Friday, October 1, 2010

Stepping away

Daniel Hubbard at Personal Past Meditations - A Genealogical Blog wrote beautifully about documenting not only sources, but the logic of one's conclusions, in his posting "Begging the Citation". He speaks to my chief frustration with genealogy software - the ease with which it allows me to collect data, to link individuals without any logic or rationale at all.

I have a name. I find a record with that name. I attach it to the name and presto! - a source. And I'm off to the next one. It's brainless, it's addictive. It's like a video game - or crack. Depending on the program I may not have typed any words at all. Making sense of my choices, drawing conclusions and preserving those conclusions requires writing - an anathema in the world of instant genealogy.

I have multiple George Perekstas in my database. I can prove at least two appeared in early 20th c. US census records. And I can prove multiple immigration records for what appear to be multiple Georges. But did I write down why I linked a specific record to a specific George? No. I'm as lazy about it as anyone, and mystified by my own conclusions when I revisit research after a couple years.

My fault. I know better. Before I used software my notebooks included research logs and notes (and arrows, doodles and coffee spills) that allow me to follow my train of thought. I have been lax recording notes in the software programs (yes, I know it's possible), far too quick to attach possible records to individuals without recording the rationale behind the decision, too willing to enter tentative or potential relationships for research purposes.

But the worst part of it - the part that has me swearing off software for research and reverting to pen, paper and Excel files - is trying to repair the mistakes. It's a snake pit trying to undo links, repair relationships. I've spent an absurd amount of time cleaning up after myself.

So, time out. I'm stepping away from the software. I've pared the tree down to a pedigree, lopping off all the "possible" branches. I'm adding research notes (dated) and short biographies when warranted. No quill or ink involved, but I'm writing. At some point I will start researching again and tackle my surname databases. Maybe I can produce something useful with them. If I do, it won't involve collecting names or sources, but analyzing and writing about them.

Postscript: I don't mean this to be a complete rant about software. The developers have not forced me to be lazy. I do appreciate the design and reporting elements of the programs. I love the graphic elements and being able to attach digital images. I will return - once I know how to behave.


  1. I started my blog in large part to force myself to do this but I find that after I do new research with a eye to writing it up and putting it on the blog I keep looking for more and more information and not writing it up. I used to write a lot - letters, stories, thoughts - but I seem to be stuck. Maybe I need to dedicate some time of the day to just writing. The computer is so easy for me to get lost in.

  2. I applaud your determination. I know I have some of these same issues. There are a few branches in my database that need some serious clean up work but I'd be in worse shape with a paper system.

    When a source isn't straight forward, I've started writing explanations for why I accepted it or rejected another one in the notes for the person.

    When I am researching someone but haven't concluded they belong in my tree, I add them to my database but as an unlinked person. I link that person's family to them but they are not connected to anyone in the main tree in my database. This way I have their information and sources entered and when/if I get to the point where the relationship is proven it's easy to connect them. This also keeps them from showing up in any reports or website updates while their status is unproven.

  3. Ditto, Linda. Unlinked branches. I also use 'Research Notes' in Legacy for putting data and their sources that I'm not sure apply to a particular person yet. More paper would slay me!

  4. I thank you for this reminder. Recently I jumped back into my research and sourcing after an unfortunate long break. If I haven't written an explanation or notes about the reasoning for some of my relationships then sometimes I spend extra time reanalyzing. Your post reminded me I need to always make notes when I find those treasured pieces of the puzzle.

  5. Good points all. Thank you. I'm actually not using paper (that would be a nightmare!) but using a filing system to link written analyses with the individuals I'm researching. The goal is add the writing to the database. We'll see how this streamlined system works since my brain is far from streamlined.

  6. Very interesting post. I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I've only been using a database for the last couple of years. I'm not overly happy with the one I have (a Christmas gift), and I'm thinking of migrating to something else. I've considered using software for only my tree (names, dates, places, etc.) and typing up my notes, including all my sources, where I've searched and where I've failed to find information. This may sound archaic, but I've found it really gives me a good sense of what I have and what I don't have. The gaps stand out. This may be more manageable for me, because I tend to research each person to death (literally and figuratively). I don't, and probably never will, have the huge number of names some people have. For someone with a lot of names, my system may not be practical.

  7. Cynthia, I keep extensive notes in my genealogy database itself. If I get a phone call regarding someone mentioned on my website, it only takes me seconds to bring up all my information about that person. If I get an email query, I can just copy and paste the applicable information into my reply.

    Bill Buchanan


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