People often say to themselves, “If I only knew then what I know now.” They look wistfully at past experiences thinking that if they had another chance they might do things differently. In most cases, people can’t redo yesterday. But in genealogical research, we sometimes can—and should—do just that. Second looks are often needed before we can move ahead.
Professional researchers know that solutions to clients’ brick-wall problems often hide in plain sight—right in the materials the clients provide. Clients may miss clues and subtleties. Untrained, inexperienced researchers inaccurately interpret records. When reviewed by fresh eyes with more experience, the solution emerges.
Genealogists can apply this concept to their own work. Going back to review research problems after accumulating experience and knowledge can lead to a breakthrough. When research stalls and the question is unresolved, it helps to take a step back to re-examine and analyze all the details of the case. It’s time for a second look.
The first step is to clearly state the problem and any associated difficulties. At the outset, the objective was to answer a specific research question—and that is still the case. But after conducting some research and hitting an impasse, the situation could be more complex. It could involve missing records or sources with conflicting information. Stating the problem succinctly—in a brief paragraph— will help focus the rest of the review.
After defining the current state of the research problem the individual sources must be looked at—genealogists should create an inventory of those that are relevant to the question, check each one to ensure it was read and interpreted accurately, and transcribe difficult-to-read documents such as deeds and wills, and study the records in search of previously unnoticed clues. Taking a second look at sources helps in two ways:
- Words may have been misinterpreted when read by less-experienced eyes; rereading the details could uncover errors that lead research astray.
- Returning to a record after additional information is known about the person or family could help shine a light on details that had not seemed important—neighbors in a census, for example, whose names seemed insignificant until discovery of a vital record suggesting a connection.
As part of the second look, genealogists must evaluate underlying research in terms of thoroughness. They consider sources that were and were not checked, how searches were conducted, and names that were checked. They identify names, spellings, time spans, places, and other factors that may have been overlooked. They check that all leads found in databases, indexes, and publications were followed through to original sources. They think about developments in the field from the time the research was performed, as new indexes or sources could be available.
Looking at sources and thinking about the extent of research can reveal paths for further exploration, but re-evaluating the way pieces of evidence fit together is also worthwhile. Writing about the research is valuable practice—and it doesn’t have to be intimidating. Some genealogists share their writing with others or submit articles for possible publication, for critical review by experts is helpful. But the process of writing is useful in itself because it requires the genealogist to organize and explain problems, sources, the reasoning, and proposed solutions.
The written explanation will be built upon the materials gathered during the review—the source inventory, details taken from those sources, and notes about extent of research. Logically organizing the discussion and attaching source citations to statements helps uncover missing and weak evidence, flawed reasoning, and conclusions based on incomplete or inaccurate details.
When faced with a difficult research question, taking a second look at research paths, findings, and reasoning can be the step needed to move forward. In some cases, it is useful to reach out to others for ideas, feedback, and support. In DearMYRTLE’s Genealogy Community on Google+, Pat Richley-Erickson offers study groups, Google hangouts, online conversations, and links to resources. Thomas MacEntee leads a “Genealogy Do-Over” initiative aimed at helping genealogists temporarily pause research and return to the basics in an attempt to improve skills and work habits. Facebook groups, Rootsweb message boards, and Special Interest Groups at local societies are just some of the other places genealogists can look for assistance.
Taking a second look is always a worthwhile endeavor. Looking more closely at difficult-to-solve research problems can reveal room for further work and possible errors or oversights. Setting time aside to learn basics can improve productivity. Reaching out to others can result in fresh perspectives and expertise. Genealogists gather all sorts of experience as they work. Now and then that experience tells them it’s time for a second look, a second chance. Occasionally, the best way to move forward is to take a step back.