More, Please!

Last year, a potential client approached me to perform research in a nearby county on an ancestral family. This client had never performed research before, instead relying on the work of others, but was interested in moving this particular family back in time a generation. After consulting with me and the others who had performed previous research, the client decided not to hire me because all the records had already been searched. The belief was, amongst that group, that there was no further information to be found pertinent to that family or the research problem because they had already gathered all documents created by or for the ancestor in question.

I strongly disagreed and explained why, but still lost a client over a common misconception, that all there is to research is extracting information from records about a particular ancestor.

The longer I am a genealogist the more I understand how incorrect that notion is. Yes, of course, we must search all the records, but there is so much more to it than that. Solving difficult research problems requires going beyond the initial research phase and looking at the information we’ve gathered in an entirely new light. This idea is, in part, what methodologies like cluster or whole family research rest upon. It isn’t the information we gather that’s important so much as how we use it. If we are content to look only at one ancestor and the records he or she created without analyzing the information found or placing the records (and our ancestors) within an appropriate context, then we deserve what we get: an insurmountable brick wall.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Instead of playing Oliver Twist, with our proverbial bowls held out asking More, please, perhaps we should look at the information we’ve already gathered and see what it’s really telling us. We might discover a witness who was named repeatedly in various documents, someone previously discounted because his or her surname was different, but on second glance we realize, Hey! This person could be a relative! Perhaps a fresh analysis will uncover patterns we hadn’t noticed before, patterns that will lead us back to a previous locality, to records we didn’t know existed, or to the elusive parent…all because we were willing to look deeper.

As researchers like Elizabeth Shown Mills, Thomas W. Jones, and others advocate, we must be willing to wring every bit of data out of every record we find. We must be willing to track down every lead, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential.

Perhaps most importantly, we must rid ourselves of long-held assumptions about how research is conducted and when it should end. Canvassing a broad variety of records is a necessary part of the research process, but if we stop there and never look at the details we’ve gathered, separately and as a whole, we have missed an opportunity to deepen our knowledge of an ancestor’s life and, perhaps, missed an opportunity to connect that ancestor with the previous generation.

More information, more records, more stuff, isn’t always the answer, but where analysis of that information is concerned, we should always be eager to say, More, please!

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