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Doing Some Unresearch

By Daniel Hubbard | June 27, 2010

There is a little bit of unresearch I like to do every so often. It can be a simple what-if or a real exercise in going through my records, notes and thinking.

It is not hard to get the idea. You experiment with the life of an ancestor that you think you understand fairly well. Pick a source at random and forget about it—pretend that you never found it. That may not be easy. You will need to ask yourself some questions—

  • What information would you be missing because you didn’t have any other source for it?
  • What sources would you not have found because you would no longer have the information that led you to them? And what would you not have found without those sources? And so on. And so on.
  • For the things you still “know,” how certain would you be? Would you perhaps be reduced to depending on a census for estimating a birth date that you once knew with far more certainty?

With all that you no longer know and all the things that you can no longer know as well or be as certain about—

  • What false assumptions are you now likely to make?
  • What wrong paths would seem like real possibilities that need investigation?
  • What interesting background information would you have no reason to check?

In an alternate universe where you really did not know these things, is it likely that you would manage to learn them?

  • Did you have specific information that caused you to look for that source? In other words, did something lead you to the now missing source that would probably lead you there again or was it more that on a whim you thought a certain set of records would be a good place to look? Would you necessarily look there again?
  • How much luck or serendipity was involved in finding that source? So, how likely would it be that you would find it again?
  • If it was a lot of work to dig up a source you thought ought to be there, would you necessarily be that persistent again?

It can be an interesting exercise to deconstruct your research this way. Some of the questions are not easy to answer unless you have really kept track of the hows and the whys and all the logical steps as you progressed. It also says something about the importance of being thorough. If you think about a life that you don’t know much about, it can help you imagine the difference that the sources you haven’t tracked down could make and what they might contain and where they might lead you. It can also give some insight on how wrong one can be when the sources are few and far between.

Last week I posted about a trip to Fort Snelling. When I do this exercise and eliminate one specific record, I’d only be left with vague clues that I should have made that particular pilgrimage.

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Topics: Experimental Genealogy, Genealogy | 1 Comment »

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One Response to “Doing Some Unresearch”

  1. Nancy Says:
    June 27th, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    The title of this post brought me to your blog. What an interesting and very worthwhile exercise. It also reminds me how important it is to be accurate and consistent with my research logs. Thanks.