Saturday, September 5, 2009

Where Are You on the Genealogy Learning Curve?

I just returned from a visit with the most beautiful four-month-old baby in the world, my grandson, to the ordinary world filled with lots of things that need to be done yesterday - and empty of any blog ideas. A lovely confluence of circumstances yesterday finally gave me an idea.
  • First, my advanced genealogy class is starting at the end of the month. I was reviewing my PowerPoint presentations, handouts and homework assignments, and I was a little surprised to see how little needs changing.
  • Second, Dick Eastman's post on September 1st announced that Legacy Family Tree is now FamilySearch Certified. This announcement was giving rise to lots of comments on junk genealogy, and I realized I wasn't sure what FamilySearch Certified meant. I'm not sure the commenters understood either.
  • Third, I was early - as usual - for a meeting, and I grabbed one of the many magazines that end up in my car. It was a 2004 issue of the NGS NewsMagazine, and it contained a wonderful article by Thomas W. Jones, "The Way It Was and Still Is."
Mr. Jones' article identifies three phases we all go through if we stay on the genealogy learning curve. The first is Name-Gathering. I think most of us are very excited about filling in the blanks in our family groups sheets and extending our pedigree charts when we first begin our genealogy journey. When I hear people talking with pride about the 100,000+ names in their genealogy databases, I know these people are still in the name-gathering phase of their research. As with any learning endeavor, many never leave this phase.

Phase two is the Record-Hunting phase. I remember when I really entered this phase. I had been so excited about tracing my ancestry into Medieval England. I had easy access to the published heralds' visitations, and I copied reams of pages providing the pedigrees of exotically named nobles. When I began entering my genealogy in a computer database, though, it suddenly hit me that I didn't really care about people like Roos of Helmsley or Alan de la Zouche. I definitely wasn't going to waste my time entering them in my database! On the other hand, documenting the lives of people who left few records behind them was fascinating. I cherished original petitions, photographs and letters, and I worked very hard platting out changes in neighborhoods over decades. As the records became more scarce, I only became more eager to find and understand those that still existed.

Eventually, of course, I discovered that direct evidence on most of my problem families simply didn't exist, and I entered phase three, Case-Building. This is the never-ending learning phase of genealogy research. It's so exciting to write a proof summary that uniquely identifies one William Johnston from the dozen others in the region, or that explains why Joseph Wills did not marry a daughter of Aaron Case. I love reading some of the articles in the Quarterly and wondering at the sheer elegance of the proofs; and one of these days, I hope to be satisfied enough with one of my own articles that I will be happy to submit it to the Quarterly or the Record.

My basic genealogy course is designed to help researchers transition from the name-gathering phase to the record-hunting phase. I update this course frequently. Although the original records we use in genealogy haven't changed over the years, access to them has. A dizzying array of digitized originals, transcripts, abstracts - and, yes, junk - is available. Thanks to online indexes, finding someone in the census is much easier than it was forty years ago, but the transition from name-gathering to record-hunting may not be as easy as people believe. I think the ability to evaluate records develops in direct proportion to the amount of work necessary to find those records, so my students today enter the basic class with less experience in evaluation than my students of twenty years ago.

My advanced course is designed to help researchers transition from the record-hunting phase to the case-building phase. This transition is not really affected by software programs or Internet sources. Students make this transition when they recognize the fact that genealogy research, like any research, is problem-solving, not filling-in-the-blanks. I love working with these students!

What does all this have to do with the FamilySearch Certified imprimatur? I'm not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints, so I have not been able to explore the features of the new FamilySearch. From what I've seen in conference demonstrations, this new FamilySearch tree, with which FamilySearch Certified programs directly interact, has some advantages over Ancestry's World Tree, but I suspect that it's still something I won't use. People in the name-gathering phase of their research may flock there, however, and many of them will never leave. From a business point of view, catering to name-gatherers makes sense. There are so many more of them! From an educator's point of view, however, I would much rather see more effort put into encouraging and supporting name-gatherers as they journey on the genealogy learning curve.

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