Method, Theory, Data and storage…..yawn

Having spent my pre retirement working life in either one or the other of two scientific disciplines in which the scientific method guided research and record keeping and critical thought guided decision making and conclusions, just about all I am going to say here is that I’m not going to wax poetic about things like what forms you must use for your research notes, how to file those paper family group sheets, how to decide just who belongs in that certain spot in your family tree.

Most will be familiar with the scientific method: ask (or find) a question,formulate a hypothesis,do research, gathering evidence that may support or deny your hypothesis,use that evidence to test your hypothesis; analyse your results, confirming or denying your hypothesis. If your original hypothesis is denied, move on to another hypothesis. Record, in such a way that you can refer to it later, each item of evidence or each fact you applied to your hypothesis and why you chose to accept or reject it as evidence of your hypothesis. When you do this, common sense will be your best friend. Keep in mind that your first hypothesis may well not be correct, so be prepared to pursue more than one hypothetical individual for any specific place in your family tree. In the case of family history this process may never end, years after the fact you may discover a record that disproves your initial conclusion, a record pertaining to another person of the same name will be found attached to the wrong person, sins of omission are unavoidable. Be flexible and give yourself a break, but balance that with being as careful as the situation allows.

How you keep your records is wholly personal, as long as they are kept where you can find them when you need them five years down the line when you have forgotten why you concluded that Solomon Mize b 1821 in Union Co, SC was not the son of Basil James Mize, although Basil Mize lived in Union Co, SC in 1820 and had a son named Solomon, also born in the 1820’s in Union Co. SC. If you keep these records you can remind yourself in a minute or two why you concluded that the Solomon Mize b 1821 in Union C. SC who is your third great grandfather is not the son of Basil Mize. if you can see that Solomon b 1821 is in the 1850 census is married to Nancy, living in Union Co, with their oldest child, Mary, while the “other” Solomon Mize is yet unmarried and living in Basil Mize’s household in St. Clair AL. In 1860 Basil’s son Solomon has married Sarah and now lives in his own St Clair, AL home, next door to Basil while my third great grandfather, Solomon Mize, still lives with Nancy and has added several children to the family during the inter-census decade. In the next decade both men go off to war as Confederate Soldiers, that’s in easily accessed military records. But Basil’s son Solomon perishes in the Battle of Resaca, Ga in 1864, and Solomon b 1821, my third great grandfather returns to home life and family in Union Co and lives out his life there, dying in 1886 and being buried in the New Hope Methodist Churchyard in Jonesville, Union Co., SC. Still, inumerable people have made the assumption that my third great grandfather, the Solomon Mize who spent his life in Union Co, SC was the son of Basil James Mize, was the same person who perished at Resaca……including one person who has written a published book that includes this erroneous information. Apparently sometimes common sense could be a little more common.

How your data, supporting evidence, exclusionary evidence, notes, random thoughts, is stored is another personal choice. Personally I’m a digital storage person for almost everything from census records to death certificates to pictures to random thoughts to the data and thought processes that lead me to this or that conclusion. And these digitizations of everything from your thoughts about the person, the chain of reasoning that lead you to place that person in the position they occupy in the digital Family Tree needs to be as close to that person in the family tree as possible.

I have paper records, lots of them,marriage,birth and death certificates, pictures, obituaries. But everything is also digitized. I have wills,probates, land records…….copied in courthouses and other archives then scanned  after receipt so I would have a digital copy. I have what I have done downloaded to Family Tree Maker and on the hard drive of two computers and two mobile devices, on a portable hard drive and backed up to DVD’s. While digital storage remains far more resistant to time and the elements than fragile paper may be, the only mode of digital storage that we can count on to last through media and format changes; the only digital mode with the ability to grow and evolve without data loss, essentially until the end of time, the earth, or life as we know it, is the cloud……… a lovely euphemism for what we used to call “the internet” or, more mysteriously “cyberspace”. There are still genealogists who will disagree with me and who keep as primary, boxes, notebooks and file cabinets full of paper records, family group sheets, research notes, even precious original photos and documents in banker’s boxes in the basement or garage. I’ve also seen flood and fire destroy those things, making it irrelevant that, theoretically, paper has a lifespan of about 200 years, while digital media such as CD’s, DVD’s, and flash drives are said to have a lifespan of five years, discounting obsolecence.. I do have and I do save paper records, including precious original photographs stored in acid free folders, but that didn’t save a family photograph of the Ike family reunion taken in 1904; the last known photograph taken of my great grandfather Isaac Ike and my grandmother’s youngest sister, Vinny Ike, who died as a young child. This singular and most precious image, to which my grandmother had attached a written list of who each person was, was lost forever, misplaced by my oldest brother before I had the chance to scan and save it.

No method of data storage is perfect, but keeping paper records filed by family, surname, date, family line, or any other criteria are the least safe and usually the least accessible. In my opinion, they are also part of the reason so much genealogy done by our grandmothers and aunties as their legacy to us is so inaccurate. If you care about the family to whom you will leave this legacy of hard work……..digitize, make sure it has a home in the cloud on, or as an uploaded GEDCOM elsewhere where such space is is available,and make sure that every document, picture, thought that led you to put that person in that position on that family tree is right there, as close to that person as you can get it.

All that digital rambling having been said, I do keep, for each ancestor on whom I’m currently focusing, two types of paper records: a research log and a time line. The first keeps not only reminds you of where you’ve looked for and found or not found certain information on that ancestor, it prevents you from repeating work you have already done. I’ve found also that dating entries in your research log, no matter how trivial the reference or whether it did or did not yield useful, or any, information is a good idea if you want to reconstruct your search years on down the line, as in the case of …..writing a blog post. The importance of a time line can be seen above in tale of the two Solomon Mizes; sometimes things are perfectly obvious in a timeline on paper when they may escape as individual records. I’ve taken to leaving, as a comment, those parallel time lines for Solomon Mize on every Ancestry Tree that has “my” Solomon as the son of Basil Mize when the timeline proves that he was not.

I keep both research logs and “work in progress” time lines in a spiral notebook; time lines often become part of the digital records, research logs less often, but neither is ever thrown away.

Sourcing? I’ll leave that for one of the many who choose to expound on that, or argue, or accuse colleagues of “elitism”. My own opinion is that of many family historians, whether they be hobbyists or professionals: “genealogy without documentation is mythology”. And documentation means sourcing.


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