10 November 2011

Defining Research, Part Two: The Internet vs. Research Skill

"Mother, what are these strange things?"
In my last post on the topic of defining research, I ranted about discussed what I consider to pass only falsely as real genealogical research. But, shy of getting irate about calmly considering how such people influence the overall tenor of the genealogical community, the thread of importance involved in assessing the calibre of their research seems to end there. Much more interesting, to me, is how, when interacting with other genealogists, our personal definitions of research (and even our own estimations of our abilities) can get in the way of the potential for productive discussion.

By way of an example, I was lucky enough to volunteer for the daylong Ancestry Day in San Francisco this past weekend, a one-day genealogy "mini-conference" that was hosted by the California Genealogical Society, of which I am a member. I was able to work through the day as one of a battalion of genealogical consults, sitting with researchers and spending a strict 15-minutes helping these clients review issues or dead-ends they had reached in their research. It was an amazing experience, and a great chance to connect with some people who were incredibly enthusiastic and excited about their research adventures.

But something struck me about these consults, and  made me realize how definition of terms can be incredibly important... namely, how one defines "research." In essence, it gets to the issue, I think, of how records and resources available on the internet have fundamentally defined the concept of research for most genealogists.

Here's what I mean: in the course of speaking with a number of my consults, I was struck time and time again by them saying that they had "done the research," that they "couldn't find a trace" of their ancestors, and that these ancestors had, as far as their research was concerned, disappeared.

It took me a few consults to get the hang of the tight time, so after a few I began to ask, "When you say research, what do you mean?" or "You say you researched, which records did you check?"

In most cases, the answer was "Well, I looked on Ancestry."

Now, despite the fact that many of these consults self-identified as intermediate level researchers, the truth was that many were actually still in the beginning stages of their research experience. Many had never written for a vital record, hadn't visited the NARA website, and some were unaware that the Catholic church kept extensive records that would be of help to genealogical researchers. So, in many ways, I don't fault these researchers for not looking beyond the internet to solve their research problems. What I found myself saying, again and again, was:

"You're going to have to move your research offline."

My advice to many researchers included how to write to various offices, how to order records from NARA, and how to go about ordering microfilm to be reviewed at a local FHC. Not terribly complicated stuff, but a revelation for many of my consult clients.

Now, when it comes to defining "research," if I had not asked explicitly in what places, in what resources, and in what record groups these individuals had looked, we may have run in circles for quite a long time. Why? Well, when speaking to a researcher who considers themselves intermediate I would assume that they have already done things like contact county offices regarding death records, or searched for probate documents, or even taken the time to determine the religion of the people they are researching. I would never assume that they had searched on Ancestry and then, finding nothing more, determined that they had run into a brick wall.

But this, I think, is a consequence of the emergence of records on the internet. Digitization facilitates research immensely, and I am one of its largest and strongest advocates. I like to go to sleep at night dreaming that every record I may need will be online some day. But, of course, they aren't, and so genealogy remains an endeavor that is aided by technology, but still depends upon some very dusty, blurry or even archaic means of discovery.

However, the quick successes that internet-centric genealogy affords also, I think, gives a false sense of research success to individuals, who, instead of plotting out specific approaches to solving research problems just type a name into a database interface and hope for the best. The former approach is focused and targeted, while the other is simply casting a wide net and hoping to find something of import. Both yield results, but only one builds skill and increases knowledge. Only one, in my opinion, is research. Many who may believe that they are intermediate researchers, but the truth is that many have only accumulated names and cherry-picked online records--leaving them with substantial trees but very little real research skill.

Of course, it's been said time and time again that even as companies like Ancestry increase the efficiency and abilities of us all to complete our research, it does, in some way, retard the generation of true research ability by truncating the experience that leads to improved research skills. In a way, we become dependent upon the easy availability of online records, and I wonder, if in the long run, this hurts us as researchers--even as much as it helps us as genealogists.

What I do know is that those who are starting genealogy now are at even more of a disadvantage in this regard than someone like me, who has been researching for just ten years. When I began, much was online, but the offerings have become staggeringly robust in the past decade, to the point that many of the records I sent off for and files that I ordered when I was first beginning (as well as books I consulted and resources at offices I visited) are now available online. New researchers can save time and money over what I had to expend, but they do, I think, lose something in the process--mainly an understanding of what research truly is, and how, in reality, it takes offline experience to gain the sorts of skills that can help solve some of genealogy's most difficult problems.


jane said...

spot on Jenn. Now we need to find a way to show them what is beyond the internet even thought it is wonderful! Thanks for youre help on Ancestry Day! ....jane lindsey

Geolover said...

Your point is well put and described. So many are not aware of the scope of records that may be in the treasure houses (manuscript collections, courthouses, archives) because these sorts of documents are seldom found on the internet.

I myself just began to learn about what might exist while in my second phase of research -- rummaging around in a Courthouse, where tax assessment rolls, several types of estate records, Court minutes books and order books, land entry books, Marriage Bonds and Marriage Returns, Civil War Veteran Tax Exemptions and many other gems were available for whoever cared to look at them. My mouth was agape for days, and it was one of the most fun genealogical learning experiences I can imagine.