Friday, November 21, 2008

Sources, Citations and Repositories...Oh, My!

We, the genealogists, hold these truths to be self-evident, that not all information is created equal, that it should be endowed by its creator with specific source citations, that among these are clarity, reproducibility, and the pursuit of accuracy.

How many of us are as diligent as we should be in making sure we find and cite credible sources before publishing information on the internet, or anywhere else for that matter? Worse yet, there are many beginning researchers that don't even keep track of sources for their own personal research and use.

If you've done any significant internet research, yet, you are already aware of the fact that family or personal genealogy websites often repeat stories or anecdotes about ancestors with no credible source information. I just finished a family history book for a family friend. In looking up stories about particular 17th century American ancestors, I found a quite-repeated detail that a certain female ancestor had been burned at the stake in Salem, Massachusetts, during the infamous witch trials in the late 1600s. I found this fact on at least three different websites, and my assumption is that one of them made an assumption and the other two took it at face value with no due diligence. It's amazing how fast falsities can fly through cyberspace. There were no sources for this information on any of the three sites. However, it took less than 10 minutes to find some sources that proved otherwise. In Salem, there were 15 individuals sent to the gallows, and she wasn't one of them. None were burned at the stake. In addition, several sites with credible source citations indicated that this woman was convicted of witchcraft, sent to prison, and then released a year later when the hysteria started to die down.

Let me explain in very basic terms why we should care so much about meticulous source citations in the first place:

1-) To avoid duplicate work for ourselves or others. Seriously, do you really want to be searching through the same records several times because you can't remember what you've already searched or where you found a particular piece of information? This is where keeping a working source list, such as a research log, is crucial. If you keep track of what sources you've found, what information (if any) you were able to glean from it, etc., you'll avoid unnecessary work for yourself. And for someone else, too, for that matter, as any good genealogist will not just take someone else's "word for it" that certain information came from a certain place.

2-) To ensure that we are making accurate and reliable conclusions about the information we find, and that our work is considered credible. As genealogists, we are really history researchers. Shouldn't we make sure that the information we use and share is sound? Otherwise, we relegate ourselves to being just fiction writers or rumor mill workers.

It's not enough to rely on someone else's pedigree charts, assuming they did the work of finding sources for each piece of information and that their work contains no mistakes. Genealogy is part science and part art, and as such, there are certain basics that we need to familiarize ourselves with in order to produce anything of value.

Having said that, I don't have enough room on this blog to try and detail all of the ins and outs of citing sources, explaining repositories, or any of the other minutiae so critical to our work. What I can do is suggest a really great reference book I found that has become my best tool for accurate source citations. I picked it up at a genealogy conference here in Kansas City several months ago. It is entitled Evidence Explained, and it is written by Elizabeth Shown Mills. The first two chapters give a great overview and basics about citations and evidence in family history work. The remainder of the book is basically a style guide for citing sources for almost everything: from artifacts and old manuscripts to websites and podcasts. There are examples of citations for almost any source you might encounter.

Whether you decide to check out this particular book, glean information from credible genealogy websites, check out a book from a library, or buy a different style guide, please take the time to learn the whys and hows of citing sources. Trust me, if you aren't already handling your sources and source citations correctly, doing so will turn your genealogy research from a hobby into a "real boy."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Getting Started...with Interviews?

I have to apologize for the long break between posts. I have been overwhelmed with trying to complete a third genealogy book for a family member for Christmas this year, and I'm up to my neck in stories and formatting guidelines.

Anyway, on to my ramblings for the day. There are so many "beginner's guides" to family history out there, and they offer very helpful information to get yourself going. Inevitably, any good how-to document will include the suggestion that early on in your genealogy research, you take the time to interview family members, especially those of the older generation. That way, those memories get preserved and passed on.

However, I'll be honest here...conducting an "interview" with a grandparent isn't my idea of fun. Don't get me wrong. I love talking to my grandparents, but what questions can we ask that will really get them sharing? How does a conversation like that not become completely boring and, well, awkward? "And when were you born?" "What memories do you have of your childhood?" The talk is either completely about dates and names or filled with open-ended questions that they aren't quite sure how to answer. I mean, we can get the usual stuff from genealogical records and family heirlooms. How can we get the really meaningful information, like their memories of learning to ride a bike or how big the hill was that they had to walk up both ways to get to and from school?

Here is my solution, and many of you might have already discovered this. There are countless genealogy and family history resources out there that retailers would love to sell you. Most of these are useful, although a few are obviously just to get you to part with your hard-earned money. One tool that I have totally fallen in love with is the memory books. These are usually little books that come with titles like "Grandma's Memories" or "Grandpa, Tell Me Your Memories." They range in price from $5 to $20 depending on how big they are and how many detailed questions they contain. Believe me, these are worth forking over some cash for. These books come up with unusual questions that most of us wouldn't think to ask, so you'll get a lot more information this way. In fact, thumb through the book, if you can, before you purchase it so you know what kinds of questions it asks and what kind of information you'll get. You can find these books online at places like Deseret Book or Ancestry Publishing. Most retailers that carry genealogy products will have these books available.

There are a few ways to make use of these affordable tools in gleaning information from family members. One way is to send them the book for a gift, have them answer the questions, and send it back. Most of the time, the family members we want to get information from first are those of the older generation. Perhaps they don't read as well or write as neatly as they used to, and this kind of request might be too overwhelming for them. Your next option is to either call them or sit with them over several time periods and write down the answers as you ask the questions and they share memories.

In my particular case, I wanted information from my maternal grandmother. I've lived two states away from most of my mother's family for the last several years, and I wanted a better way of using the "Grandma's Memory Book" that I purchased for the task. So I called up my mother, who lives a mere 5 minutes from my grandmother, and asked her if she would be willing to handle this. It has been wonderful for everyone involved! My mother has spent several visits of an hour or two here or there -- talking with her mother and asking a sampling of the questions each time. My grandmother has remembered things that would never have come up if not for the details in the questions. My mother has learned things about her own mother that she never knew because, again, some of these questions are things she never thought to ask. And when they are all done, I will have in my hands a book filled with memories of my grandmother's life straight from her own mouth.

You can still go the traditional route and just come up with your own questions to ask; however, these books really do take the work out of the "interview." In fact, the result is more of a memory book than a dry, bare-bones life history. After all, as genealogists, we like getting the dates and putting the pieces of the puzzle together, but the big picture of our ancestors only takes on full color and meaning when we come to really know who they were and what their lives were like -- not just when they were born or where they were married.