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Genealogy Literati

By Daniel Hubbard | December 4, 2011

Literati, (plural noun) – well-educated people who are interested in literature.

One of the most important things about open research is that it makes it possible not just to check research but to avoid repeating it unknowingly. In science, no one wants to turn in a grant proposal for an experiment only to be informed that it has already been done with many variations and that the proposed experiment is expected to be less accurate than several other previous versions. As my third grader would announce, “awkward!”

Genealogy is a bit different. We actually do want to repeat research because we want to go back to the original sources whenever possible. We want to find the best evidence available and that is not likely to be someone else’s website, article or book, no matter how well researched. Even if it was not a matter of finding the best evidence and looking at it for ourselves, it is also a matter of getting a feel for the people involved and their times. Someone else’s research might shed light on many things but there is clearly something special about looking at the will of a centuries-dead ancestor and really reading his or her words as they were put down on the page all those decades ago.

The wrong kind of literature to be searching, even if your surname is MacBeth.

A literature search in genealogy is not the end. It is the means to an end. It is not itself research. Nevertheless, if something is found, it might save you time by citing the sources used or at least dropping hints about the sources used. It might give you ideas for where to look for additional information. It might give you an interpretation of the evidence that helps you in your own thinking. Whatever you find, you start your research with an understanding of what previous research has unearthed.

What is the literature being searched? It is the results of research. It isn’t searching for actual primary sources or any other “undigested” information. It is looking for the results of other attempts to pull together evidence from various sources.  It might be research into a specific nuclear family, a surname study, a study of the families in a certain town, any earlier synthesis that can shed light on your problem.

Every search needs at least one starting point. You might find something in PERSI or in a library catalog that leads you to research results that can benefit you. A Google search might lead you to a website that cites sources or has a bibliography, something that will lead you farther along or at least give you some hints.

A literature search might seem like trying to peek at the answer before you delve into the mystery. If you are pursuing family history for the thrill of the hunt, then you might have very mixed feelings about a literature search. You don’t get to have the feeling of entering virgin territory right away. On the other hand you don’t risk investing time, energy and emotion in a solution to a problem only to learn later that decades ago, someone rejected your solution for very good reasons that in the end you really ought to accept—even if you really don’t want to let go of the result of all your effort. In any case, in family history there is always more mystery to be found. That is part of its joy.

(This is the third in a series of posts about the nature of research. The first post was Research, Rinse, Repeat)

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Topics: Methods, Research Mindset | 1 Comment »

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One Response to “Genealogy Literati”

  1. Marian Pierre-Louis Says:
    March 16th, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    A great post! Wonderfully written and explained!