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Research Recommendations: Why Read Old Magazines?

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Michael J. Leclerc
Michael J. Leclerc
Director of Special Projects

One of the benefits of working at NEHGS is being surrounded by shelf after shelf of magazines and journals covering the topics of history and genealogy, some of which date back decades, while others date back centuries. I often hear people say that they don’t care about anything but recent periodicals, because older stories about research and methodology don’t take into account modern research styles. These people do themselves an incredible disservice by not looking at everything that is available to them.


The information contained in the 1860 census has not changed a bit in the century and a half since it was first taken. Our means of accessing it has changed since 1932. We moved from looking at original ledger books to microfilm copies to digital images online. But the essential data is the same, and understanding that data is still the same.


This point was recently reinforced with me recently. I was looking for an article published in an old version of the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly. In looking for my article, I ran across a two-part series from 1989 on “How to Have Your Article Accepted or Rejected by the Editor.” The series was adapted from a panel discussion on the working relationship between writers and editors held at the 1988 National Genealogical Society Conference in Biloxi, Mississippi. The APGQ ran four articles in the series:


  • “Determining Genealogical Journal Content” by David L. Greene, PhD, CG, FASG;
  • “Documentation for Journal Articles” by Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS;
  • “Contributing and Article: But to Which Periodical?” by Marcia Eisenberg;
  • “The Editor’s Responsibility to Edit” by John Frederick Dorman, CG, FASG, FNGS.  


Among David Greene’s advice for writing is to check published material. He states “Please do not submit to any journal material that simply restates what is in print. We have received articles at our journal, for instance, restating material that is already in Savage’s Genealogical Dictionary of New England, which came out 128 years ago.” In 1989 one had to examine paper versions of the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) and the Genealogical Periodical Annual Index. With the advent of digital versions of journals, such as the RegisterTAGThe Virginia Genealogist, and others available to search here, it is even easier to check material that has already been published.


Greene’s next tip is to state your conclusions: “Please study the nature of evidence. You are aware of this already, so it doesn’t need to be stated at length But it is even more important — to state in your article why you have reached your conclusions. Over and over again we get articles from very good contributors who are so familiar with their own material that it does not occur to them that they need to state explicitly what is already obvious to them.” Would any of today’s editors disagree with this statement?


Elizabeth Shown Mills tells the reader that “Documentation actually has a dual purpose. As genealogists we document to keep ourselves straight and we document to help others check our facts.” This is still as relevant today as it was twenty years ago. She also discusses the need for informational notes. These notes are used to discuss source information or other data needing clarification separate from the text.


One of the most helpful suggestions from Marcia Eisenberg deals with societies (such as NEHGS) that have multiple publications. She encourages writers to examine the contents of both to “clarify whether a contribution would be more acceptable in the newsletter [or magazine] (which normally emphasizes current information) or the journal (which more often presents material of permanent value).”


John Frederick Dorman gets right to the heart of the matter when he says “An editor must edit? A radical thought indeed! It is also one equally protested by those who submit manuscripts and many of those who agree to help put that material into print.” Unfortunately, little has changed in two decades, and many authors do not properly understand the function of the editor.

Dorman goes on to say that “Some authors make a point of submitting what they term ‘camera-ready copy.’ Unfortunately it seldom is.” As an editor myself, I would add that truer words were never spoken. He goes on to discuss several duties of the editor, including checking for clarity, amplifying certain arguments the author is making, and eliminating extraneous materials.

These four articles have stood the test of time quite admirably. Most editors today, while allowing for changes because of modern desktop publishing and other tools, would likely agree with just about everything these four authors said.


So the next time you are wandering the stacks of the library with a few extra minutes to kill, take a look at some of the old journals and magazines. You might be surprised at the articles you find extremely helpful, even after all of these years. And if you are interested in reading further about the articles mentioned above, you can obtain copies through NEHGS Research Services.

Posted by Michael Leclerc at 07/14/2010 11:00:53 PM | 

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