On Friday, I was lucky enough to be able to hear some of the best in the business speak at the Board for Certification of Genealogists Lecture Series for the Family History Library here in Salt Lake. The BCG is one of two agencies which provide professional credentials to genealogists who meet rigorous standards of competency. It is certainly one of my ultimate professional goals to earn a BCG certification one day.
The BCG offers this free one-day event annually as a “thank you” to the Family History Library for its contributions to the genealogical community. It was a great pleasure to be able to learn from these master genealogists and meet other likeminded individuals who find this stuff as fascinating as I do.
This year’s lectures were:
What Is “Reasonably Exhaustive Research”? By Michael Hait
The Art of Negative Space Research: Women by Jeanne Larzalere Bloom
After the Courthouse Burns: Rekindling Family History Through DNA by Judy Russell
Forensic Genealogy Meets the Genealogical Proof Standard by Michael Ramage
Margaret’s Baby’s Father and the Lessons He Taught Me – about Illegitimacy, Footloose Males, Burned Counties & More by Elizabeth Shown Mills
When Does Newfound Evidence Overturn a Proved Conclusion by Thomas W. Jones
Though my husband had a meeting he could not miss that day and my child care options fell through, I was still able to make Michael Hait’s, Jeanne Lazarlere Bloom’s, most of Elizabeth Shown Mill’s and Tom Jone’s lectures. Each of these lectures expounded on elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard with one or more case studies showing how the principles of the GPS were applied in each.
I found the case studies fascinating. The lecturers would lay out the evidence. I would wonder where it was headed and maybe even start to make assumptions. And then. . . Boom! Trump card. Goose bumps. Crowd murmurings. It was great!!
I learned a great deal that would be difficult to summarize here, but I would like to highlight a few “take-aways:”
1. Good Genealogy understands historical context.
Michael Hait provided one case study where at least half a dozen pieces of evidence supported a specific conclusion. This conclusion was logical and most genealogists would have found more than enough reason to call it valid. Yet Hait wasn’t quite satisfied with that conclusion because a few pieces of indirect evidence were missing. The key to the case came after Hait began researching an archaic term he found in an unpublished biography. The term, which to modern readers seemed to simply describe the ancestor as pious, was actually a description of the ancestor’s specific sect of the Baptist faith. As he began to understand and research this historical religious context, Hait found the key document which set the record straight.
Jeanne Bloom likewise emphasized the importance of understanding the community in which your ancestor lived, particularly as it relates to female ancestors. Bloom called this “Negative Space” research, a term borrowed from the art world in which a subject is defined by the picture around it. In genealogy, this means not only researching the woman’s close male relatives, but also that woman’s neighborhood, church, occupation, etc. Bloom encouraged the audience to read about learn as much possible about your ancestor’s environment. “Be Curious.” She said, “Let that lead to other things.”
Finally, Tom Jones made a simple statement that really struck a chord with me. He had been laying out a case study where DNA evidence helped determine the correct ancestor out of 3 possibilities. Though the DNA results allowed Jones to identify his ancestor by name, Jones felt his research on this individual had only just begun. – “A name,” he said, “is not identifying an ancestor at all.” This is SO true. It is natural to want to take the pedigree chart back a generation, but genealogy is so much more than adding a name to a pedigree chart. I want to understand who my ancestors were and how they lived as much as I possibly can.
2. Good Genealogy never underestimates the importance of the FAN club.
The “F.A.N. Club” is a well-used genealogy acronym that stands for Family, Associates and Neighbors or Friends, Associates and Neighbors. It refers to the idea of not simply researching your ancestor, but also those around them. So, for example, if you find a Baptism record for your ancestor, you would also look at the sponsors named on the baptism to see if they left any documents or clues that will aid your research of your ancestor. If this sounds far-fetched, it’s actually not. Our ancestors were part of communities, neighborhoods, religious and ethnic groups. This is a great strategy for any genealogical problem, but especially for finding those difficult to find WOMEN in our family tree. In the case studies presented in this lecture series alone, the F.A.N. club strategy provided the missing piece to a number of genealogical puzzles.
3. Good Genealogy isn’t always convenient. It takes work!
It would be nice if all public records were online, but this is far from the case. It would be nice if every historical document that mentions our ancestors were indexed, but this is far from the case too. At one point, Michael Hait showed a picture he took of a box full of papers. He explained this was a box full of unindexed, unorganized marriage records sitting in a repository in Maryland. You aren’t going to find those records neatly digitized on Ancestry. Anyone who thinks those records might hold something of genealogical value to their research has to first take the time to learn they exist and then look at each record one by one.
Speaking of genealogical value, don’t overlook a record or repository because you think its chances of holding something of value are slim. You never know until you look. Yes, it takes time and effort, but it seems to me that a willingness to be inconvenienced is one characteristic which sets great genealogists apart from mediocre ones. For example, Elizabeth Shown Mills lectured on an extremely interesting genealogical mystery, sharing step by step how that mystery was solved. The initial researcher on the case actually failed to solve the mystery. A second, more-thorough team of researchers finally cracked the case, mostly because they were willing to be inconvenienced. First, they searched not only in the state archives, but also in the local court house. Second, they paid attention to seemingly insignificant details, such as the mileage charged by the sheriff when he served summons. Third, they searched for and read each page of court records not only for the primary individual in question, but also for his F.A.N.s. Finally, they were willing to search unindexed records for those individuals.
I do admit the thought crossed my mind more than once, “Where do these people find the time?” Not only do these leaders in the genealogy community do their own research, but they also teach, write, travel, volunteer and advocate. I’m not sure how they manage to do it all, but I admire it. I can pretty much bet they have that whole research log organization thing down, and I’m guessing they don’t waste hours spinning their wheels online. But those are topics for another post.
Thanks to the BCG and to the Family History Library for making this possible! If you would like to listen to the lectures for yourself, I understand they are available here for a nominal fee.