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  • Genealogy and Technology: Grafted or Grown? Getting the Right Limbs on the Family Tree

    Rhonda R. McClure

    Genealogy is a hobby of numbers. Perhaps the most important number of all is the number of researchers working on a line. The more researchers there are, the more likely one may find a common ancestor or someone concentrating on one of the same lines.

    In the past, such connections were made through periodicals and genealogical societies. Researchers made the most of the information that they found in such genealogical journals as the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, the New York Genealogical and Biographical Journal, and The American Genealogist, and they posted queries in newspapers such as the Boston Transcript. Prior to the advent of the Internet, researchers had no choice but to spend many long hours at libraries and other repositories to get their information. Owing to the many published family histories, researchers were shown the trail of an ancestor, but the time and effort it took to find further information helped researchers develop good research techniques.

    The Internet, while bringing an astounding number of researchers together through the instant communication offered, has been responsible for a number of incorrect trees traveling faster than the speed of light from one researcher to another. Of course, genealogical misinformation did not begin with the Internet. While incorrect conclusions have frequently been published in past family histories, the speed at which the information is now traveling is almost incomprehensible. The big problem is that many researchers have stopped researching. Instead, they spend most of their time downloading GEDCOM files from the many online database sites available and fail to check primary source material to back up the information that they find. They then proceed to upload new files containing the same potential misinformation to these same databases or to a personal family history website.

    Of course, misinformation has always been an issue in New England research. After admitting to researching New England ancestors, a colleague offhandedly remarked, "New England research is easy. Everything is available." While it is true there is an abundance of information out there for New England researchers, this wealth of material is actually a double-edged sword, made sharper still with the Internet. In the past, a researcher had to gain access to published family histories. Now much of that information is readily available on the Internet.

    Some family historians get so excited by the Internet that they forget one of the most important rules of research - verify the information. Researchers with all levels of experience have published genealogical information on the Internet. Newcomers to the field are simply eager to share what they have found, and many accept this information as fact. They are unaware of the necessity of such steps as citing sources or looking for original records to verify information found in the past. Even more experienced researchers who should know better sometimes find themselves caught up in the heady experience of finding ancestors, especially if those lines have proven stubborn in more traditional research methods.

    Harness the Power
    The Internet, and computers in general, offer family historians a power previously unimagined. However, one must not sacrifice careful research for speed and convenience. Maintaining an even balance between "traditional" and "technology" enables the researcher to use the speed of the Internet to rapidly gather information while verifying original sources to ensure the accuracy of that information.

    In addition to the compiled family histories that abound on the Internet, transcribed records and digitized documents offer the researcher the ability to access records they may not be able to see without traveling great distances. A perfect example of this is the census. While some have easy access to repositories that house the microfilmed pages of the census, others find that they cannot get to them as often as they would like. Taking advantage of an online subscription to the digitized images of the census, through Ancestry.com, for example, brings the pages into the researcher's home. In some instances, the digitization has enhanced the page, making names readable that previously were illegible.

    While transcribed databases do offer the potential for additional errors, they should not be ignored either. What they offer is the initial step in what is a detailed research process. Careful researchers do not stop after locating an ancestor in a published family history at the local library; likewise they should not be satisfied with the research they find on the Internet. However, through the power of the present technology, the researcher can search through many volumes at once, perhaps through the Genealogy Library subscription available from Genealogy.com, which features digitized versions of a number of family history books. Some of these books may not be available in any other format.

    Working with Technology
    When researching on the Internet one should never assume that the information found should apply to the family in question. While not a new concept directly related to Internet genealogy, such assumptions are certainly more prevalent, often because the researcher does not have a good working knowledge of the family in question and the resources available. Before launching into the next research trip online, there are some questions to ask before and during such a search.

    • What is already known about the individual or lineage?
    • What resources and record types are available online and on CD-ROM?
    • What new information was learned from searching online and on CD-ROM?

    Actually, these three questions can and should be applied to any aspects of research, regardless of the record type being used. However, they are more important than ever when working with the Internet and CD-ROMs. The temptation is sometimes too strong to just accept at face value the information found electronically. The researcher has been removed from the traditional research environment, and sometimes forgets to question what has been found.

    With the exception of those web pages or electronic documents that feature digitized images of the original, the researcher should always make it a point to go the next step - checking the original records. When it comes to New England research, many of these records are probably available on microfilm.

    These questions also serve to slow researchers down, making it necessary to be more careful. Researchers are able to access so much electronic information at one time that they often forget to stop and take stock of what information has been found.

    What is Already Known?
    For some reason, many online researchers do not bother to find out what is already known about a family or individual. Instead of searching for Thomas Acland Lawford, born in Peckham, Surrey, England, in 1816, an online researcher might search for Thomas Acland and then try to push the square peg into the round hole on the family tree. Before a researcher can know if an individual found online is part of the family tree, it is important to know just what the family tree consists of already.

    If the family line stops with Thomas Acland Lawford, then the researcher needs to look at what else is known about Thomas, his spouse, and his children. Then armed with this information, conscious evaluations can be made from the information found online through published family histories and compiled databases.

    For instance, knowing that Thomas Acland Lawford was married to Janet Turing Bruce and that they had at least three children born between about 1858 and 1865 may lead the researcher to consider the 1881 British Census CD-ROM available from the Family History Library .

    What is Available?
    The researcher needs to be familiar with what is available electronically. Usually this requires visiting the individual sites. Even subscription sites will allow the researcher to run a search to see what hits materialize in the data. Generally, these sites also have a listing of the databases that they have available, allowing the researcher to scan the list looking for those databases that would be of the most help in their present quest.

    For instance, if you were researching a John Thayer in colonial Massachusetts, it might prove useful to search the Massachusetts Soldiers in the Colonial Wars databases available to members here at the NewEnglandAncestors.org website. Or you might want to try the searchable, digitized version of Pope's Pioneers of Massachusetts on Genealogy.com.

    To know what is available, researchers need to take the time to learn what a specific site offers. Sometimes this means bypassing the general search feature of a genealogy site and digging deeper to find a list of all the available databases on that given site. This is a common problem when searching on the Internet in general. Because the Internet is so fast, it is easy to not take the time to look around a site. Jumping from a general search engine to a highlighted web page and back to the general search is a habit that may prove disruptive to the research. Few general search engines catalog every level of a website. By taking the time to look around, the researcher may discover that there is additional useful information on the ancestor or line in question buried deeper in the site.

    Going the Traditional Route
    After finding information electronically, the researcher should not consider the search complete until original records have been exhausted. Returning to the research of Thomas Acland Lawford, a search entered in the Vital Records Index - British Isles CD-ROMs (published by the Family History Library) revealed a number of children of Samuel Lawford and Margaret Sarah Acland, the parents of Thomas Acland Lawford, at least according to a family tree uploaded at WorldConnect on RootsWeb.com.

    The British Isles vital records index did not include Thomas with the other children. However, when turning to the original records, in this case, the birth records of the Nonconformists, a search revealed a certificate for Thomas Acland Lawford along with those for the siblings found in the British Isles index. Information on Thomas Acland Lawford would not have been found if the research had stopped with the electronic records.

    Of course, even going to the Family History Library is not the end of the research road. There are many records that have not been microfilmed or are not available through the Family History Library and its many branches of Family History Centers. While it may not be possible for some researchers to view these records personally, through online communication they may find another researcher willing to do limited searches in the records.

    Genealogical Societies are Still Relevant
    While the Internet has become the more popular avenue in which to find fellow researchers, genealogical societies still provide an invaluable service to those interested in family history. Membership in the societies includes published periodicals, sometimes including a journal, and free access to their libraries. The periodicals share methodology, allowing the researcher to learn from research tricks and tips of others.

    In the case of New England researchers, the New England Historic Genealogical Society, via this website, allows members to access many searchable databases pertinent to the research of a descendant of New Englanders. Just having The Register available for searching from 1875 to 1994 is a major benefit to New England researchers. While some researchers are fortunate enough to have the bound volumes available through their local public library or genealogy library, many others have gone without them, thus adding a roadblock to the research. Better still, having them online makes them available at any time of the day or night.

    Computers are Only Human
    While electronic research offers new avenues, it is important to remember that the index created to allow a search directly affects the results of a search. Typing in the name of an ancestor and coming up with no results does not mean the individual is not in the database. It simply means that the index did not find the person. While it is true that researchers must rely on indexes, especially when working with online databases, a negative result simply means the index does not include the exact spelling of the name as entered into the search box. As was shown with Thomas Acland Lawford, his omission from the index did not mean that a record did not exist for him, just that he was not in the index or electronic resource.

    Computers and the technology that comes with them offer many opportunities to find new ancestors or new limbs for the family tree. The key is in knowing what has been found and evaluating it honestly. When researchers do not slow down long enough to analyze what they are adding to the genealogical database stored on their own personal computer, then misinformation is destined to fly around the world, and researchers will find that they must eventually perform that most unpleasant of tasks - the chopping of a limb from the family tree.

    Downloading GEDCOM files can save time, but researchers need to remember that it is a lot like grafting a limb onto a tree. Sometimes the graft takes and the tree bears delicious fruit. Sometimes the graft takes, but the fruit isn't so delicious. Other times the graft doesn't take at all. Family trees and the research available electronically offers many of the same positives and negatives, especially if the researcher hasn't taken time to evaluate the information downloaded or turn to more traditional records to verify the information.

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