We read National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ) case studies, even though these articles cover families, places, and ethnicities not found in our own ancestral lines. Why spend time reading about someone else’s ancestors when we have so many of our own to research? We need to develop problem-solving skills. One way to do this is to study how other researchers have approached genealogical problems—from the research phase and the sources used, to the reasoning and construction of the proof argument. Here are just a few of the many concepts we can learn from reading NGSQ case studies.
1. Knowledge of Sources
Each NGSQ author uses a wide array of sources relevant to his or her research problem. By reading case studies, we can learn about sources we’ve never used before, and also discover what kind of information these sources can provide. For the most part, the historical sources used in any given case study will be specific to a particular ethnic group, time period, religion, or geographic area, and will not apply directly to our own ancestors. Yet we can still learn from them. Learning about new sources may inspire us to look for similar records that are relevant to the subjects of our research. New knowledge about a specific type of source could help us establish negative evidence if similar records survive but fail to include our ancestor. We can also learn about non-historical sources, such as genetic test results, and how to use and interpret the information they provide. Examining each article’s citations, as well as the notes that sometimes accompany them, can increase our knowledge of both historical and non-historical sources.
2. Understanding of Exhaustive Research
Many of us struggle with knowing whether we’ve consulted enough sources to prove a conclusion. Each case study establishes proof, and thus must demonstrate reasonably exhaustive research. By studying these articles, we can gain a better understanding of when our research is comprehensive enough to solve a problem. NGSQ authors consult sources that pertain not only to their research subjects, but also to their subjects’ family members, friends, associates, and neighbors. They cover a range of time periods and locations, often including records created many years after the research subject’s death. They also consult sources that are not easy to locate or access, and records whose context may be difficult to understand. Each case study has a different focus, and the necessary research will vary based on many factors. Nonetheless, those of us seeking to gain a better understanding of whether our research is exhaustive enough to help prove a conclusion will benefit from reading NGSQ case studies.
3. Use of Evidence
To be successful genealogists, we need to know how analyze and weigh evidence to establish proof. Evidence, regardless of its classification as direct, indirect, or negative, must support a genealogical conclusion. We should pay close attention to how authors interpret the information they use, keeping their specific research problems in mind. We also need to study the evidence that each author presents as a whole, so that we can learn how to gauge when a body of evidence is sufficient to answer a research question. We may never find the sought-after record that gives us the name of our elusive ancestor’s father. Yet if we know how to use evidence properly, we can make that identification.
When we read the next issue of NGSQ, we should remember that the journal is a teaching tool. It is designed to demonstrate methods and approaches used to solve difficult genealogical problems—typically, those that can’t be resolved using direct evidence. In one article, we may learn techniques for differentiating same-name individuals. Another might serve as a timely reminder that we should always play devil’s advocate by challenging our discoveries and analyzing our evidence objectively. Will the current issue of NGSQ teach a new problem-solving skill that could us help break through a longstanding brick wall?