December 30, 2009
This time of year witnesses countless vows to quit this, start that, and spend more time on something else. New Year’s resolutions reveal much, about how we feel about where we are and where we want to be. Just as we may have bad habits in our personal lives that we want to quit, we also have bad habits in our research that we must quit. Our research will be all the better for it. And just as we may want to build up good habits in our personal lives, there are also good habits in our family history research that can help us break down those brickwalls.
As we come to the end of 2009 and look forward to the promise of 2010, let us resolve to bring our research to the next level. A few sample resolutions follow; let me know in the comments if any of these make your list, or if you would add some more.
1. Make sure every accepted fact in your family history is documented with multiple, independent sources. It is important to have multiple sources for each fact because mistakes can be made (even in the past). Luckily, indirect evidence can constitute its own part of the proof. For example, a pre-1880 census record does not provide direct evidence of a person’s parents, but it can serve as indirect evidence if your ancestor is listed as a child in the household of an apparently married couple. A death certificate identifying this ancestor’s parents would, however, be considered direct evidence. Go one step further, and declare all of the accepted facts in your tree that only have one source as “tentative,” and make it a point to corroborate the information that you have with additional, independent sources. Will this process be time-consuming? Yes, but carefully searching for, and locating multiple sources to support or refute every fact will lower the possibility that you will make your own mistakes. (This process could very easily extend well beyond the end of 2010, depending on how well you have been following the Genealogical Proof Standard, and its imperative to conduct a “reasonably exhaustive search.”)
2. Put family stories and traditions – “oral history” – down into writing. Then find additional documentation (if possible) to support or refute these stories. You may find that everyone had been handing down false information, or you may find evidence to support everything your family already knew. You may even find that your family had the facts to break down your brickwall on the tips of their tongues.
3. Shift your focus a little: instead of researching a person, try researching his environment. What did the landscape look like? Who were the “big players” in town? What laws would have applied to your ancestor? What records were created? What local events may have had more significance to their daily lives than the larger, national events upon which we tend to focus?
4. Revisit the documents in your possession, and squeeze them for every last drop of information. On occasion we may find a document while looking for an answer to one question, and ignore some of the other information contained in the document. Being able to squeeze information out of a document is one of the most important skills we as genealogists must develop. One way to do this is to write up a short “report” on each document you have. For examples of this with two separate documents dealing with the same family, take a look at these two articles written for Lowcountry Africana’s Resource Library: “Evaluating a Record By Itself” and “Corroborating Evidence.”
5. Plan a trip to a research repository for your ancestral home. This does not necessarily have to be a cross-country trek. If your ancestors lived in the next county over, take a day off work and head over to the historical society or the county or state archives. Or if they’re open, do it on a Saturday. Arm yourself with a few things before you go: (1) a specific research question for which you would like to find an answer; (2) a “data summary” sheet that explains what you already know, and the sources that you used for each fact; and (3) a list of specific sources held by that repository that you would like to use. Many repositories now have online catalogs of their holdings. Use this to identify record groups of interest held by that repository.
6. Find one of your ancestors in a record group that is not available online, and has not been microfilmed. Many of the old microfilming, and more recent digitization, projects have focused on the “usual suspects” of genealogical research. This left many record groups out in the cold in terms of their use as genealogical resources. In African-American genealogy, however, it has been my experience that often the most rewarding and revealing record groups fit into this category. For example, a “slave assessment” tax list from 1852 that named every slave owned by each person in the county. Or the locally printed town history book, written and compiled by a local high school, containing transcribed extracts from a local slave owner’s diary, which happened to name a client’s slave ancestor, and described in detail the birth of one of her children, her marriage to a free man of color, and her emancipation by the slave owner. With the exponential proliferation of genealogical material online, and the ease of ordering microfilms from the Family History Library, it is easy to forget that not everything is available in these two formats. And in fact it is often the un-scanned, un-microfilmed paper records that will allow us to break down the brickwalls in our tree.