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Research, research, research

It’s a tradition of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, its way to say thank you to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and its staff for all of the work it does and they do to support genealogical research.

Every year, just before the annual fall meeting of the BCG Board of Trustees, BCG presents a free lecture series at the Family History Library.

And, this past Saturday, three Board-certified genealogists — The Legal Genealogist among them — offered some of our thoughts and the lessons we have learned to our fellow genealogists, including the staff of the Library.

If you didn’t have a chance to join us, here’s what you missed:

In Using Evidence Creatively: Spotting Clues in Run-of-the-Mill Records, Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA, offered so many lessons, it’s hard to pick just one or two. Among the key lessons stressed:

2014 Board for Certification flier 17

• Using evidence creatively doesn’t mean creating evidence! It means thinking about the evidence in new and different ways. Following family members or friends, associates and neighbors rather than the person we’re concerned with, or focusing on what’s known about the personality and character of the person to discern what he’d be likely to do in a situation are examples of creative thinking.

• While direct evidence is what we all hope for, thinking creatively about indirect evidence and negative evidence — and applying concepts from other fields including climatology, geography, law and more — can solve many many more of our research challenges than we’ll ever solve by merely continuing to hunt for that elusive piece of direct evidence.

Then in her keynote presentation Trousers, Black Domestic, Tacks & Housekeeping Bills: Trivial Details Can Solve Research Problems, Elizabeth Shown Mills called our attention to these lessons:

Every detail matters. Even the most mundane, seemingly-insignificant detail can provide a clue to solve a perplexing research challenge. Connecting the dots between two apparently unrelated pieces of trivial detail may offer the solution we’re looking for.

• Effective research takes us beyond merely collecting names, dates and places — the “facts” — and requires us to interpret and correlate the data. Looking for patterns, both in terms of patterns that match and patterns that don’t, looking for new ways of thinking about the records we already have can be more useful than looking for more records.

Stefani Evans, CG, of Nevada, gave us much to think about in Oh, The Things You Can Map: Mapping Data, Memory, and Historical Context. Among her most important points:

• Maps — and the words and notations written on maps — aren’t neutral. Maps were created for a reason, and what was put on them was intended for a purpose. A map by a steamship company might exaggerate the dangers of traveling on land, just as one example.

• Maps can be used for many purposes, and key among them are to influence people (that’s why they’re not neutral); to correlate data, a great use we can all make of maps as genealogists; and to elicit and preserve data. Ever think about asking a relative to, say, map the neighborhood where he or she grew up? What a great idea!!

From my own Shootout at the Rhododendron Lodge: Reconstructing Life-Changing Events, the lessons from the lectern were two-fold:

• A research plan for a life-changing event begins with a thorough understanding of the event itself, together with an identification and a deep understanding of the key players — the individuals to be researched. Their actions, inactions, motivations and prior history are what contributed to the event.

• When dealing with relatively recent events — in this case, a 1929 gunfight that left a county sheriff dead — genealogical ethics require us to consider the interests and concerns of living family members. We must be sensitive, as the NGS teaches in its Standards for Sharing Information With Others, “to the hurt that revelations of criminal, immoral, bizarre or irresponsible behavior may bring to family members.”

And in From the White Lion to the Emancipation Proclamation–Slavery and the Law Before the Civil War, I hoped to make these essential points:

• It’s not African-American research. It’s American research. The story of slavery is the story of all Americans, north and south, whether our ancestors were slaves, slaveowners, or merely onlookers to this peculiarly American institution.

• It isn’t possible to understand the records of the day without understanding the law. If we don’t understand that a newly freed slave was often legally required to leave the state, leaving family behind, it’s impossible to understand why that freed slave might want to be sold back into slavery.

Lessons from the lectern. What a great day we had…

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