Research Challenges

Down the Rabbit Hole

oh-noSo here’s the story. Wanting for work, I solicited a friend to see if he’d allow me to do a bit of genealogical work for him free of charge. I needed to exercise my research skills a bit, having finished my last book, and he was an eager candidate – especially when I used the word “free”. Because I didn’t have any forms, he wrote out what he knew on an index card. It was scant but gave me enough to start.

For the entire weekend, I ignored my wife and dog and focused on his family. From his surname to those of his parents, I went down every rabbit hole I could find. When all was said and done, I thought I made great progress. I found that he was related to more than a few famous folks including President Tyler, President Harrison, and General Robert E. Lee. I was happy.

That is, until I looked back at the index card.

What I failed to notice was that his mother’s maiden name was not her birth maiden name. She had been adopted. My client was nice enough to note this with parenthesis. He even mentioned it to me in person. But did I comprehend what he was saying? Nope. In my zeal to discover his hidden history, I inadvertently discovered someone else’s hidden history. Needless to say, my friend was not related to President Tyler, President Harrison, or Robert E. Lee.

I immediately felt horrible. Not only did I waste a weekend, I didn’t have a product to give him. But, there are lessons here.

The first lesson is to use the forms. Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, and a host of other genealogical web sites offer forms to capture client information. Instead of relying on a 4×6 index cards or messy notepads, I would have been better off taking a few moments to print off one of these pre-designed forms. Alternatively, I could have drafted an email and included my own version of the form. Note to self: USE FORMS.

The second lesson I gleaned after a talk with my wife Christine. She helped me realize that any research, even for the wrong person, is of value. Not only did I exercise those research skills, I honed my source documenting skills. So what if I did a stranger’s family history? I’m the better researcher for it. Note to self: ANY RESEARCH IS GOOD RESEARCH.

This particular situation is not unique to family historians. Even in my own family tree I’ve gone down the wrong rabbit hole more than once. Sometimes you read things wrong or people pass – what they think – is good information only to find it incorrect. It’s part of the learning process. The important thing is to realize the mistake and take ownership of it. While it may delay your results, it’s better to be accurate than misleading.

Needless to say, I’ll be back at it this weekend. I’m now on a mission and I will succeed.

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