Last time we spoke, I talked of having a goal for where your research was going. It’s important to know what you’ll consider an “end point” for any one relative, branch, or tree in general. But what about our biggest “end point”? What happens to your research when you’re gone?
The relative theory
Do you have a relative interested in taking over your research? Are they currently assisting you? Do they know where your notes are kept? Do they have your passwords to computers and online memberships? Do they know what monthly/yearly subscriptions you have to historical societies, online resource centers, or archival resources? If you die today, can they pick up the research tomorrow?
Many of us don’t think about the minor details of our day. We log into our computer, phone, or tablet without thinking about anyone else having that access. We have bank accounts, credit cards, subscription services… all only in our name, many on automatic bill pay. One of the first things you should do for your future genealogist is document your accounts, passwords, and payments so they can gain access when they need to (as well as set them up as a secondary account holder if possible). It will be very important that your relatives can access the data you have, as well as cancel any automatic payments from your accounts. Write it down and keep it in a safe or deposit box. Update it frequently as access changes.
Do you have more than one interested party? Make sure your will details who gets what. What photos, hard copies, digital copies, access to online archives… anything you have that you want protected and not fought over. By writing a will with precise language as to what happens to your research, your relatives will avoid fights, destroyed data, and long-standing hurt feelings. Make sure to talk to your relatives NOW so you know for sure who wants what so you can make enough copies rather than expect them to do it after you’re gone (pro tip: family members notoriously get “too busy” to make copies after a death, so do it yourself). And if you have no interested party, you need to at least give them enough information about what you want done with your research so they don’t just toss it to the curb!
Lastly, do you keep a research log? Will your relatives know exactly where you’ve looked online and in person, what you’ve found, and what your next step was going to be? My own tree is so twisted; I think my family would resurrect me just to kill me again if I left them with no clue as to what had been done for them. It’s important to not only note what you have found, but also what you couldn’t find. I sent off for my grandfather’s WWII records and received a letter that his file could not be found. That note is in my file for the next researcher to know I didn’t overlook the possibility of these records, but they weren’t available. I’ve looked for my great grandmother in the 1920 census with four different versions of her name, two possible birthplaces, and two different residence states. I still didn’t find her. My log, however, notes each search so that a relative may know to try again with a different approach. A research log is just like elementary maths classes: you need to show your work so the reader can follow your thought process. Sometimes, those logs can be invaluable. I found an error of assumption in my uncle’s research that allowed me to back track his search and pick up a trail he had lost!
GPS (And I’m not talking global positioning)
If it is your hope to give a copy of your research to a society or archive for posterity, or you want your relatives to have the most accurate data to build upon, it’s important to consider the genealogical proof standard. The Board for Certification of Genealogists (AKA, where you’d go to prove you’re ready to be a professional) has made a list of requirements to “prove” your research:
• Reasonably Exhaustive Research
• Complete and Accurate Source Citations
• Analysis of Information’s Quality
• Resolution of Contradictory Evidence
• A Soundly Reasoned Written Conclusion
Now, not only will these standards help your work stand out as excellent source material for other genealogists, they are great to have in mind when considering other people’s information for addition into your tree. Let’s expand on each point:
Ever had a kid (or been the kid) looking for something and not able to find it? You ask if they’ve looked for it and they assure you they’ve looked everywhere. But did they really? That’s the Reasonably Exhaustive Research requirement. Before you say there is no evidence for an event or relative, make sure you looked in a reasonable amount of places for it. An online search is not reasonably exhaustive, simply because most records aren’t online. If you’ve checked online, wrote to archives, even visited the county they lived in looking for their gravesite, but still don’t find what you’re looking for, that’s a reasonably exhaustive search. Someone may come along and look somewhere you didn’t (or look in the same place and see what you didn’t), but your research log shows you at least seriously tried. Just like your shoes, your ancestor is not on the ceiling (shout out to Moms everywhere!).
There is a book called Evidence Explained that is the end all be all of source citations for genealogists (or as close as we’ll get to it). If you’re super serious about citations, this is the book you will want to get. But you can get away with using a citation style you’re more used to (APA, Chicago, etc.) as long as you stay consistent. Not a big citation fan? No problem. Where did you find it, who had it, when did you find it, when was it created, who created it… if your log at least gives enough detail to the reader to replicate the search and find the record again, you’ve done your job giving Complete and Accurate Source Citations.
How do you know if your sources are any good? Well, an original source is better than a derivative. An index or typed transcription is a derivative (it’s derived from an original), and would be open to new errors as it was transferred from one record into the new one… so while it’s good to have until you find the original record, it’s not as good as getting the original itself. Also remember that there are and have always been nefarious persons who create records in order to get money from unsuspecting people. So you want to check a record’s provenance… meaning you want to know where it came from and when it was created to double check its authenticity. You also want to evaluate whether a record is a primary or secondary source. For that, you want to know if the record was created near the time of an event by someone involved or much later than the event and/or by someone not involved. A diary of a civil war ancestor detailing yesterday’s battle is a primary source, whereas his recollections from memory 30 years later for a book would be secondary (he may have forgotten or altered the events). His son’s reiteration of a story his father used to tell him would also be secondary as he was not there for the event in question. It also matters whether the evidence is direct or indirect. An example of indirect evidence would be a census. It gives you an age, but not the exact birthday. So you can use the census as indirect evidence of the birthdate. On the other hand, a birth record is direct evidence as it explicitly states the birthday.Records can have more than one detail (and actually usually have more than one detail), so a record can be both a primary and secondary source and have indirect and direct evidence. Evaluate the source for each fact individually to determine its value and meet the Information Quality requirement. If a fact is built upon weak sources, go back to the research and try to exhaust your search again for better sources.
Finally, create a story of the sources and facts found. Explain why this John Smith comes from the records found and not other records that you dismissed in your research. If there is contradictory evidence, explain why you believe you resolved the conflict one way over another (or why you’re still up in the air about it). Then write your conclusion that eliminates any argument that you may have your information wrong or that you may have ignored compelling data in your research. Basically, a write up of your research that keeps other relatives from going “yeah, but I know you’re wrong because……”
I never wanted to be a professional!
I conclude with one defense of my post and that is for those who are going to state that their tree is just for fun and elitist professional types like me suck the joy out of everything. If you are doing family history research for fun, you go with your bad self and enjoy. But what I’ve written isn’t solely for the professional set. If you believe your research should outlive you, then following even basic GPS and stating in your will what you want done with your research is essential to success. If no one can tell you how to live your life and other people’s research is theirs alone and they should know that you may have errors and stop judging you because you’re just doing the best you can while having fun and you got half of this from someone else and you have to trust their research because the tree is so big and you’re so proud of how many kings and queens you’ve found and it’s really all just to feel connected….. just know that your relatives aren’t going to find it fun to make sense of your mess and they’ll just burn that tree to the ground.