Monday, 25 July 2016

The problem with online genealogy research

Today I had an email from Familysearch telling me of my links to various Mormon pioneers.  They had linked them via the very rudimentary tree I had put on the site to illustrate a talk I gave last winter on using Familysearch's new features.  Extrapolating from other trees on the site they had given my ancestor two different sets of parents and thus two different links to Mormon pioneer families.

Fascinating as this is, the fact remains that I had not put my ancestor's parentage on my tree because I have not yet satisfied myself as to which, if any, is correct.  Certainly one of the allocated sets of parents is definitely wrong as their son died as an infant.

Genealogy as "best fit"

Genealogy is usually a matter of "best fit".  As you get further back in time corroborating sources may not have survived even if they existed in the first place.  The world of Internet Genealogy, morever, lulls the researcher into thinking that the result pulled up by the search engine or hint is correct.  The absence of detailed information about its source - its gaps, limitations, scope and purpose - on many genealogical sites compounds this, particularly without benefit of local knowledge on the part of the researcher.

"The truth is out there" - original records

There are many original records out there in archives and record offices which could possibly give the lie to your careful genealogical conclusions.  As a professional researcher my fear is always that I have missed that obscure but vital record in my otherwise thorough search.  Many times when researching for clients I have found that their original assumptions although carefully researched were incorrect - sometimes the proof of an ancestor's lineage consists of proving that they are not someone else!  Looking at the "small print" of a person's life - taxation returns, rate books, parish relief, tithe apportionment - and basic common sense - a mother does not usually give birth twice in 6 months in 2 different places a long way apart - are some of the keys to demolishing brick walls.

Genealogy "do-over" - find new sources

The genealogy "do-over" is in part a recognition of this fact.  What seemed a logical assumption in the early days of your research may now be disproved in the light of greater experience and knowledge of other sources.  More records being digitised and put online are giving all of us access to a vast variety of sources but there is still so much more out there - on microfilm and as manuscripts in archives, record offices, university special collections, libraries and even on ebay.

Don't rely on the Internet as it is only the tip of the iceberg.  I spend my working life researching in  archives finding new and interesting sources of information for clients.  I am constantly amazed by what is out there in vaults somewhere, sometimes only accessed via manuscript catalogues.

Some records have not survived

Equally I am frustrated by what has not survived.  When I think about

- The gaps in parish registers which only become clear as you browse through noting idly that certain years seem to have very few entries in comparison with others, only to find the note from the new incumbent or parish clerk that he has done his best with the scraps of paper he found in a drawer but his late predecessor was not good at record-keeping..........

- The mouse-nibbled or water-damaged or burnt parts of documents and registers which can now never yield up the names and information they once contained

- The record series which were pulped, destroyed by bombing or just binned because they thought no-one would ever want them

- The information which was never recorded in the first place; English marriage certificates still do not give the mother's name

- The indexes which, while valuable and better than nothing, only give part of the story 

I can get quite discouraged - knowing that once there was a will or bond for your ancestor which now no longer exists is so depressing.

Research new sources

I'm not saying you should give up the Internet - use it to research new and interesting sources.  Use online research guides, books, webinars and blogs to find out about record sets and where they are held to corroborate or disprove your genealogy assumptions.

When you find a record in an online catalogue do research its context - is it part of an estate or family collection in which you may find other information not yet catalogued online?  Don't just use the catalogue information do get a copy of the actual document - it may have useful (to you) information which the cataloguing archivist did not include in his summary.

 Don't forget geography 

 Finally, look at maps and the geography of the locality you are researching.  Is it feasible for your ancestor to have travelled that far?  How would they have done it?  Britain in particular is fairly small so distances regarded as feasible for travel may be smaller for instance than for America but canals and railways changed this.  When moving about is it likely that they travelled along what are now main roads or at that time was the main road along a different route?  Bypasses and motorways do not always follow the old roads.  Were mountains or rivers in the way? - look at where the railways run in Scotland and Wales for instance.

Take a step off the Internet hamster wheel

The Internet has revolutionised genealogy research and is a wonderful thing.  It is now so quick and easy to trace your family tree with online sources that we have a tendency to rush from record to record without really analysing or understanding what exactly we have found.  We need to slow ourselves down, step off the Internet hamster wheel and look at everything we have found.  Look at each fact in the light of its context and what is still out there in the non-virtual world just waiting for you to find it.

Go and get your hands dirty in an archive!

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