Thursday, September 24, 2015

Are We Becoming Lazy Researchers?

Twenty years ago most of us were aware that original documents were found in the courthouses and archives and we could find other, important information at libraries.

In 1996, the birth of the GenWeb project opened the door to online research, which drastically changed the way we search for our ancestors. This thing called Internet told us we could do research at home and in our jammies, no less! No longer did we have to get out in the cold or heat, drive across town or across the state to access those records. We didn't even have to search during certain hours of the day or week. Internet was available around the clock. How special is that!

Everyone wins, right? Not necessarily. We humans seem to spend an inordinate amount of time simplifying a task. In our rush to make things very basic, we have lost some of the most basic tenets of good research.
*    We have forgotten how to attach a source to each fact not of common knowledge

*   We have decided that anything found online is free to use without asking permission or attributing the material to its creator.

*   We seem to believe if someone else has it on their website it must be true. 

*   If we repeat what is possibly an error over and over, it will become a fact. 

We have lost sight of our goal to find the facts so we can understand where, when and how our ancestors lived. We can find these facts where the events happened as well as where they did not happen. In other words, we must do a "Reasonably Exhaustive Research."[1]

In making our research as simple as possible, we are neglecting the places that provide the best information - courthouses and libraries.  Courthouses don't depend on genealogists for their funding or patronage so their futures are probably secure. That's good news as you will need to go there to find that mid-1800s  marriage bond signed by your ancestor or the description of his property found in that old deed book. Be prepared for a personal visit because not all original courthouse documents are online and probably won't be in our lifetime.

Libraries are not faring as well. Some are cutting hours and staff because of decreased usage. Fewer genealogy books are being published today as everyone wants to search online, but library shelves are still full of great information ranging from county histories of the 1800s to biographies of long-dead people. You might also find microfilm rolls of local, unpublished records. My library has funeral home records  as well as county tax polls, neither of which is online.  Even if your library does not have a genealogy collection, there are treasures to be found. A general history of a particular era and area can provide information about the economic and social conditions during your ancestor's life. You can put him in the context of his place in history. 

Is there a book you would like to read, but it isn't available at your library? Ask your librarian if you can borrow it through interlibrary loan. The cost is minimal and the rewards can be great.

Searching online is fine ... as far as it goes, but to avoid becoming a lazy researcher,  don't forgot the sources of the greatest genealogical information. Visit your library and courthouse. 

 [1] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 50th Anniversary Edition, (Washington, D.C.:, 2014), 1.

Published 24 September 2015, Western Kentucky Genealogy Blog,


LSW said...

You are voicing some of my recent thoughts. I am glad I began working my family history well before records came online. A search engine does not come near giving the feeling of exhilaration of turning the fragile page in an old ledger and seeing the marriage record you've been hunting for several years. Having your ancestor's census record pop out of a search doesn't teach you the value of researching neighbors and collateral lines that you learn when you have painstakingly scanned your way through a roll of microfilm and begin seeing the patterns of the same folks nearby in different parts of the country 10 years apart.

I've almost stopped attending genealogy workshops/seminars entirely because I get so frustrated as new genealogists go on and on about using such and such database and going back to Charlemagne - but who can't explain how that line of descent was proved. Laziness or naiveté. I'm not sure which. I feel like all aspiring genealogists need to follow a faint thread through land records and probate records without a computer nearby so they learn how to read that spidery handwriting and pick up that tiny, tiny clue that may be the only thing you will ever see that points to the right direction and that you will probably never discover if you depend on someone else's abstract of that record.

And don't get me started on the sorry (non-)research that ends up posted online as fact and reproduced until nobody questions it because "everybody" has the same information so it has to be true. I sometimes despair - but then again, I learned to do it right, so there is that to be thankful for. Genealogy now is nothing like when I started. I guess online research is fine for the shallow family historian, maybe. But if you are a serious historian, you need to get to those original records in their original location and do your own footwork. That's what makes a real genealogist. CindyW

Brenda Joyce Jerome said...

I agree, Cindy. I do think we have neglected to teach new researchers not only where an original record is located, but, also, why it was created.

Thanks for expressing your thoughts so well.

Unknown said...

Totally agree about the nearly worthless family trees. How ridiculous is it that Ancestry has the gall to accept someone's reference to a source as another tree on Ancestry. And, heaven forbid what happens if there are lots of trees repeating the same incorrect info.
That being said, as a very senior citizen no longer able to trek all over the country, I am glad for all the pages being digitized and that both Family Search and Ancestry give directions on how to browse those not indexed.
And, as long as we only see the trees at either of the above websites as containing clues, we are cautiously o.k. Sometimes, we can't run all over the country or even pay someone else to conduct research. I am spending close to $200 to get copies of court records which are the first proofs I've ever seen on the parentage of my maternal great grandmother and her mother and grandfather. In addition, these same court records reveal names of two women (of course) who are not included in any of the printed or on-line trees for this family. I am so delighted to have found these records, and while the cost is really steep, I believe it is worth it. Just have to cut out paying for some other fun stuff, like movies, etc.
Abby in Houston

Brenda Joyce Jerome said...

I appreciate you taking the time to leave your comments.

Alabamahoosier said...

Brenda you are on Geneamusings list of favs for the week!

Brenda Joyce Jerome said...

I am honored!

Janet said...

I agree as well. I also hate it when I choose to view a family tree on Ancestry according to the number of sources it has and then see the sources are all other family trees--with no concrete references!

Example: I descend from Henry and Apsy (FOWLER) CROWELL, who came through western Kentucky from Mecklenburg Co., NC. Our original immigrant ancestor was Peter GRAUL/CROWELL, who arrived in Philadelphia from Rotterdam in 1740. Albeit, we don't know if Peter originated in Rotterdam; however, evidence supports his being from a German-speaking region: Peter's will--written in Old German--is extant in NC. A 30 January 1908 article in the Monroe Enquirer titled "The Crowell Family" also stated that Peter's son Simon "spoke very broken English and read altogether his German Bible, which the writer has seen and which is probably not lost."

Despite this evidence, I've found many family trees that link CROWELLs from this family to the English CROWELLs of New England! I've no idea who came to this conclusion or why, but it goes to show that it pays to scrutinize all secondary data you find online (and elsewhere)!

Ancestry, FamilySearch, Fold3, etc., are great tools, and I make frequent use of them, but it's too easy to get tunnel-visioned and forget about the many other sources of primary data that remain available to us.


Brenda Joyce Jerome said...

We are singing in the same choir, Janet! Thanks for responding.