Many thanks to the folks at the Central Georgia Genealogical Society, who hosted my presentation on research in newspapers last night in Warner Robins. Y’all were an attentive and friendly group. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this versatile records set with you, and hope to meet with you again in the future. Until then, happy hunting!
On Monday, Randy Seaver, blogger extraordinaire, discussed recently made changes to the Evidence Analysis Process Map used by genealogists as a guideline for assessing the quality of sources and the information they contain, the nature of evidence, and the strength of proof. Two excellent versions of this map are available from Historic Pathways, courtesy of Elizabeth Shown Mills, and Think Genealogy.
The changes, too new to be shown on either map, would expand sources, information, and evidence each from two to three categories, adding authored sources to original and derivative ones; undetermined (or indeterminate) information to primary and secondary information; and negative evidence as a third category of evidence, along with direct and indirect evidence.
These changes are important for the same reason that it’s important to separate the form of a source from the information that source contains: because doing so helps us better understand the quality of both the source itself and the information derived from it, which in turn leads to better evidence (of all kinds) and, ultimately, to better proof.
While most genealogists focus on larger changes to the field, like better access to records through digitization, these small changes to underlying research tenets slip quietly by. Don’t get me wrong. I’m as excited about digitization, DNA, and the like as anyone else. But I’m equally excited about having new ways to analyze records, historic or modern.
These new distinctions aren’t merely semantics. They’re crucial to the assessments we make every day about the records we use and the evidence we derive from them. Genealogy is, after all, a field where details reign. Precision is key, and using precise terminology is an excellent way to remind ourselves of that.
One recurring topic on the members-only mailing list for the Association of Professional Genealogists is the rampant inaccuracies of lineage society applications. Those of the Daughters of the American Revolution are of particular concern because they’re often cited or used as proof by genealogists who don’t realize how many errors old applications contain.
The most recent discussion of this issue revolved in part around how genealogists can correct these errors without submitting a new application. My solution is, on the surface, quite simple: publication and wide dissemination of the corrections.
Unlike much of the rest of academia, genealogy is not a publish or perish field. Publication is encouraged, however, and there are plenty of outstanding opportunities for doing so.
More importantly, publication offers an outlet for the frustration many of us (rightly) feel when confronted with sloppy research. It’s a positive way to affect change, rather than sitting back and complaining about the situation.
Genealogy might not be a publish or perish field, but perhaps it should be a publish or quit complaining one.
ranted about discussed how I choose to take positive action when confronted with willful ignorance.1 My example yesterday, of the use of certain terminology, was nit-picky, I admit. So today, I’m pulling a Dan Mitchell and listing real examples of behavior not to be emulated:
- The certified genealogist who published a series of books based on the work of other researchers, without citing sources or doing any work to confirm the findings of those other researchers, and who then complained, when confronted with problems in the research, that it was hard to publish and s/he couldn’t be responsible for errors in the publication.
- The professional genealogist who told a potential client interested in having slave ancestors researched that unless the slave holding family left a will, there was no way to trace the slave.
- Another professional genealogist who told a potential client that wills were the only records of probate available for research.
- Two professional genealogists who advocate strictly defined limits on who can perform professional genealogy, including high standards of professionalism, but whose conduct is so unprofessional it has drawn open censure from other professionals.
Followed by examples, in no particular order, of genealogists who go above and beyond the call of duty to help others:
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, who has contributed so much to the field that it’s difficult to summarize her activities. Among other things, she opens her virtual door to questions from all researchers in a variety of forums, in addition to all of her many duties.
- Judy G. Russell, whose blog The Legal Genealogist is one of the best resources for understanding historic legal records.
- Thomas W. Jones, who is one of the editors of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and a prominent teacher and lecturer.
- Christine Rose, who, among her other duties, has published many helpful, high-quality guides.
This list could get very long indeed if I listed everyone by name (and, believe me, I have a long list of genealogists to be thankful for), so I’ll just make a shout-out to all the individuals out there who:
- Write informational and educational blogs
- Edit and/or contribute to society publications
- Speak for societies and at conferences
- Write books on genealogy-related topics
- Share knowledge by participating in mailing lists and other forums
- Donate time and/or money to societies, libraries, and other places
- Work to preserve historic documents and artifacts
- Mentor other genealogists through tough research problems
- And so much more!
I know many genealogists who contribute their time, whether paid or not, to helping others in the genealogical community. Thankfully, these individuals comprise the large majority of genealogists. We are a helpful bunch!
Speaking of, have you done your good deed for the week?
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1. I did not intend to call the population at large ignorant. That is certainly not the case. My frustration comes through the actions of those who deliberately remain ignorant for reasons that are specious rather than innocent.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve read recently-published literature by three different professional genealogists who used the terms “primary source” and “secondary source.” One of the genealogists is a well-known, fairly high profile individual with a great deal of experience on the topic of that particular literature; in other words, someone who should know better than to use such imprecise terminology. Yet there it was, in black and white, for all the world (and a lot of less experienced researchers) to see.
I could throw my hands up in despair, say Will they ever learn?, and fret over how useless it is to expect people to lift themselves up from the mire of ignorance. Or I could do something positive to advance good research habits, including educating myself and sharing that experience with others.
I would like to issue a challenge to every researcher to be an agent of change this week. Pick one way to help someone else (or yourself!) learn a new skill, tackle a tough research problem, or track down a long lost relative. It doesn’t matter what you choose to do as long as you choose to do something. We can sit around waiting on the world to change, or we can act in a way that will help that change occur.
To help get things started, I will go first. My action this week will be to bring my nephew (who is in 10th grade) information about The Concord Review, and to make a commitment to him, my son, and my niece to help them, when the time comes and in whatever way I ethically can, to research an essay for submission to that publication.
What change will you effect this week?
Last month, while pondering which genealogical societies to renew memberships in or join, I also ruminated on the value of a society’s publications to its membership, and how the quality of a periodical might influence the size and loyalty of said membership. Like many genealogists, I enjoy receiving a variety of journals, quarterlies, and newsletters over the course of each year. Each periodical varies in scope and content, and each provides valuable information to the society’s members.
That being said, some periodicals are of better quality than others. My absolute favorite is the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, which is edited by two well-qualified experts in the field. Publication in the Q is highly sought after, but only the most well-crafted and researched articles are able to pass through the rigorous review process.
Obviously, not every publication can attain the same level of stature, but every society should strive to have the best periodical it can. Here are my thoughts, as both a reader and an author, on how societies can perfect their publications.
A few years ago, I came across a January 1864 list of indigent families who “drew factory yarn” in Rabun County. That list has been stuck in the back of my mind ever since as I ponder the idea of factory yarn.
Here lately, I’ve been spending some quality time with my knitting needles making Christmas gifts and finishing up a few projects. I discovered quite by chance that knitting for even half an hour before bedtime helps me sleep better than spending the entire evening on work. (Imagine that!)
After spending so much time from Halloween to Christmas knitting for others, I decided to do something nice for myself. My Christmas stocking this past year contained a skein of some beautiful sock yarn. Coincidentally, I’ve always wanted a pair of hand knit socks.
A while back, I read Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Female Ancestors : Special Strategies for Uncovering Hard-To-Find Information About Your Female Lineage, in which she discusses using social history to fill in the blanks of a woman’s life.1 One of her case studies, toward the back of the book, discussed the day-to-day responsibilities of a woman living in the 19th century, one of which was knitting stockings for all her household’s residents.
When I was young, my mother listened to the early morning radio program by Apple Savage every school day. Apple undertook the job of informing parents if school was in session or if it had been cancelled due to inclement weather. What school-aged child could forget the wilting dread brought on by Apple’s booming voice announcing, “Rise and shine, boys and girls! There will be school today!”
But, oh, the hope that rose when the Atlanta weatherman predicted snow for the northern counties on the evening news. The next day, early in the morning, how many children pulled the covers down past their ears, baring them to a chilly room in anticipation of hearing, “No school today in Rabun County! I repeat, there will be no school today!”
I hope you’re enjoying your eternal snow day, Apple, and looking down on your former school children with a smile.
We were having lunch today at a local restaurant* when a gentleman came over and introduced himself. He’d read the newspaper book and wanted to let me know that he was a genealogist with local roots (in Union Co., GA) and would be willing to share resources and so forth. I promised to return the favor. Chances are good that we’ll either have family connections or common research problems or both.
See? Good things do happen in small places.
* At the Valley Café in Dillard. It’s my son’s favorite restaurant. Plus, my cousin Sonny (son of Thad J. Watson, Jr.) works there so we’re helping support my adorable cousins.
Today, I began the long process of deciding which societies I will renew memberships in, which ones I may need to join, and what periodicals I need to subscribe to for the coming year.
This is always a difficult decision for me. If I had my druthers, I’d join every society on my long list and subscribe to every periodical. Alas, finances almost never allow for that circumstance. So I must pick and choose based on whether or not I can participate in society functions, what benefits the society offers (and whether or not I can take advantage of them), and how well I like the society’s publications.