Do You Read the Q?

Earlier this month, attendees at the National Genealogical Society’s annual conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, took to social media to proudly display ribbons proclaiming “#IReadtheQ”—that is, to say that they read the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. Reading the Q and other peer-reviewed journals is one of the best ways genealogists can learn about sources and problem-solving techniques. But for those who are relatively new to genealogy, reading a journal like the Q can seem intimidating and even a little confusing. Yes, it requires concentration and effort, but those who stick with it will certainly learn.

Most of the articles in the Q are case studies presenting solutions to difficult problems. All genealogists are likely to encounter thorny problems in their research. By studying written accounts of how others resolved their toughest puzzles, genealogists will find ideas and inspiration. By observing how skilled genealogists build their cases from varied pieces of evidence, readers’ own skills in evidence analysis and correlation will improve.

College students are advised to use a three-pass approach to reading research papers—first to skim, then to read for comprehension, then to investigate and study.[1] This multi-pass approach is a useful technique for getting the most out of articles in the Q. In “Teaching Analysis, Logic, and the Research Process: A Seminar Approach,” Dr. William M. Litchman explains how he instructed his students to read assigned National Genealogical Society Quarterly articles four times to prepare for class discussions. The purpose of the first reading was to become familiar with the general problem. Subsequent readings went into deeper detail.[2]

Individual readers have their own preferences about what they look for on each pass through an article, but most find it helpful to begin by focusing on the “big picture.” This involves scanning the piece to get an idea of general structure, presentation, and subject matter without worrying about details. This initial pass centers on presentation and the author’s overall message. Readers come away with an idea of the problem, the setting (time period, geographic area, the subject’s characteristics), and the conclusion. Thorough understanding and analysis is left for later.

Some readers devote one or more passes entirely to source citations. Considering the citations apart from the text allows readers to temporarily suspend consideration of the problem and think only about the sources used. Articles in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly undergo extensive, rigorous review before publication. Readers of the Q will find that original sources are preferred over derivatives,[3] and it is unlikely readers will find important sources were neglected. Paying special attention to the sources supporting an author’s statements will provide a picture of the extent and quality of the underlying research—and may introduce readers to unfamiliar sources.

In-depth reading of an article involves one or more passes, depending on the reader’s purpose and level of experience. Dr. Litchman required his students make three more passes after the initial once-over. Participants in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly Study Group follow Litchman’s model in preparation for their monthly meetings. Whether an individual makes two or more additional passes, however, the goal is the same: to read with additional concentration on each pass, emphasizing a different aspect of the piece each time.

The remaining passes—whether one, two, or more—gradually cover more and more detail. During these passes, readers pay close attention to the problem, the research, and the solution. They look at the links between the author’s statements and the supporting sources. They think about whether the cited sources provide suitable evidence and they watch for statements that don’t seem to be adequately documented. They read comments in the footnotes. They notice conflicts and think about how those conflicts were resolved. They flag areas that raise questions and go back to study those sections more closely. They may refer to Melissa A. Johnson’s “Eight Tips for Deconstructing an NGSQ Case Study[4] for ideas about what to look for while reading.

Experienced genealogists know that reading the Q is a vital opportunity to learn. Its articles show readers how skilled researchers approach tough problems, how they select sources to resolve those problems, how they make sense of the findings, and how they assemble evidence to arrive at a conclusion. Studying the structure of the articles helps readers see ways they might write up their own work. National Genealogical Society Quarterly readers learn about problems, solutions, sources, reasoning, analysis, and writing. Using a multi-pass approach to studying the articles in the Q is a tried-and-true method for better understanding.

[1] For one example, see S. Keshav, “How to Read a Paper,” University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada; PDF, dated 27 Feb. 2016 ( : accessed 1 May 2017).

[2] William M. Litchman, “Teaching Analysis, Logic, and the Research Process: A Seminar Approach” ( : accessed 15 May 2017).

[3] For more on sources and information, see Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 2: Sources vs. Information vs. Evidence vs. Proof,” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation, and Source Usage ( : accessed 2 May 2017).

[4] Melissa A. Johnson, “Eight Tips for Deconstructing an NGSQ Case Study,” NGS Monthly ( : accessed 15 May 2017).

  1. May 26, 2017 12:59 pm
    • June 18, 2017 8:48 am
  2. January 1, 2018 3:11 pm

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