Question: One of our academic researchers was following the life of a single African American woman in the late 19th century. As she turned to City Directories to track residences over the years, she posed… More
One of the main draws we have in our library is a giant island of surname vertical files that includes many of those research bits and pieces left behind by previous visitors. Each time a person gets excited over this massive magpie collection, we urge caution. If it’s not sourced, be very careful how you record the information – please copy and place in standby until you can confirm the information in other documents.
However, there are some family group sheets that I treat with more respect than others.
Here are a few elements to look for when gauging the research value of a family group sheet:
- Does it include the name of the person who provided the information? If not – make a copy, and note where you found it – use for clues later down the road.
- Does it include any attached sources/citations? These could be on the back, or in the following pages, but if there are none to be seen, use the form as a breadcrumb only until confirming with documentary sources.
- What time period does the information cover? Does it detail the family group of the Duke of Royaltyland from the 12th century, sans sources? If so, disregard….back away slowly….this is genealogy sorcery of the worst kind.
- Level gold – does this sheet contain information that reaches into the 20th or 21st
centuries? I have learned to place more value on the family group sheets that provide information about contemporary ancestors/descendants. When the likelihood of personal knowledge on the part of the provider is high, I start to lean into the area of Family Bible Records. Just think – we all hold the family Bible record to a pretty high value. Some lineage societies love these and accept them readily as proof of birth or death – primarily because many of them cover a time frame when the recording of vital statistics was lacking on the official level. Plus, they too value contemporary information – in other words – a personal witness giving information.
- Caveat – regardless of the proximity of the information provider to the generation listed on the sheet, we can never rely on one document to prove relationships or reach a conclusion. This goes for anything we find as we build evidence, but these family group sheets may provide the only research directional clue you need to break through your brick wall.
- Last tip: With your own family group sheets – PLEASE include a note about the preparer or information provider with a date of completion! This can be a simple line at the top or bottom – remember, even with Family Bible Records, many lineage societies require the frontispiece of the Bible to prove publication date – thereby placing the origin of the information in a contemporary time period as it relates to the ancestor.
I am writing this post with gritted teeth and a fake smile upon my lips – retaining a professional demeanor in the face of such a dangerous fallacy can be almost impossible. But I promised you undiluted genealogy – and here comes test case number 1! Quick – go get a cup of tea before reading further!
Just this morning, on Facebook – the disseminator of both good and evil genealogy advice – a woman was asking for research location tips from her fellow genealogical researchers. As several gave her great insights, one person declared that:
“So many Kentucky records are online that it is rarely necessary to do onsite research anymore.”
She then proceeded to list about 3 wonderful online repositories….which was helpful, in a way….but with no cautionary caveats.
Two of the three online resources she shared should have come with cautions: The first one links to an aggregated collection of digitized items from around the state, including maps and newspapers – but what she doesn’t know, is that this site is in limbo, and most early participants no longer share digitization efforts on this site – most have created their own online portals for digitized records. The other site is a go-to for land records, and I recommend this one to researchers all the time – but caution that state budget cuts hit them hard, and digitization efforts had to stop short of the entire collection – some onsite visits would be necessary to access any records past a certain year.
Now, I understand that the standard researcher will not have knowledge of these limitations – but the overall impression of digitized record repositories containing complete collections, thereby eliminating a need for onsite research is FALSE!! FICTION!!! JUST PLAIN WRONG!! In fact, DANGEROUSLY WRONG!!
Why dangerous? Because the libraries and archives that contain our history operate on funding – local, state, or federal funding. What happens when the visitation numbers go down to a point that makes the keepers of the funds question their allocation that year? They cut, and they cut some more….and they hear local/national statements about everything being online, and they cut further…until access or existence is in extreme danger.
I was recently told a scary story (just in time for Halloween) about the construction of a new county courthouse – the locals in charge of building said courthouse, decided to opt for a closet sized research table to access records, because “No one conducts onsite research anymore – it’s all available on Ancestry!”
How do we stop this madness?
You MUST conduct your research using a tandem approach – and abandon the research vacuum of online only records!
1. PLEASE stop perpetuating the myth of online-only access. Just think about statistical probabilities alone – they are staggering. Since we’ve only been digitizing things for about the past 10-15 years (larger institutions), only a tiny portion has been digitized. And so many smaller institutions are not digitizing at all because of low staffing, technology and budget constraints. The libraries and archives of the world maintain huge collections of local records and family records – primary sources that can obliterate your brick wall! But if we encourage others to research in both places – online AND onsite, budgets grow, and online access continues to grow….otherwise, with the demise of research repositories because of a myth, we run the risk of endangering the existence of our history – and stopping the digitization efforts! Trust me, the digitization budgets are connected to the libraries and archives – you cannot have one without the other.
2. Run tandem research all the time – begin with online sources (images of primary sources hosted on main sites, such as Ancestry and Family Search) – noting the original location of these records. After building your research foundations with the wonderful digitized documents available to us, move to other online resources. Take a virtual tour of the libraries and archives of your state, region, and county of focus. Comb their websites and online catalogs to see what they have – look for several things: catalogs that list many of their items AND separate links that house archival finding aids or any digitization efforts they may be running. Remember: Even catalogs have limitations, and may not contain a list of EVERYTHING in their collection. Also, smaller county historical/genealogical societies may not have a website at all, or if they do, they may only list their location – not a list of what they have. Personal contact would be necessary in this instance.
3. Head out on the road! Now that you have a research plan as to the locations and collections you want to see, you will be much more successful in your results. Be ready to experience some amazing bonuses along the way! By visiting the area of your ancestral home, you will gain an understanding that is unparalleled. You see the geography, breathe the air, and talk with the people of your homeland. Contextual knowledge of your ancestral community is a vital part to understanding your ancestors. Plus, your visit, though a tad costly, helps maintain the existence of these storehouses of history and information.
In short – always think of research as a multi-dimensional process. We are fortunate enough to have wonderful records at the tip of our fingers via super digitization efforts of many – but our research should NEVER stop there! Our storehouses of history contain the family records we need: Bible records, genealogy research files, correspondence, diaries, photos, school and Church records, etc. A fundamental principle of the Genealogical Proof Standard is “conducting a reasonably exhaustive search” – NEWSFLASH – online only research is NEVER a reasonably exhaustive search!
Great, now I need another cup of tea – and it’s only Monday!
Cheri Daniels, MSLS
The Genealogy Librarian
As a genealogy librarian, I witness research efforts in their most raw and advanced forms on a daily basis. Additionally, the results spectrum is wide and fraught with frustration. There are so many times when I would love to offer lengthy advice on where to go next, or honestly, shake some folks out of their mental rut when it comes to genealogical pursuits. Alas, our interactions at the reference desk are brief due to limited time and staffing levels.
As a huge proponent for online educational opportunities, I decided to direct my efforts to this platform. Will my insights help anyone? Perhaps – hopefully. Even if it’s just one person, the effort is worth the end result. As stated on the Home page, and in my Preface page, my goal is to implement Information Literacy guidelines/goals into our teaching of genealogy research skills. Information Literacy instructs us to locate the information we are seeking by critically evaluating the available resources, and then disseminate the information located into a usable format – i.e. properly cited product for fellow or future researchers. The exact same formula applies to genealogical research – which will be our guiding force on this site.
In an effort to combat fictitious trees that are copied and spread like a virus, we must be ready to look at every source – regardless of age and previously attributed trust – to follow responsible best practices in research that produces trees with unshakable roots. This is not an easy commitment, but let’s face it, as genealogy grows in popularity, haphazard research and cloned tree armies with wrong information are becoming insurmountable forces. Solid research is in serious danger of being drowned out by these multiplying copies. I believe it’s not too late, or I wouldn’t be making this educational effort.
You can also think of this as a behind the scenes look at how libraries function, and what secrets they have to tell. From search strategies in the catalog, to archival navigation, the tips covered here will remove any hesitation you may have when entering a new library for research. You will grow in confidence and skill as we tackle the lesser known, and sometimes advanced, research strategies.
As a safe space of growth and learning, you are also encouraged to ask questions! Did you encounter something in the library that confused you? Why are certain policies in place, and what’s up with that catalog? Consider this a true confessions venue – I will answer inquiries with unabashed honesty, and a bit of fun.
This is a brief welcome only – to identify my direction here at Genealogy Literacy. However, for my fellow librarians out there, the full guide to Genealogy Literacy can be found as a chapter within a forthcoming book: Genealogy and Librarianship from McFarland Publishers in 2018. I’m afraid you’ll have to consult the book to learn about my GL reference strategies as this site will be more focused on individual advice for genealogical researchers.
So, without further adieu: Welcome, everyone!
Cheri Daniels, MSLS
The Genealogy Librarian