Research Like a Pro Week 8: Report Writing

I began writing during the research process and I’m glad I did since my schedule threw some curves at me this week. I am incredibly grateful that I took the time to do the citations when I was researching! My flow is not interrupted by that technical element of the process. 

I have a rough draft and will appreciate my classmates feedback. I’m relying on bulleted lists and tables to capture the information about the different James Stokers. I am focused on walking the reader through the evidence. I like the challenge of taking complex information and trying to make it understandable.

When I have difficulty writing, I find somewhere that intrigues me and start writing about that topic. I then go back to the parts where I had been stuck. I can re-write forever, so a deadline is helpful. My first drafts are generally too wordy and passive and subsequent drafts tighten that up. I’m finding that GoogleDocs supports me to outline documents. I am a huge fan of the header system in GoogleDocs.

Research Like a Pro Week 6-7: Research Logs and Research Time

Any professional genealogist will tell you that one thing that distinguishes professional-level genealogy is the consistent and disciplined use of a research log. In the past I’ve used spreadsheets and was marginally successful. I used them sporadically but persisted in hunter/gatherer mode in my non-professional days. AirTable has been a game changer for me. I like databases and I am still learning all the ways AirTable can support organization and analysis of genealogical information, but I am an enthusiast. Filtering! Sorting! Linking between tables! There are so many features to support genealogical research.

For this project, I used the AirTable base (database) developed by Nicole Dyer for Research Like a Pro. It includes both documentary and genetic genealogy tables. This project does not include any genetic genealogy but those tables may come in handy some day. I’ve been using and adapting Nicole’s bases for a couple of years. Since I am disambiguating men of the same name, I need the information in one table to look at each man over time, so I have relied on the timeline table and some extra fields to test different ways to sort the men. Filtering and sorting allows me to visualize the information in a variety of ways.

I learned almost three years ago to create citations when I first look at a document and that has been a boon. Creating source citations can slow down the writing process. I still occasionally miss documenting every negative search and find myself going back and doing that. It’s important to keep track of the search terms, locations and time ranges to avoid rework.

Writing is next and I did start writing as I was logging the information I found, because writing helps me sort out my thoughts and create a more coherent narrative. The course provides two weeks for doing the planned research, which was welcome.

Research Like a Pro Week 5: Research Planning

Here is the latest instalment in my series about the Research Like a Pro process. I’m serving as a Peer Group Leader for this study group.

Our assignment this week was to plan our research phase, including:

  1. Summary of known facts based on our timeline
  2. Background information about the locality based on our locality guide
  3. Working hypothesis
  4. Identified sources
  5. Prioritized research strategy

During research planning, I discovered that I had not included everything I knew in the timeline phase. Since the James Stokers were often confused, I knew more about Edward Stoker, the father of a James Stoker, so I returned to my timeline and added information about Edward Stoker.

Writing up these sections forces the researcher to consider how they know what they know and what is needed to answer the research question. I’ve noticed that documenting middle name origins is particularly problematic. They seem to appear out of nowhere in authored sources. In a same-name project, they could be useful if records over time demonstrate consistent use. 

Writing a working hypothesis creates a tension between confirmation bias and keeping an open mind. It’s more likely that researchers do have a bias, so writing the hypothesis is one way to get it in the open. Since hypotheses are meant to be disproven, writing is the safest step for the researcher and a good reason to have peer review of finished products.

Prioritizing is valuable because it avoids the distractions that genealogical research so often inspires! I am not always certain of which sources will most efficiently answer my question and appreciate thinking that step through.

Research Like a Pro Week 4: Locality Research

A locality guide is an annotated list of records available for a particular region. It might be a state or a county. For this project, I chose to focus on Bourbon County, Kentucky, where my Stoker ancestor married in 1822 and where the other James Stokers also resided.

This part of the research process builds from the prior steps, particularly creating the timeline of known facts. Creating a locality guide guides the next phase (research planning) since record availability influences the research priorities. This phase of the process is a good reminder to research smarter and strategically. 

Locality guides are living documents, constantly being updated. A comprehensive locality guide is built over time, so I limited the time I spend on my locality guide to six hours. I also limited it to 1800-~1850 because that is the time period when the three James Stokers appear to have been simultaneously in Bourbon County. I also concentrated mostly on online sources.

I was grateful to discover there are tax books for all of the years I am interested in, wills are available online, and there may be newspapers available at the Kentucky Historical Society.  

I am using a GoogleDoc template provided through the course. I began using GoogleDocs a few years ago and also use GoogleSheets. I am growing to appreciate the formatting and accessibility of GoogleDocs.

Even though I am eager to start researching, the time spent on the locality guide will help me focus my research plan.

Research Like A Pro Week 3: Analysis of Evidence

The task this week was to analyze our existing evidence from our timeline. Elizabeth Shown Mills revolutionized genealogy when she described The Evidence Analysis Process Map. Another great way to consider the genealogy research process was developed by Marc McDermott based on Elizabeth Shown Mills’ process map.

I looked at each entry in my timeline and considered what question I was trying to answer with the information in that entry. Then I analyzed the type of source, the type of information and the type of evidence.

Sources: containers of information

  1. Original source describes a document or artifact (like a cemetery marker) created at the time of the event. A duplicate original was created by the same person at the same time as the original like a clerk rewriting a deed in a minute book, or the enumerator making a duplicate copy of the census. For some duplicate records, more detail can be found in the originals, such as loose papers for an estate. Image copies are photographic reproductions and are considered originals when you don’t detect any alterations and can see the entire image.
  2. Derivative sources include indexes, transcripts, or abstracts created from an original. Mistakes and misreadings may conflict with the original. Find the original whenever possible.
  3. Authored sources are written works that combine information. Examples include online family trees, biographical sketches, family histories, and research reports. There may be original sections in an authored source. Authored sources can point towards original sources.

Information: Details within the source

Within an individual source, many pieces of information can sometimes be found.

  1. Primary: firsthand knowledge. The person who provided the information was present at event. For example, a mother who provides her children’s dates of birth, a spouse providing information about their marriage date and place.
  2. Secondary: secondhand knowledge. The person who provided the information was told the information by another. The classic example is a child providing the birth date of their parent for a death certificate.
  3. Undetermined:  informant unknown. The person who provided the information cannot be determined.

Different types of information (facts) can be in the same source. The classic example of a source with mixed information is a death certificate with a child as the informant, and a doctor recording some information, and a clerk other parts. The child was not present at their parent’s birth, so the information about date and place of birth of the deceased is secondary. The death day, place, and cause were recorded by the doctor, who is considered to have been present. (As a nurse, I know it was likely the nurse who was present and gave the information to the doctor!) If the informant is blank, then the birth information may be undetermined.

Evidence: Meaning of the information in relationship to a research question

Evidence is considered in context. What question are you trying to answer with the information?

  1. Direct evidence: Clearly states the answer to a research question
  2. Indirect evidence answers the question when combined with other evidence
  3. Negative evidence occurs in the absence of an expected situation.

Using the death certificate example, the death certificate is direct evidence for date of birth and date of death. Date of birth will be less reliable in most situations. An example of when the birthdate would be primary information and more reliable is when a mother is the informant for the death certificate of a child.

Indirect evidence requires organization and analysis! The timeline is one way to organize the evidence to see if it provides an answer to the overall goal of the research.

Negative evidence is the most challenging to understand and this blog entry by Diana Elder, Speaking Negatively: The Difference Between Negative Results and Negative Evidence, provides clarity. An example of negative results is looking for your family in the census and not finding them (which is recorded in your research log, of course!) An example of negative evidence is seeing a name occur year after year in a tax record, and then the name disappears. This supports the possibility that the person moved or died. This sentence from Diana’s blog sums up the relationship between the two nicely, “Perhaps the negative results of the searches will lead you to a conclusion using negative evidence.”

Analysis serves many purposes. The primary purpose evaluate the reliability of the information. Analysis supports the resolution of conflicting evidence since information from primary informants has greater weight than information provided by people who weren’t present at the time of the event. Analysis can also point you to an original document and reinforce the need to see it, if the original still exists. For complex genealogical research objectives, it will be necessary to consider all the various sources together and write an argument to support your conclusion, sometimes relying solely on indirect evidence.