Sunday, January 20, 2013

The pinball approach to genealogical research

With red and white lights flashing, the pinball machine shrilly rings "Ding, ding, ding" every time an obstacle is hit, and the metal ball ricochets off in a different direction. Just where that ball goes isn't so important since the goal is to keep hitting the obstacles to gain points and to avoid the holes and troughs that lead to the ditch at the bottom, ending the player's turn. In the frenzy, coarse words may spew, and there is always the temptation to "tilt" the machine itself to get a higher score.

Competent genealogy researchers must take pains to avoid the "pinball approach to genealogical research". There is no point in quickly bouncing from one document to another, without fully considering the info each contains. Moving too quickly means you may be barking up the wrong family tree. It also means possibly neglecting to search for other documents in the locality that may prove useful in your kinship study.

One thing I've learned during this week's course titled "Advanced Genealogical Methods" with Thomas W. JonesPh.D., CG at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy:

It is essential to "get outside" your usual genealogy management program by using a spreadsheet program like MS Excel, or tables in a word processing program. 

Why? You'll want to create a timeline of the documents you collect indicating events in the lives of your research subjects. Some documents may be irrelevant, and won't be attached to the ancestor in your genealogy program.
Research subjects? Yes, I know you are looking for one item, say, the father's name. Quickly you'll accumulate a few documents that mention your known ancestor. Once you've exhausted the records that directly mention your ancestor, you'll be canvassing a variety of record groups looking for information on all:
  • with the same surname
  • in the same locality
  • for a period of 100 years or more 
From information in these documents you may be able to deduce or infer kinship.

During my week's SLIG study, Ol' Myrt here realizes my broad searches are disorganized.

Don't get me wrong, I understand the theory of community in kinship determinations - the FAN club. (Friends and Neighbors)

I am describing my "sometimes" disconnect that is overcome by the physical move from say RootsMagic or Legacy, to using a spreadsheet for my analysis. Doing this gets me out of the person-centric rut and into community-oriented research when solving complex kinship challenges.

For some folks, analysis of documents works well using "mind mapping" techniques, where blocks of info can be moved around. This just doesn't work for me. Perhaps having taught Excel in the post secondary setting informs my preference for a spreadsheet workspace.

This week Dr. Jones directed us to create tables of the info we're finding in documents, then do our comparisons. When looking for a father, most of my classmates developed worksheets that look like this:

NOTE: The citation column is not shown in this view.

The idea here is to put ALL entries for ANYONE named John in the records of the locality in the John column, even if you can begin to see a pattern indicating perhaps more than one Henry lives in the area. The same goes for anyone named Ezekiel, Thomas, William, Robert, and Stephen. Consolidate where spelling of the given name or surname varies. Sort out who is who during the analysis and correlation phases of research. Be sure to make note of all individuals mentioned within the document and those witnessing each document.

Previous attempts at this type of spreadsheet analysis found me creating an additional John column for each individual I suspected was a different John. I was jumping ahead too quickly, and the spreadsheet became too wide to effectively analyze each item individually and later correlate the items together in the broader view.

Having created that worksheet for analysis, it works for my brain to print out what I've found, and then draw color-coded circles around those who are clearly one John or another.

Previously, I had also inserted a line for "estimated birth" say based on an age in the 1850 census. What happened for me was the list became too lengthy for me to analyze the info accurately. It is easier to write the estimated birth dates in pencil in the John column circling documents I believe are concerning one individual and not another. All this is part of correlating the information to identify each unique "John".

Am I silly for using a printout and colored pencils? It works for me. Would this work for any of my DearREADERS?

In my case, the mechanism of using a genealogy software program or the pedigree chart on Ancestry Member Trees prevented me from doing this sort of analysis. This is not the fault of those valuable resources. With that type of research, either a document directly mentions an ancestor or it doesn't apply and one ignores what may be relevant in the final analysis.

In the olden days we'd put an extra leaf in the dining room table to lay out the documents under consideration when attempting to answer the question, say "who is the father?" or "what is the wife's maiden name?" We're into complex research, where no single document has the answer we seek.

Without a spreadsheet, I wasn't able to process the mass of seemingly unrelated documents in a broader search of all individuals in the locality by the surname. 


Fast-paced games of speed and thrills should be left to pinball enthusiasts. Family historians find better results following a systematic approach to genealogy research.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt     :)
Your friend in genealogy.

Twitter: @DearMYRTLE
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