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Are you a family history investigative reporter?

Genealogy Do-Over Week 1 – 2-8 January 2015

Topic 2: Preparing to Research

There is a note in FTM for my grandfather that says, “The Ray C. Williamson in the 1930 Yates New York census is not my grandfather.” In the past my research has been all over the place. Following rabbit trails here and there. Searching through whatever records strike my fancy at the moment. I haven’t approached my research in a methodical way, I haven’t kept records of previous research and I haven’t written up my conclusions. I have been trying to track down my grandfather in the 1930 Federal Census. Do I have a record of where I have already searched? No. Do I know why I came to the conclusion that the Ray C. Williamson in Yates wasn’t my grandfather? No. Is my note helpful to me or someone coming along behind me? No. Part of the reason for setting up my research in surname notebooks in OneNote was to help me keep track of what I have done and where I need to go next. Starting over with a sourced tree should help me erase some of the mistakes I’ve made in past research.

What follows is the draft of a post I wrote in July 2014 but never posted to my blog. I wrote this after I decided to start with a brand-new, properly-sourced tree in Roots Magic.

At some point in our family history research, it is time to take a step back and report on our findings. Very few of us take this critical step however. We tend to think, as researchers of family history, that that is all it takes—a bit of research that gets entered into software and then our job is done. But is it? Do we follow a few “shaky leaf” hints and attach some source documents in our genealogy software and call it good? I know I am guilty of this.

Is that how we applied ourselves to term papers in school? Probably not, if you were expecting a passing grade. Is that how you want your news to be delivered? Based on evidence from a third party? With little or no explanation as to how the third party arrived at their conclusions? Is this how an award-winning journalist worked to become one? Through half-hearted research that is never reported? Not likely.

Okay, that was a lot of questions but I hope they have you thinking about what we do as family history researchers. Maybe it’s time to start thinking of ourselves as “family history investigative reporters” instead. It’s time to start reporting on our findings. Maybe you all do that already and it’s just me who is slacking? No? Here is the main point to all this rambling: If you make an inference or come to a conclusion during your research, you should write it down. Why, you ask? (Do you really need to ask?) How many times have you come across Point Z in your research and thought, “Z? Where did that come from?” or “How did I come up with that?” We all know both of those questions mean taking the time to revisit our research to see if we can figure out where or how. What if you had taken the time to write up a short statement such as, “In my research, I found documents showing this and that and I concluded Point Z.”

See? It doesn’t have to be hard. It can be a simple statement or two, a short paragraph or a bulleted list with a concluding comment. Something that will help you make sense of the inference or conclusion you came to if you question yourself at a later date. Something that someone coming along behind you could see where you were going and how you got there. Am I setting myself up here as some sort of “proof argument” know-it-all? Heck, no. Mine might make it into the “passable” category—that’s about it. But I am trying! I think learning to write good proof arguments is a learn-as-you-go process. If we never write anything down though, we will never learn how to write effective proof arguments, will we? I just want to encourage you to give it a try. It gets easier the more you do. Really.

After you have done some simple written conclusions and are comfortable with the process, then step it up a notch. Learn to add some important details to the proof argument: “In the search for Q [some unknown], I examined documents A [a primary source], B [a derivative of a primary source] and found C [secondhand information] in my search. I came to the conclusion that X + Y equals Point Z because of L [evidence on source A], M [evidence on source B], and N [lack of other evidence to the contrary].” Yes, this will take a bit more thought, but worth it in the end. As it stands right now, I have to go back and figure out why I concluded the Ray C. Williamson in the 1930 Yates, New York Federal Census is not my Ray C. Williamson because I don’t remember why and I didn’t write it down!

So, the proof argument written report… It’s got you quaking in your boots. It’s got you burying your head in the sand. It’s got you backing away with your arms out to ward off danger while shaking your head no. It’s got you running for the hills shouting, “No, no, no!” (Sorry, quirky sense of humor escaping.) Remember, it doesn’t have to be complex. Yes, for the NGS Quarterly (link to complimentary NGS Quarterly articles) there are standards that must be adhered to. If you are reporting to clients, you want to present something professional to your client at the end of your work so you’ll want to apply some standards there as well. But that is not what I am proposing here. For right now, just relax and take a stab at writing proof arguments for your own peace of mind. Keep them with your Research Plans and Records in OneNote. Add them to your notes in your genealogy software so you can find them if you need them. Become a family history investigative reporter. You will hug yourself later.


Post updated 23 April 2020 to update the link to the NGS Quarterly Archives which previously included links to several NGS Quarterly magazine articles available online. The link now directs to a “Free Resources” section of the website that contains links to articles from the NGS Quarterly magazine that are recommended reading for researchers to enhance their research skills.

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