Monday, 5 January 2015

Why the Genealogy Do-Over is not for me

As Julie Goucher wrote in her post New Year - New Opportunity, many people have joined the Genealogy Do-Over, where you commit to starting your genealogy all over again and apply all the knowledge that you've gained over the years.

This challenge is not for me. Let me explain what my reasons are for not joining the Genealogy Do-Over.

Reason 1 - Starting over is inefficient

I think starting from scratch is very time-consuming. My biggest 'tree' is almost 60,000 people large and contains not just my own ancestors, but also my one-region-study for the area of the Achterhoek in the Netherlands, including the 6,000 emigrants from that area who emigrated to the United States of whom I've found 4,000 in US records. A conservative estimate is that I've spent over 15,000 hours of original research compiling that information. It's not something I can just 'do over.' Besides, if I had to do it all again, for the most part I would use exactly the same sources and come to the exact same conclusions.

Redoing everything is not the best use of my time, I would much rather focus on the parts that I know need work.

Reason 2 - I would end up with multiple trees

If I start over, I would end up with two trees: one with my old research and one with my 'new and improved' research. If a DNA match contacts me, I would have to consult both trees, especially if I haven't gotten far yet with the re-researching. Again, not very efficient. 

But what would I do with these two trees after I have re-researched a large part of my ancestors? Integrate them? Would that not miss the point and add a whole other layer of work? Or should I toss the old tree? But what if there are branches in there that I haven't gotten around to re-researching yet? Will I put my new, far more incomplete tree online and miss out on all the potential cousins who could have found the tree and connected with me? That seems very impractical to me. Or would I put both trees online, even though the old one may have information that I now know to be incorrect?

And what if in ten years time, after I've done more research and educated myself even more, I feel my current work is less than it could be? Would I start over again and end up with tree trees? Four? A whole forest?

Reason 3 - My tree isn't that bad

On one of my first trips to the archives, when I was 15, I met an experienced genealogist who advised me to always cite my sources, because there would come a day that I wouldn't recall where I had found everything. My early citations are far from perfect, but I have never had any problems relocating the source based on them. They may not always be understandable to an outsider though, so there is definitely room for improvement.

Almost all of the information in my database is based on original research which I've done myself. I have never just copied information from other people's trees without assessing the quality of the underlying research and verifying the underlying sources. Even as a teenager, I enjoyed doing the research myself so much that I never just accepted what someone else had written.

So although my database is far from perfect, it's not garbage either and does not deserve to be discarded. And I do not have the illusion that it would be perfect if I redid it today, my skills haven't grown *that* much :-)

My need: A process that embraces my growing skills

Instead of starting over when I arbitrarily feel that my skills have grown enough to warrant a do-over, I want to do genealogy in a way that will embrace my growing skills over time. I need a process that will allow me to revisit previous research periodically, not just once, to use my newly developed skills and experience to keep improving the quality of my conclusions.

Research reports to the rescue

The way I use my growing skills to revisit and improve previous research is by creating a research report for my ancestors, one per couple. I use the following format, which I also use for my professional clients:
  • Background information
    Here I will lay out what I know about the couple based on the research into their child(ren). For example, if I have found a birth, marriage and death record of their child that lists its parents, I will include the information about the parents that I found in these records.
  • Research questions I will state my research questions, which will include:
    • When and where were [husband] and [wife] born, baptized, married, died, buried?  
    • What children did [husband] and [wife] have? When and where were they born, baptized, married, died, buried?  Whom did they marry?
    • Who were the parents of [husband] and [wife]?
    • Did [husband] or [wife] marry more than once? If so, when and where did they marry and who was their spouse?
    Other questions might ask about the property they owned, addresses where they lived, occupations or military service of the husband, etc.
  • Limitations on research
    Any limitations on the research, such as missing records or privacy laws restricting access. Since this is my own research, there generally aren't any time limits, except in special cases where I want to share it with a relative during a family gathering. 
  • Summary
    Narrative summary of the findings of the research. 
  • List of sources
    A biography of the sources I consulted during the research.
  • Research notes
    Notes about my research, starting with an analysis of the background information. I will then create a research plan (put in the 'suggestions for further research') and start the research. For each source that I consult, I will write down any abstracts or transcripts as necessary, analyze the information and correlate it with information from other sources.
    When there is conflicting evidence, I will analyze the information and explain if and how the conflict can be resolved. If the evidence is sufficient to prove a relationship or event, I will write a proof statement or a proof argument (depending on the circumstances). 
  • Suggestions for further research
    List of other sources I intend to consult. I actually fill in this part as I'm doing the analysis of the background information and throughout the research process. Every time I think of a source I need to consult, I will add it to the list. Then when I do consult it, I will cut and paste it into the research notes and describe what I've found there.
  • Appendix
    In the appendix, I will include digital images of the original sources I consulted and longer transcripts. 
Until I've answered all of the research questions, this report is a living document where I'll add to the research notes when I work on it; updating the suggestions for further research, summary and source list as I finish each research stint.

Since my starting point for each research report is very basic, it's like a miniature do-over, for one family only. That keeps it very tidy and doable. I can often do a one-family "do-over" in one evening. See my column (Re)searcher to read how creating research reports has helped me with my research.

If I come to new conclusions or find additional information, I will then add it to my database. I will also update any source citations that weren't clear yet.

Best of both worlds

For me, creating a research report for my ancestors gives me all of the advantages of a genealogy do-over without any of the drawbacks. It allows me to analyze the information with fresh eyes, utilizing my growing skills. At any point in time, I have one database that shows my current understanding of my family, which I can share with the world.

Why do a do-over?

To the people who are doing a do-over, I would like to ask the following questions:
  • What do you hope to achieve by doing a do-over that you couldn't achieve with a less drastic and time-consuming process, like creating research reports?  
  • How do you intend to handle the multiple trees that will result from the do-over? Are you going to toss your old tree, take it offline but keep it for reference or integrate it with the new tree? 
  • Do you intend to repeat this every couple of years if your skills improve again? 
  • How will you handle the period when you've only re-researched a part of your tree? Will you not use your old tree? How will you deal with requests from (DNA) cousins?
I know that my point of view is probably not a popular one so I look forward to reading your comments and exchanging our views. In the end, I think we all want to improve the quality of our work; there are just different ways to go about it. Discussing the various ways will be interesting!


  1. Great feedback - good for those who wish to do the go-over but it is not for me either

  2. I am with you on this one Yvette. I have been seriously researching for 38 years (since my early twenties) and much of my research is still paper based. Without wishing to sound like a dinosaur 'in the old days' people learnt how to do family history in a reasonably competent manner BEFORE they began researching in any depth. Although I still have things to learn and certainly didn't begin research as a fully competent genealogist, I learnt from the outset to cite sources and to use original records. In those days it was impossible to import large (and potentially inaccurate) family trees researched by other people so there was another pitfall avoided. Of course my trees aren't perfect but I hope they are as good as it gets because no one has ever been added to my tree on the basis of speculation or 'best guess' and every fact has a source citation (in almost all cases these sources are originals not transcriptions). This is not because I am some sort of genealogical paragon but because that is how things were in the late 1970s (we had very few indexes or transcriptions) and I still adopt these procedures. When the 'do-over' call came I was a bit shocked. As a teacher of family history for the last 30 years, I should have known that many genealogists do not regularly review (not re-do) their work as a matter of course but I had naively assumed that this was not the revolutionary concept that it seems to be. To me reviewing is a process that anyone who seriously wants to be considered a family historian should do. Periodically I take a branch of my family, update, review, look for additional material and convert paper to digital images. I have always done this as part of what I consider to be 'good practice', I guess I thought that this was 'normal'. Yes, there are things I need to do and I shall be looking again at some of my family lines this year. I have joined the 'do-over' community because I am interested in the debate and I think it could be a good idea for some people. I also like the concept of mutual encouragement support and the exchange of ideas. Like you, I shall be rigorously reviewing and re-examining my reasoning for making family connections, rather than re-doing from scratch. Thank you for jumping off the bandwagon - I'm coming too! Good luck to all who are participating either fully or partially in the do-over.

    1. Janet, you and I must be about the same vintage! Virtually everything you said applies to me too. 90% of my 'direct ancestor' research was done in the 1970s-1980s using original records. The humble little family history book that I did in the 1980s included detailed source references and a bibliography, and 30 years later I have still not found any mistakes in my original research.

  3. As I wrote ( a few days ago, I am looking at the time frame of Do-Over as an review over.

    I want an opportunity to check what material I have, including sources cited correctly and is any of the material available now? Our trees all start with us as individuals and whilst we know what our cousins do, live etc have we recorded that information for the future? I explained more fully on my post (see URL above) how my genealogy is set up so I won't repeat it here. My Do-Over is more a Review-Over!

  4. At this point, I'm not doing a complete do-over. My dilemma occurred because I am a co-historian for a family reunion committee on my husband's paternal side. My fellow historian conducted exhaustive interviews with many people in the family whom I do not know. During a reunion year she would email or phone me with a list of descendants and a research question, and I would research it. Because not all those researched fit neatly into my tree, I have many areas that are dangling, just waiting for a connection somewhere.

    Currently I have a private tree on which I am using for my KDP; but, I also have many volumes of paper information held within surname binders. Already I have discovered a couple errors because of confusion between two people with the same name, but two generations apart. This allowed me to reshuffle my data.

    I also have a tree on Family Tree Heritage Deluxe, the very first database I purchased twelve years ago when I first started researching. As I go through there, I find many names in a skeleton format with no data. So, while this was the tree I created when I first started, there are many holes to fill in.

    That's where I stand at this time. I am doing the Do-Over only on the four generations of my KDP, and at some other point, I will work on the other family groups. I like your idea of creating a research report for each family group in your tree. I had printed out software generated reports for the direct descendant in each line, but I am finding more info now than I had then. So, since this is now part of my KDP, I am writing those reports manually and going back to research the holes.

  5. You have made some very reasoned arguments against participating in the "Do Over" project and I am in agreement with you. When I first read of Thomas's proposal, I msut admit my immediate reaction was "Count me in", as I am always keen to improve my genealogical knowledge and research skills. But on considered reflection, I decided it was not for me, primarily in terms of the scale of the work and the time required. Instead I am following Cassmob (Pauleen)'s "Three R's of Genealogy Research - Revisit, Research, Revise" as set out in her Sept, posting on WGC. I adopted this approach with my Oct. contribution "Bringing Betty Out of the Shdaows" , the story of my ggg grandmother. and found it a very worthwhile, and productive exercise - more in line with Julia's "Review Over"comment. I wish those involved in a "Do Over" well and have enjoyed reading their posts to date on their experiences.

  6. I agree with you but unfortuneately sometimes a do over is necessary because of computer crashes, software changes, and in one case for me the host website went out of business. A smaller seriously flawed genealogy should be done over. I've learned some lessons the hard way. I am now very careful about only sharing information for which I can provide a source document. Even the very best genealogy should not be accepted without documentation you can retrieve for yourself. We have to climb the tree for ourselves to really understand where we are going.

  7. Yvette hits several nails of the head.

    Genealogy is an interative process, we come back to previous research many times as knowledge expands, records become available or plain serendipity.

    Many people think that they are finished once 'facts' have been entered into a genealogy database. A genealogy database is just one tool. Mine evolves constantly. Writing up your conclusions can take many forms, but the act of writing is a very different thing to managing information in a database. Writing engages different thought processes, exposes gaps in your reasoning, and finally produces something that makes sense to someone else. Citations are part of the final product, an important supporting act to the bigger story.

    Yvette's measured approach limits the scope, which greatly increases the chances of finishing a project.

  8. Well said! Fads are great fun, and everyone enjoys being part of the group. But I worry that folk caught up in the enthusiasm (and marketing hype) surrounding the 'do over' might fail to learn the very basic lesson that good research is NEVER 'done.' This is as true in genealogy as it is in any other branch of history, or for that matter in science. Research is always a work in process: old findings constantly need to be reexamined and reevaluated in light of new sources and new methods. Even our evaluation and understanding of sources can change over time as we learn more about the context in which records were created. Instead of a 'do over' we should encourage one another to develop habits and processes that ensure ongoing renewal and revision. Your post and the time you have taken to explain your own process is a welcome step in that direction!

  9. I definitely agree with you! If Thomas believes this is the best route for him, more power to him, but I, like you, do not feel it is the best use of my time and resources. I have been researching for almost 40 years (I started when I was 13) and do not care to spend even half that time recreating the same work. It would indeed be an inefficient use of my limited resources. I think the three R's mentioned by ScotSue are a much better "Do Over" approach.

  10. I totally agree with you, Yvette, and you have explained your reasons beautifully. Starting from scratch is not feasible for me because I'm in Australia and most of my research was in original records that I used when I visited the UK many years ago. Some of those records are neither online nor available through LDS Family History Centres, so re-doing that research would either be impossible or cost a fortune! Many people who try to start all over again will find that records they used before are no longer accessible. (For some of Queensland's most useful records, the 'restricted access' period has been increased to 100 years. This applies to hospital admission registers, Dunwich benevolent asylum records, insanity files, Supreme Court deed poll records, etc.) I intend to gradually reassess all my data; check my source citations; process the material that's in my (huge) 'pending' folder; and try to contact more relatives by taking part in the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge.

  11. Wow, I had not expected to see so many people chiming in! I was totally ready to be slashed down by enthusiastic do-over-fans :-) While this challenge is not for me, I sure enjoy the way it is making us all (re)think how we can improve the quality of our research in a way that works for us.

  12. I revamped sources several years ago, when I inadvertently deleted a bunch of them. I had the data base on two computers, whew! The computer I worked from all the time I made quite a few changes in the data base before I realized what a silly thing I had done. SOOO, I stopped all input. I used the data base on the backup computer (said back up was so up to date, more WHEW!) as my guide. While I replaced all the deleted sources I also improved the others. Took me about 4 months.

    Would I benefit from another "do over", probably. But, it will be a partial do over, a review, and such.

    That will commence as soon as I do input and link images that I have had on this computer for several years.

    So, probably about 2025. SIGH

  13. I have to agree as well, purely for the fact that I just don't have the time to start from scratch. Like some of the others a lot of my research also comes from the early 1980's, and are hand written notes hat I have copied out when visiting libraries, local museums and historical societies. However, I think it would be good for me to have a bit of a tidy up, and scan some of my old research notes to minimise the size of some of my hard copy files. Nice to see such a thought provoking post.

  14. Thanks for this post and for the comments that ensued because of it. I'm not an old genealogist (well, if you look at age, I am, but in experience I'm young) but even with the small number of ancestors I've researched I'm not prepared to start again from scratch. My first mentor in family history emphasized (again and again) the importance of citing sources, so I'm good on that. And I haven't added people to my tree from places like ancestry. Instead of participating in the Do-Over, I've chosen a "Genealogy Do-Better." I'm learning some helpful things by reading about what others are doing, have done, and plan to do. Thanks so much for initiating this conversation, Yvette.

  15. Bravo Yvette. I am not being done over either.

    Like ScotSue I am a disciple of Pauleen's approach - Three R's of Genealogy Research - Revisit, Research, Revise. It's what I have always tried to do and I thank Pauleen for describing and formalising the process.

    My research is a dynamic process, I have always tried to continually evaluate whatever I have in my database. My Family Historian software allows me to sort my records by date updated. Periodically I do this sort and revisit those records that have not been updated for the longest period of time.

    For a minute or two I considered hopping on the Do-Over bandwagon but like you I gave it some thought and decided it wasn't for me.

  16. I am using the Do-Over to organise Evernote - I have too many notebooks & not enough of the tags I want - If I accomplish this is will be excellent

  17. I am doing the Do-Over.

    What do you hope to achieve by doing a do-over that you couldn't achieve with a less drastic and time-consuming process, like creating research reports? - I believe that some of my old data could use a fresh set of eyes. Some of my processes are not easily changed mid stream and instead could benefit from a clean slate in order to change them more consistently. My experience in life has been that it's easy to assume we know exactly what we're looking at until a new perspective is introduced. I'm hoping for that new perspective of my research, in general.

    How do you intend to handle the multiple trees that will result from the do-over? Are you going to toss your old tree, take it offline but keep it for reference or integrate it with the new tree?

    I think it depends upon what the results are. It might be that I discover, during the Do-Over, that I successfully weeded out all the inaccurate stuff ages ago. Maybe I go back to my 'old tree' and only gain a few new processes. Or maybe I prefer my new tree enough to bring over the data from my old tree into the new tree one person at a time. Only doing it will tell.

    Do you intend to repeat this every couple of years if your skills improve again?
    Possibly. Who knows? Why should one need to decide that now? I think my skills have grown drastically in 15 years - not just in genealogy but in critical though and logical process as well. That's the difference between an early 20 something and a mid thirty something - that's part of growing up. There is also a really big difference between a wee beginner at any skill and someone who's been at it a while. There might not be a similar difference in 2 years - I doubt it. But there certainly is a big difference now!

    How will you handle the period when you've only re-researched a part of your tree? Will you not use your old tree? How will you deal with requests from (DNA) cousins?

    I think it depends upon the request. And it's not like it's a life or death situation to answer an email immediately. Worst case, if I can't decide, I'll wait until the Do-Over is over and look at my data and decide then.

    My experience is that you can't know how well something would work or what you will get from something unless you try it. I have nothing to lose to scoot my old stuff out of the way for a couple of months and do something new. If I hate it, I can always .. stop. Or.. pull out my old tree.

  18. Fantastic post Yvette which has plainly struck a chord with those who have been carefully doing our research for decades. There's always room for improvement and revision but a total do-over is not for me either.

  19. Thanks to Sue and Jill for their comments. What I think has been fascinating about the Do Over is the,,any strategies, programs etc that others use. I hope to follow the FB group and glean new ideas. I'm confident of my sparse tree but it will pay me to do some revisitng.

  20. I love, or can I say, I need Tom's energy. He is an amazing educator and I am using his inspirational "Do-Over" to review as well. I need to keep an open mind to review where I made mistakes.I was one of the lucky ones who started research "in the field" ( no Ancestry account or internet) after reading Donald Linus Jacobus's Pastime and Profession book. At the time, I approached genealogy as a "science" so when one is doing "lab work", you need to report the steps and what happened in the "lab". Therefore,my work is organize but I can always learn more.

  21. I like Louis Kessler's idea of a source-based incremental fix instead of a do-over. My paper filing system has always been source-based, so this would suit me perfectly.

  22. I've also been researching since the 1970s. My beginning research included a lot of interviews and information gleaned from older relatives who are now gone. My later research has been based on finding sources for the information my relatives gave me and taking it back further. I could never recreate the early research.

  23. Yvette, thank you for all the questions you brought up at the end. This is exactly what I needed. I'm following the Do-Over in hopes of learning new things but refuse to start a new database. For about 13 years I did mostly descendancy research, spending months on each surname.

    Last year I did the 52 Ancestors/Weeks challenge and worked through my paternal line from my father to his 3rd great-grandparents. They were planned out from the beginning and I was able to "do-over" that part of my database. It went so well that I planned 2015 in the same way for my maternal branch and my children's paternal branch. By the end of the year my children's family tree will be researched and cited from their generation to 3/4 of their 4th great-grandparents and a 1/4 of their 5th great-granparents.

    Both descendancy research and blogging about my ancestors have helped to improve my research methods and I am open to new suggestions - but that does not mean that I will implement any or all.
    ~ Cathy

  24. This was an excellent post. If I had as much research as you have, I would not do a Genealogy Do Over. What does starting at the very beginning look like? Sounds like an extreme headache to me if you have to do all that. However, My do over looks very different as I have very few individuals in my family tree. My main thing is documenting where I found the information, of which I need to do anyway for my family book. For my Birth family Tree, I have maybe 50 people in it, so for me to work on those individuals, with documentation, is not momentous as yours would be.

  25. You have said what I've been thinking. After seven years of research I find a detailed narrative report of an ancestor and all of their descendants really clarifies where I'm at with the family. Since family stories haven't been passed down I'm always asking myself what makes this branch of my family tree different from the other branches. There are so many good ideas to pursue in genealogy and most are very time consuming so I won't start something that doesn't get me to my ultimate goal.

  26. Thanks for the post.
    I am looking at the time frame of Do-Over as an review over. My early citations are far from perfect. Your idea of working on one family at once makes perfect sense.
    Please do you have a sample research report you could share with me?

  27. I am trying to find a family member with no birth record, and a lot of word of mouth information attached to him. I was considering the do-over because the tree is small and I'm sure I keep looking at the same thing because I haven't got any research notes (some I didn't keep, some got lost when I moved from Australia to the UK). Your post here with the information on your research reports is a huge help! Thank you!!! I think I'll end up combining that with an ee on the do-over so I can thoroughly review what I have so far and check through what I've missed.

    1. Charlotte, have you checked British Civil Service evidence of age records? There are people from many parts of the world, and images of the original records are online (watch for links to 'related images'). Many candidates for the British Civil Service were born in places and at times when no state registration of births existed.


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