Saturday, 20 September 2014

My three Rs of Genealogy Research

As family historians we need the traditional three Rs of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, after all how else to locate our families’ records, write their stories and calculate and cross-check their ages, dates of births, deaths and shot-gun marriages.

But today I’m going to propose that another three Rs are also needed for our family history research.

REVISIT

Traditional wisdom suggests we maintain a research register/spreadsheet which documents every record set and document we’ve checked in the course of our research, either online or offline. This practice, or some variation of it, is certainly helpful to ensure we don’t waste valuable research time searching the same records again and again.

However, I’d argue there’s a benefit to visiting at least some of the records more than once. Certainly we should revisit those documents we’ve stored in our files, databases or trees.

Why?

Because I firmly believe that research findings, and our perception and understanding of them, are not static. The documents themselves will not change but the research “glasses” we’re wearing will certainly change how we see the detail on them.

What we know of our history changes over time, either incrementally or in large leaps forward. Things we haven’t noticed about a record will suddenly leap out at us as having a new or additional meaning. The significance of names will become clearer as in the interim we’ve learned of family connections. If we only look at the record the first time we find it, and don’t squeeze it for every single drop, we run the risk of missing the key to a brick-wall breakthrough.

And then there’s the one-time search of a particular record set, especially online. I’m sure we’ve all had searches that we’ve rejected as unsuccessful on one occasion, only to revisit the search and see, with those new glasses on, something important that turns it into a relevant record for our research.

And what of looking at adjoining pages to see who’s living nearby? We used to do this automatically when searching offline but the downside of an online search is that it takes us straight to our ancestor’s document and tempts us just to exit to the next search without checking out the broader context.

RECORD

Each of us has our own way of recording our family history. Most will keep at least key information in family history programs or trees, either online or offline. Others have their own family websites. Others again will publish the family’s story in a book.

Shutterstock Image ID: 137910917
It’s probably a fair bet that the participants of this Worldwide Genealogy blog are also writing their family history online ie writing a genealogy blog. I’ve noticed that when we say “blog” people sometimes conclude we’re just playing around on the internet, telling others what we had for breakfast etc. Some time ago I wrote a post suggesting that we should start reframing how we refer to our blogs, by “telling it how it is” and saying we write our family history online.

Blogging is a great option for recording our family’s history and revealing the grassroots of history by contextualising it within the broader framework of traditional history.

I feel sure that the centenary of World War I will produce many micro-stories of the impact of war on families and communities as well as the contributions made by individuals on both sides of the military fence. This reveals a more nuanced tapestry of history than the big-picture, important-people version that we all learnt at school. It also exposes the sheer scale of war’s impact at the grassroots level. We can do the same for so many aspects of our family history by revealing more about a community, which in turn might lead to a One Place Study.

Blogging also provides a less threatening way of starting to document a family history rather than the daunting prospect of writing a book. From a personal perspective blogging suits my approach to a narrative recording my family’s history and allows me to add new information to the family history I’ve published. Of course to a large extent I’m preaching to the converted on this topic.

REVISE

Having identified and documented your research findings, do you look at what you’ve actually written or recorded? Do you check you’ve not leapt to conclusions and blipped over an assumption you’ve made? You know what they say about assumptions…

I recently wrote a story on my blog about my research into the Callaghan family of Courtown near Gorey in Wexford. In my research I’d looked at the 1901 and 1911 census records from the National Archivesof Ireland online. The family comprised head of house, David Callaghan, son David, daughter Bridget, daughter-in-law Kate and grandson, another David. Even though it was staring me in the face, I made a stupid mistake and jumped to the conclusion that Kate was son David’s wife whereas it was very clear she was a widow. If I hadn’t gone back to revisit the document, and review what I’d written, I’d have left myself following an incorrect research trail and potentially led others astray as well. A really stupid beginner’s error despite years of experience. You might be interested in my post about the success, the surprise and the assumptions stupidity.  

I certainly hope I’m not the only one to make such a silly mistake which is why the revisit, record, revise steps are so important. We need to do them in a cool moment not while we’re in the thrill of the hunt for more data and excited by each new discovery.

RECAP


Of course with so many records coming online it’s tempting to just keep searching for new and fascinating titbits about our families. Still we’d be wise to stop every now and then, and revisit what we’ve written or recorded in our family trees. 

Revisit those documents we have stored, look again at that photo we’ve been mystified by, and assess whether there are certificates we need to purchase,  microfilms to be ordered in or another avenue of research to be explored

Record each new discovery and assess what its impact is on the discoveries we’ve made before. 

Revise our assumptions and family links. There is a constant flow between revisiting, recording and revision. 

How do you approach your research and do you use any of these steps? Have you made silly mistakes that needed revision?

26 comments:

  1. Pauleen, this is one of the best 'advice' articles I've read in a long time. And no - you are not alone! I know of two huge mistakes that I made: (1) I missed an entry in an index to wills, and (2) I overlooked clues within documents. Fortunately I did revisit those sources and found the things I missed originally, but I definitely need to keep doing this at regular intervals.

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    1. Thanks for your kind words Judy, and for sharing your "bloopers"...it's easy to show the final outcome not the missteps along the way.

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  2. Brilliant Pauleen. I was just visiting some of my convict research that I did eons ago and realised that I needed to do exactly what you outline. I have missing sorces, no documents tp back up my assertions etc. Now I am older and wiser (and there are more records available I need to take not of your three Rs of Genealogy Research.

    And although this is serious stuff I think it needs to go in the Geneadictionary.

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    1. Thanks for your support Jill. Those of us who have been at this game a long time know "the error of our ways" but still make mistakes. Hopefully we can spread the word.

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  3. PS May I use your 3Rs image to illustrate the Geneadictionary post?

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  4. A great post , Pauleen with lots of Reminders on what we should be doing. I know I need to revisit, and revise my first family history research into my Rawcliffe family where I suspect I made assumptions and did not check records sufficiently well. I also like your mantra about writing family history online - i.e. through your blog.

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    1. Thanks Sue. So much to do, so little time ;) We really do need to set time aside for this type of Reflection.

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  5. Pauleen, I learned about your blog today listening to Mondays with Myrt. Your point is excellent. I think also that we need to learn to glean everything we can when we first look at a document and not just focus on the one bit of information we were searching for. Extracting out all of the possible claims (and assumptions) helps us make new research goals.

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    1. Absolutely Lisa...squeezing info is so important in the first instance. then later on the earlier question of "who/what was that" in relation to the document becomes clearer.

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  6. Oh, those assumptions... This is such a useful Reminder, Pauleen, thank you! I need to do my three Rs Regularly - and in fact when I Revisited one brick wall a few months ago I clearly saw something which I'd missed first time, a good few years ago, when I knew so much more (!) and there were fewer Records available...

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    1. Thanks Frances. What a plethora of Rs we've come up with: Reminders, Reflection, Regularly. You've made a great point that it may be the discovery or release of "new" records which clarify earlier discoveries.

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  7. Excellent article Pauleen! I don't know how many extra bits of information I have picked up over the years by going back again and again through letters people have sent me in the past, and re-looking at the original records I have. I just can't understand how 'blind' I was the first time I read these items.

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    1. Quite agree Chris...there can be so much to focus on that sometimes our attention sort of wavers....Revisiting can work wonders.

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  8. Hi Pauleen Great blog,
    would you mind me adding it to my blog

    http://lawsandlawes.blogspot.co.uk/

    regard john

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  9. Great article, I recently reviewed some notes I had made when visiting my great Aunt in the 1980's, a couple of snippets I had written down then gave me the clues to solve a family mystery.

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  10. Hi Paulenn - What a great post. Go you! Interesting suggestion about changing the way we talk about blogging. I'm still finding that talking about blogging and people's response to it makes me feel like I've admitted doing something unsavoury or juvenile. Sigh.

    Talking about story/history at the forum I went to on Friday on Serving Country - Indigenous stories of WW1, Wesley Enoch, Artistic Director of QTC, spoke about the difficulty or challenges faced in telling stories relating to definitions of truth. He said that the production team found the South African Truth and Reconiciliation definition of truth most helpful. And that each type should be given equal weight.

    Personal Truth - The thing you believe to be true.
    Social Truth - what a group believe to be true through discussion and debate.
    Forensic Truth - the truth that can be proven through science and records.
    Public Truth - the value of telling the truth for the greater good.

    Interesting ideas huh?

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  11. Hi Pauleen - What a great post. Go you! Interesting suggestion about changing the way we talk about blogging. I'm still finding that talking about blogging and people's response to it makes me feel like I've admitted doing something unsavoury or juvenile. Sigh.

    Talking about story/history at the forum I went to on Friday on Serving Country - Indigenous stories of WW1, Wesley Enoch, Artistic Director of QTC, spoke about the difficulty or challenges faced in telling stories relating to definitions of truth. He said that the production team found the South African Truth and Reconiciliation definition of truth most helpful. And that each type should be given equal weight.

    Personal Truth - The thing you believe to be true.
    Social Truth - what a group believe to be true through discussion and debate.
    Forensic Truth - the truth that can be proven through science and records.
    Public Truth - the value of telling the truth for the greater good.

    Interesting ideas huh?

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  12. An excellent, concise presentation for these R's. The first was driven home to me a few weeks ago when I reviewed a long-held census report and found in a key household a person I could now identify as a grandchild of the head of household. When I first collected the record I did not know about the existence of this person, and for a year have been laboring under the incorrect conclusion that I "could not find her" in that enumeration. Chagrin over this finding has given a spark to a corner of my brain housing checklists. Another push for more systematic review of material on hand.

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  13. Excellent clear post, Pauleen. This is a constant... Periodically I take my so-called brick walls and go through every single thing I "think I know" about them. Invariable one little thing pops out at me and I have a new source to search, or a new detail to direct my thinking. Took me several years of revisiting before I finally noticed a brick wall woman [b. in late 1700s] had listed her birthplace, although very messily written. I hadn't been able to make sense out of the squiggles until I knew a few more details in the extended family. Thanks for the great post!

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  14. Just come across your fabulous article on the three "Rs". I have long believed in revisiting research notes after a period of time to weed out inaccuracies. Thank you.

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  15. Don't know how I missed this when you first posted but I totally, totally...totally agree.
    I've always asserted that my family history, genealogy, or ancestry (whatever you know it by) is so much a 'work in progress'!

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  16. This is a fascinating and exciting read....Interested in playing the game, then maybe we can take a look at 4rsgold.com

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  17. In my recent family history research I've seen some dramatic examples of why we must REVISIT the documents we previously obtained and REVISE our conclusions. I've included a link to this post in Genealogy in 2016: Accentuate the Positive. Thanks again, Pauleen.

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World Wide Genealogy Team