To all my geneabuddies and friends, I wish you a safe and happy New Year. May 2014 be full of possibilities, promise, and the joy of friends and family.
Michael John Neill recently discussed Accurately Searching for my Ordinary Ancestors. A couple of his remarks were really spot-on, including this one:
The search for those records can take a lifetime, even in the era of the internet. It’s not just about the search for some obscure document that makes a connection or finding as much material as possible. Genealogy is not the accumulation of capital. It is about stitching documents together, fleshing out the unwritten clues in the records, and weaving the written and the unwritten together into a story that is based upon sound research, sound methodology and yet is engaging to the reader. The difficulty for those who strive to accurately document their heritage is that many of those who lived their lives outside the bright glow of fame do not always leave the amount of records that makes telling their story easy.
We’re in the beginning stages of production for the second issue of The Appalachiana, the quarterly newsletter of the Southern Appalachians Genealogical Association (SAGA). I already have two articles for the upcoming issue, one of which is ready for print. The other is undergoing revisions based on editorial suggestions. When I finished marking up the draft, I thought, as I always do, that the author would be pretty ticked at all the red ink. Fortunately, I’m dealing with an experienced author who understands the editorial process.
The way I see it, my editorial hat contains several tricks, including maintaining a consistent style across the entire publication, finding holes in the article that need to be filled, and, above all, helping the author take a so-so or good article and make it really great. The main objective is to have a newsletter that readers will find useful and interesting. The best way to do that is to have well-written articles, and to achieve that goal, I must pull out my red pen and edit.
I’ve been trying to post a list of my genealogy readings on Fridays, but this week I want to share a book that is related to genealogy only by chance. I ordered Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain through Inter-Library Loan because I’m an introvert (yes, really), and being an introvert has a devastatingly negative effect on my career. Yes, really.
The first section of Quiet deals with the “Extrovert Ideal,” that is, the emphasis our society places on extroversion, and the many assumptions that follow because of this emphasis. Extroverts are seen as natural leaders. Their ideas are followed more frequently not because they’re right, but because they’re assertive and talkative. Extroverted people are seen as more attractive, more intelligent…just more. Not because of their character or anything tangible, but simply because of their outgoing nature.
Introverts, on the other hand, are negatively labeled in just about everything, and I can attest to this from personal experience. If I had a dollar for every comment my parents made to me about speaking up in public, finding a “real” job (working with the public, naturally), being more like my sister (the brilliant, beautiful, outgoing teacher and coach with an active social life and tons of friends)…
I continue to see a troubling phrase in regards to certain records, that they “hold little genealogical value.” Is this our only concern as researchers, that records hold genealogical information? Is it not possible for records to hold information important to one’s research, in spite of the presumptive lack of genealogical information?
The answer to the latter question has been demonstrated, repeatedly and by various individuals, to be an unequivocal and emphatic yes. Directed searches in records that, in general, are believed to “hold little genealogical value” can still be quite useful in sorting out two (or more) individuals of the same name, pinpointing the residence or daily activities of an ancestor or potential ancestor (and thus placing him or her in close proximity to potential relatives), or overcoming local governmental records losses.
One needn’t look far for an excellent example. Helen F. M. Leary in her pointed article “Sally Hemings’s Children: A Genealogical Analysis of the Evidence”1 used information from a wide variety of sources including Monticello’s architecture to demonstrate that Thomas Jefferson was, indeed, the father of all of Sally’s children; but, of equal importance, to refute evidence to the contrary. Other examples of the need to expand research into records of “little genealogical value,” when circumstances dictate the necessity of doing so, are published regularly, if not frequently, in modern genealogical periodicals.
When records are described as “holding little genealogical value” or otherwise limited in use by well-intentioned authors, it sends mixed signals to less-experienced researchers (should one expand research into non-traditional records or not?) and discourages them from using records creatively in ways that the author might not have considered, in spite of his or her familiarity with the same. A researcher’s best action is, therefore, not to ignore such advice, but to judge the value of a record on the merits of how its information affects research outcomes, not on the presumption of whether or not it holds genealogical information.
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1. Helen F. M. Leary, “Sally Hemings’s Children: A Genealogical Analysis of the Evidence,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 89 (September 2001): 165-207. This special issue of the NGSQ included several perspectives from various scholars on the Jefferson-Hemings affair.
Some people erroneously believe that if it’s been published on the Internet, it’s in the public domain. For the vast majority of works, including blog posts and web sites, this is simply not true. Even if a work does not carry a copyright notice, either the standard one or a license under Creative Commons (or something of that nature), and even if it’s not formally registered, it still falls under the protection of federal (and likely international) copyright laws.
The only exceptions to this are things like government web sites and publications (because the government is a public entity, its publications are always in the public domain) and works where the copyright protection has lapsed, such as many of the older books that have been digitized by Google, etc. Even still, common practice and standards in genealogy dictate that these should be appropriately attributed.
Let’s be frank, folks: Copying someone else’s work without proper attribution is plagiarism, regardless of whether or not a work is protected by copyright or license.
It’s unethical, if not outright illegal, to take someone else’s work and pass it off as one’s own. And when someone blatantly plagiarizes another person’s work, the solution is not to ignore it or titter behind one’s hand, like school children on a playground, but to bring this infraction to the public’s attention in a manner that is calm and rational.
Me? No one could accuse me of possessing either trait. My first reaction is always to go in with fists flying. (Or maybe cast iron pans. Hey, whatever’s handy.) Hmm. That must be the Scots-Irish in me…
Barry Ewell: Prayer is the most important tool I have as a genealogist (an excerpt from Ewell’s book Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips, and Tricks for Discovering Your Family) by Barry Ewell, published in the Deseret News.
Not long ago, I submitted a case study to the editor of the Georgia Genealogical Society Quarterly for publication. In this paper, I discussed how I “proved” the identities of a young woman’s parents, both of whom had died when she was very young. My research began with this woman’s death certificate, which listed her parents’ names incorrectly (if you’re wondering, the names weren’t even a close match), and worked outwards from there. In the end, the breakthrough records were ones researchers don’t often consult, which was the main point of the article: If the “normal” records don’t help, then look to the “unusual” ones.
The thing is, I wouldn’t have been able to successfully resolve this problem even a decade ago, maybe not even five years ago. I know that when I first started researching, back in the dinosaur days of microfilm and dusty court records, I would have accepted the information on that death certificate unquestioningly, and been stuck with a brick wall until I figured out that such information cannot be taken at face value.
For me, it was a long and steep climb between those two points. In other words, it took me a long time to realize that 2 + 2 = 4, not 22.
Knowing how to solve genealogical problems takes a complex variety of skill sets learned through multiple paths over a long period of time. There are some people who believe that this educational path or that one are the only ways in which one should become a genealogist, but this isn’t true. That’s not to say that education, including instruction at college and professional levels, is not necessary, but it is only one facet of a whole that should encompass many other paths, including reading, studying, mentoring, teaching, and publication, and perhaps even certification or accreditation.
Taking only one of those paths will not lead one to become a good genealogist, because genealogical problem solving requires a multiple-path approach. Most of all, it takes time and practice. This is one field where experience truly is the best teacher.
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.