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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Preserving Your Research
Stop and Write Up Frequently
If you were a professional researcher working for a client you would make periodical reports explaining what searches you had made and why you did each one, together with the results you found. That way the client understands how the research is progressing and the nature of any roadblocks. Don’t you owe the same courtesy to yourself and your descendants? Such reports provide a state-of-the-reunion address on behalf of your deceased kinfolk, and should be done whilst the subject is still fresh in your mind.
With these reports at hand anyone could now pick up this particular line of research and proceed forward. They would know what your initial analysis of the problem was, which records you decided to search and what you were looking for in each one. In addition there would be a complete record of your results, both positive and negative, and no repetition of searches would have to be done.
No less important is your interpretation and evaluation of your findings. It is particularly important to include detailed descriptions of the process you went through in any difficult cases, or if you have disproved a family legend. (However you may find that some people cling to legends and refuse to accept your impeccably documented proof—relatives are like that!)
The three items of evidence for each of the three linkages (child to parents, birth to marriage, and husband to wife) should feature clearly in each ancestor’s write-up so that others know precisely your justifications for your lineage. For elucidation of this process refer to the course material for Methodology-Part 5: How To Prove It. Gaps in your knowledge will have become apparent and can be addressed in the next round of research. You should conclude with detailed suggestions for future research to guide both yourself and others later.
There will be no sense of direction to your efforts if you do not analyze your results from time to time. So, resolve right now to become efficient and implement this strategy. I promise you that your genealogical life will become so much easier as you will be able to set new, clear goals and work through each one systematically.
Do refer to your original written goals as you write up your reports. You have been through a process consisting of a Preliminary Stage where you defined a goal, acquired background information and decided on a research strategy. Then you completed the Research Stage by gathering family data, searched the records and documented your findings. Now you are at the start of the Presentation and Preservation Stage.
When you have accumulated a number of reports on one topic and have enough to tell a story, whether this is written or otherwise, then do write up the whole set in a form that can be distributed, thus ensuring its preservation.
Your presentation may be in the form of an article sent to family or a Family History Society or Genealogy Society journal, a book, letters, photograph album, scrapbook for your family, or one of several other possibilities.
As a postscript, there is merit in the concept of starting with yourself for the writing-up process as well as for the research process. Start with your own autobiography and work back, generation by generation. This scheme has the advantage that you can start writing something now, whilst research is in its infancy. And if you don’t do you own life-history now, when will you get time in the future, when you have dozens more people to write about?
Another compelling reason is that you do not want your descendants to regret, like you do, that their ancestors didn’t leave any letters, diaries or autobiographies! Some prescient comments on writing your autobiography can be found in the masterly textbook that reads like a story, Discovering Your Family History by Donald Steel.
You should consider sending a copy of any completed research, however small, to one or more relevant archives for preservation. A local historical or genealogical society in the area in which the ancestors lived would be delighted to receive your work. Make sure your contact information is included so that a distant cousin looking for the family there will be able to find you as well. Just think how thrilled you would be to find that a previous researcher had collected photographs of your great grandfather, his family and his blacksmith’s business and deposited them in a local history library or archives. They would be carefully preserved and indexed in their holdings, ready for you to find.
Depositing your research somewhere whilst still capable of doing so is very smart, and may well prevent your research from disappearing into oblivion upon your death. Putting your research into a simple published form is one way of making it readily available to others, as well as contributing towards its preservation. A positive side effect is that in the process the author will discover what gaps there are and be better prepared to focus his efforts in the future.
Sharing lets everyone know what you’ve accomplished, and gives others a chance to add information to this database. Family members may be reluctant to come forward with material until they know what you do and don’t already have. Be prepared (by adding your contact information, and the date of publication) for this material to be photocopied and passed on to others as well—what better way to find the extended family? Annual newsletters, CDs or DVDs, websites or blogs are ideal ways to pass information and pictures along and foster a greater sense of family with far-flung relatives.
If you really want to make your efforts available easily worldwide then send an unbound copy to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City with permission to microfilm. Make sure that your name and address is prominently displayed in the front if you want all those 2nd, 3rd and 4th cousins to find you to share their treasures!
Writing a Family History
An excellent help is the FamilySearch Research Wiki page, Preparing a Family History. It has sections devoted to the Title Page, Copyright Statement, Table of Contents, and other preliminary sections including a Dedication, List of Illustrations, Foreword, Preface and Acknowledgements, a List of Abbreviations, Introduction, List of Contributors and Chronology. It then discusses the Main Body of the Text, following with the final sections which may include Appendices, Bibliography and the all-important Index. It concludes with a review of Layout and Design, Printing and Binding, and Sharing Your Information with both family and institutions. A must read for all aspiring authors!
More details about questions to ask can be found in the companion volume by Heritage Productions entitled, Ask Lots of Questions, Get Lots of Answers available from the GenealogyStore, in Discovering Your Family History by Donald Steel, The Researchers Guide to American Genealogy by Val Greenwood (2000), and in the book and software Once Upon a Lifetime by Patrice Williams (1999).
Adult education courses on writing your family history are very popular so consider taking one if this is your first venture. Do consult some of the many books on writing family histories available from your public or Family History Society library as well. You’ll find valuable tips and examples of styles. Two of the best from Britain are How to Write a Family History by Terrick Fitzhugh and Writing and Publishing Your Family History by John Titford. In North America there is Patricia Law Hatcher’s Producing a Quality Family History, and this is much more detailed than the previous two mentioned.
General Considerations in Writing
I would urge all aspiring authors to read thoroughly the above books as they cover just about everything, each one taking a different approach to presenting his material. Many good family histories blend storytelling with historical analysis. The historian tries to understand why these people did what they did, so presenting the reader with a much more meaningful account of their lives. Explanations of these and copious examples can be found in the above three books and in Val Greenwood’s book. They also deal with the questions of intended audience, focus and objectivity in your presentation.
Remember that you are writing for an audience that does not share your knowledge of genealogical methodology and terminology. Thus you will have to gently explain the meaning of jargon and lead your audience through your research process. The value of detailed records of your reasoning and documentation of your everyday work becomes readily apparent at this stage!
If you are diligent in the collection of a wide variety of information it will be possible to recreate an ancestor’s life by weaving his story with local and national history, and using maps, old photos and all kinds of pictures of places, occupations and events. There are two items essential to a family history work of whatever kind for it to be taken seriously and contribute meaningfully to the current body of knowledge. I refer to provision of an index to all names and places mentioned, and to precise citation of all sources. Indexing is a science in itself and there are many forms of assistance in computer programmes which make this less of a grind nowadays.
Citation can be done in one of three ways, in brackets after each item, or in footnotes or end notes, according to personal preference. Ideally source references should appear on pedigree charts and family group records but this may be impossible to achieve using genealogy software.
Remember it is better to aspire to and achieve something modest than to dream great dreams and never finish that mammoth tome.
Even though most relatives at present wish to see a hardbound book, do seriously consider making an electronic one in addition to this. It is far cheaper to produce per copy, is less cumbersome to store and has the added feature of search-ability for specific information. It is also far more likely to catch the interest of the younger generation—they never realized grandma was this cool!
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at email@example.com
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