By: Carolyn L. Barkley
I originally intended to write about why, as researchers and librarians, it is important for us to read genealogical blogs. As I began to consider the article’s contents, however, I realized that I had something more important to talk about that provided a larger context for the original idea. This insight occurred as I read a column by Garrison Keillor, entitled “Missing the Heyday of Books,” that appeared in the May 29, 2000 issue of The News Leader (Staunton, Virginia). In the article, Keillor noted that “… [ours] is a very literate time in which people are reading freely and writing a lot.” That writing, however, may be the short and ungrammatical format adopted by texters and Twitter posters. Reading freely does not necessarily mean that reading is frequent, but rather that the reading is at no cost. In that context, “…you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book…”. Everyone can publish and as Keillor comments further, “The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside. You can write whatever you wish and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.”
I started to think about his comments and how they might relate to genealogical research. It is very enticing for many genealogists, particularly beginners, to become a part of the instant-gratification generation. I know individuals who have searched online for a family name, reporting “it was all there.” The impression given in Ancestry.com commercials is that if you just enter a name, you will retrieve a family tree complete with green leaves. Even the very enjoyable “Who Do You Think You Are?” television series makes the process look easy, without sharing with the general public the hundreds of hours of research that occurred before the completion of an episode. Genealogy should be enjoyable, but – and it is a big qualification – quality genealogical research is hard work and there is no place for instant-gratification. For me, the goal of genealogical research is not completion, but a process of continual mastery of skills and discovery of information.
Our first obligation as researchers is to read (whether online or in print) in order to learn about a variety of subject areas including history, geography, law, cartography, record types, and much more. A part of this reading process is an awareness of the quality of what is being read. In the same way that you need to consider whether a website is authoritative, you also need to consider the reliability of a printed work. Questions need to be answered such as: Is the publisher a reputable firm? Is the work documented? When was the work written? What are the qualifications of the author? This reading and learning process never ceases.
Our second obligation is one of quality analysis. An alarming percentage of genealogical information available online (and in print) is drivel. Think of the family trees that you may have found in which, for example, children’s birthdates predate those of their parents, or a wife’s name is given as Mrs. [fill in surname]. What was the individual who posted (or printed) the information thinking? When someone discovers a piece of information, that information requires careful consideration in light of available, reliable documentation as well as other information known about the specific individual, place or event. Anomalies and discrepancies need to be identified, explored further, and resolved. Careful reading and critical thinking skills allow for quality analysis.
Our third obligation is to share the outcomes of our research with others. In order to do so, we must learn to write well and to cite our sources correctly every time. If our writing is well-reasoned, well-presented and well-documented, it will be easily read and understood by others.
How then, do these thoughts relate to my original topic of why read blogs (and more)?
Some genealogical blogs post regular articles on specific topics, such as discussions of methodology and resources. Reading this type of blog helps to fulfill our first obligation – the obligation to read. One of the best examples is Kimberly Powell’s About.com:Genealogy. Information from these types of articles can be used in many ways. I have received comments about several of my blog articles, including an individual who felt that the recent article on coats of arms was the clearest she had read and that the information would be useful in her client work. A guest author, writing about her experiences researching at the National Archives, was contacted by an individual with links to one of her examples, who later became a research client. I received an email from an individual in Ireland who, it would appear, is related to an Irish family that is part of my son’s paternal line in Frederick County, Maryland. An article on continuing education for genealogists was reprinted by a California genealogical society in its newsletter. Librarians have used blog articles as a basis for training programs (for staff and public) and for the purchase of genealogy and family history materials.
Knowledge and diligent application of the genealogy proof standard will fulfill our second obligation – the obligation to analyze. Books such as The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (BCG, 2000) and Christine Rose’s Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case (CR Publications, 2nd rev. ed., 2005), and an About.com: Genealogy article on the topic are essential reading. In addition, you will want to read the “Professional Research Skills” section of Professional Genealogy (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009).
Quality writing skills will make our research readable by others, thus fulfilling our third obligation – the obligation to share our work. Whether you are sharing research with a client or a family member, or publishing an article online or in a print publication, writing well is essential – and unfortunately an increasingly lost art. Hone your skills with practice, by reading the work of authors published in such journals as the NGSQ, The American Genealogist, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register and American Ancestors, among others. You will also want to read Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s You Can Write Your Family History (Genealogical Publishing Co, 2008) and Henry Hoff’s Genealogical Writing in the 21st Century: a Guide to Register Style and More (New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2006). In order to cite your sources correctly, you should consult the Evidence series from Genealogical Publishing Company (Evidence!; Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace; Quicksheet: Citing Ancestry.com Databases and Images Evidence! Style; and Quicksheet” Citing Online Historical Resources Evidence! Style).
Garrison Keillor provides a caution about reading and writing that we would be wise to heed. As genealogists, we are consummate readers and writers. We can be leaders in reading wisely (but not necessarily freely), analyzing carefully, and expressing ourselves well. Read blogs – but read lots more as well.