Wednesday, October 25, 2006

What's it all about?

I'm struggling with my current entrapment in small details – notes, questions and references on bits of paper, oddments I don't know how (or if) to file. Maybe I should go back to the beginning – why I even bother doing family history research. That is, what do I get from it? And then I need to ask myself, where do I want to go from here?

Answering the first part is easy. I work on these genealogical problems, first, because they present enticing challenges, the same way any complex puzzle does, and each solution creates a sense of real satisfaction (while often opening the door to yet another set of questions).

In addition, the study of my own forebears gives me a fuller understanding of, and appreciation for, those who came before me, their lives, and the times and places they lived in. By extension I can't help but absorb much more information about the fascinating social aspects of American history.

Of course, the process not linear. We don't usually go from A to B to C, if there is interest in more than just the names and dates of one's direct ancestors. Tantalising detours beckon at every step. And the whole project yields a flow of printed material requiring constant management.

That brings up the next question: where do I go from here?

Do I keep plugging away at these individual scraps of paper? Finish entering the documents in my filing system? Attack the folders I prepared for library research and have not dealt with since?

Here is what I have gleaned from personal experience and (more important) listening to other genealogists:

Don't even sit down at your workspace without a plan. It does not have to be elaborate. In fact the simpler it is the better. Formulate today's goal in your mind before you even let yourself be drawn into "just one peek" at a letter, note, chart, or message. It could be the finding of a single birthdate, attempting to complete a family group, corresponding with another researcher, or any one of a dozen other tasks. Even deciding where to file two pieces of paper is a plan of sorts.

Of course this does not mean "today's plan" will always be followed. An email received in reply to a query (perhaps half-forgotten), the discovery of a new website of interest, the sudden flash of insight that sends you off on a search of another document, all may cause your intended effort to derail temporarily. But at least having a goal in mind before you start gives some structure to your session. And, it is hoped, the series of modest daily plans will eventually lead to the achievement of your major goal, whatever that might be.


Speaking of birthdates, if you are looking for one that was before the days of civil birth records, try for a death certificate. (And hope the informant knew enough to be accurate.) Also, check online to see if cemeteries in the area have been listed and their tombstone inscriptions transcribed. Many genealogical societies have volunteers who will check local information for you as well.

Completing a family group can be made easier by checking census records, of course, as well as probate records for one or the other parent. Obituaries will usually list names of survivors, including adult daughters with their married names.

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