Monday, June 4, 2012

I know what you asked, but it's not what you need to know

More than a decade ago, I was working in crowded library room where folks were giving and receiving genealogy advice. I overheard the ultimate beginner question from an anxious newbie: "Where is my family tree?" (I wish I could remember how the volunteer in charge responded!)

These days, when someone asks me a question, I usually have two answers.

The short version answers the question they asked. ("Umm, well, no, there were no birth certificates issued in Illinois in 1830.")

The longer version, which the questioner may not want to hear or read, answers the question they should have asked. ("Here are some ways you might be able to prove parents without a birth certificate.")

Highly skilled question-answerers can make this transition smooth enough that the asker sees the point before s/he stops reading. I have a ways to go on this part.

But we're all question-askers sometimes. How do we learn to ask better questions? I think it's part of moving from seeing genealogy as a series of lookups to seeing it as a long and sometimes circuitous research process. To be more specific, it's also a process of surgically removing assumptions from the question itself. Of course, in order to do that, you have to know what your assumptions are! (How many wannabe Native Americans ask what kind of kinship system their supposed tribe has?)

Check out page 11, standard 28, in the BCG Genealogical Standards Manual for starters. The standard is that "Previous assumptions (presumptions) brought to the correlation, often unconsciously, are recognized," and it's followed by thought-provoking examples of good and bad assumptions.

Improving our genealogical habits usually involves moving away from our comfort zone in time and space, into places where people had very different assumptions and expectations and institutions . . . and records. Sometimes part of the quest is just to figure out exactly how strange this new place is. What words have changed meaning? What did these people take for granted that I don't, and vice versa?

If we don't manage to ask ourselves these kinds of questions first, we may wind up as the research equivalent of a boorish foreign tourist, talking louder instead of learning the language, and wandering randomly into trouble.

[According to Blogger's count, this is the 900th post since Midwestern Microhistory began 23 January 2008.]

Board for the Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Provo UT: Ancestry Publishing, 2000).

Harold Henderson, "I know what you asked, but it's not what you need to know," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 4 June 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

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