Stumbling Upon Things is Great…But

Sometimes it is difficult balancing genealogical research theory with the way in which some materials are often located.

It is not often really addressed in the genealogical literature, but the research process of what we searched, why we searched it, and how we searched it is integral to our analysis. This is especially true if an exhaustive search does not include everything under the sun (which it sometimes doesn’t). Researchers should not just drop records into an article or a database and say here’s what we found and analyze it. Don’t get me wrong, that analysis is important. It is extremely important. But an understanding of how we came to locate the information we did is integral as well. That understanding does not have to be lengthy, cumbersome, or ladled with minutia about how we determined where to park our car at the library. But an explanation of search method is important.  It can be as simple as “civil death records in Hancock County, Illinois, originally recorded by the County Clerk and Recorder, were searched using Family History Library microfilm for anyone with the last name of Rampley born between 1885 and 1900.” My research report should site the specific records I located, but if I don’t include the time frame of my search how does anyone know? If I don’t say “all Rampleys” were a part of the search, how does anyone know? (The problem of what name is searched for is magnified with it is a common one. Of course anyone reading citations would know from the citations what record was used (at least in that case). But it’s possible I searched other records as well that came up empty-handed.

Search method needs to be a part of the analysis and the write up. Otherwise, how do we know that an exhaustive search was really conducted? How do we know that records were not overlooked? How do we know that there were items that were not explored? We cannot assume.

All of which gets at how accurate we view the author’s conclusions.

Sound research requires that searches be systematic, documented, and reproducible by others. They should be able to find the same thing we did. That’s the main reason I don’t like “fuzzy” searches at any of the “big” genealogy sites. Of course, once I find something, then someone else will have an easier time finding it because of my citation. The problem is when I can’t find things with “fuzzy searches” I don’t know how to refine my searches. And, if I don’t know how the searches are conducted that makes troubleshooting my searches difficult.

And if any part of my conclusion is based on not finding someone in a database or record series and fuzzy searches were used, then my conclusion may change if the fuzzy search algorithm is changed.


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