of the notions I’ve learned is the importance of framing my research through appropriate questions. While I sort of had questions about my ancestors like, “Who was Jacob’s father?” “Were these people his siblings?” “Where was he living in 1880?” I never formally wrote them down. These kinds of questions point me toward sources where I might find answers and information that will lead to evidence. The questions need to be framed about a person whom I already have known or “documented” information about and then ask questions about their relationships, identity, and activities. The questions I’ve asked about my ancestors seem right on target, but I don’t write them down or make sure they are about a documented person.
The sources I consult are also an important part of my research. Sources can be original (those created at the time of an event) or derivative (those created based on other records). Original records are usually more credible and the records I strive to find. A new thought for me was that indexes and databases are not considered sources because they are finding aids that help locate sources.

Sources contain information that is either primary (first-person account) or secondary (hearsay). They can also be indeterminable which means I have no idea who gave the information. Of course, I really want information that is primary, but sometimes I have to settle for secondary. My great-grandfather’s death certificate gives me primary information about his death. Presumably his niece, who was the informant, handled the funeral arrangements and knew about his death, as well as the physician who attended him. But the birth information contained on that certificate is not primary information because his niece wasn’t there when her uncle was born. She only knew about it because he told her when to celebrate his birthday. And his death certificate reflects that because she didn’t know exactly the year he was born or how old he was. Even though this is secondary information, it does give me clues about his birth and helps narrow my research field.

And then there is the evidence that is either direct, indirect, or negative, which is where my research question comes into play. In the case of my great-grandfather’s birth, his death certificate is an original record that contains secondary information, but it directly answers the question of when and where he was born, so it is direct evidence of his birth. Evidence is not something I can touch or see; it is something I create in my mind based upon my interpretation of the information in a source. What a new thought! In the past, I would have considered my great-grandfather’s death certificate as evidence.

So how will studying this chapter change my research? Well, for starters, I’m going back to my grandparents and making sure I have all my information backed up by actual original sources and not just the word of my parents. I will begin with appropriate questions and start analyzing the sources I have. As difficult as I’ve found this chapter, I’m excited to be expanding my knowledge and applying it directly to my research. If you want to bring your genealogy up a notch, I strongly encourage you to delve into this book. It will change your research.

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