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Famous People in the Census 1850-1930

From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 2/12/2004

It Never Looks the Same when It's Not Fresh

Recently I reviewed notes I had taken a few months ago while viewing some church records. On an otherwise blank sheet in my notebook I had written: Peter's parents were Henry and Marie. There was only one problem: I had not given any reason or source for my statement.

I knew what had happened. After searching the records for nearly an entire day, I was fairly familiar with their structure and organization. In the last hour of research time, I decided to work on Peter's parents. I scanned the copies and notes I had made and reached a conclusion. The problem was that I glanced at the clock and realized I needed to leave the library immediately. I jotted down the names of the parents and left.

By the time I was able to review the material, all of the research was cold. I was going to have to re-familiarize myself with the records and re-create the research that had led to my initial conclusion, a big waste of time. My mind immediately flashed to the mathematician Pierre de Fermat who scribbled a theorem in the margin of a textbook and then commented, “I have discovered a truly marvelous demonstration of this proposition that this margin is too narrow to contain.”

While I'm not a mathematician on the level of de Fermat, I did have adequate paper on which to write the demonstration of my conclusion. And that demonstration is something I should have done as I was viewing the records and making initial inferences and conclusions.

Genealogists frequently have to draw conclusions from a series of records. Many times these records individually do not support the larger inference. In these cases it is imperative that the family historian leave what some refer to as an “audit trail.” Documenting sources is just a part of the process. An “audit trail” requires that the thought process and analysis also be included.

The “audit trail” serves several purposes. It should enable a subsequent researcher to obtain the records that were used and see how the initial researcher reached their conclusions. The subsequent researcher may not agree with the initial researcher, but at least they will know what the initial researcher was thinking. It also makes it easier for the initial researcher to revisit the conclusions, should that become necessary.

General suggestions for making an audit trail:
- Clearly state any assumptions made.
- Learn the historical background of the time period and geographic region.
- Learn what you can about your ancestor's likely culture and lifestyle.
- Clearly cite sources. A citation should lead you back to the same page or sheet from which you made the copy or took notes.
- Include sufficient detail. Eliminate guesswork.
- Clearly delineate your reasoning, allowing yourself or others to later see and follow your thought process.
- Do not jump to conclusions or grasp at straws.
We've talked previously about proving your case in this column, including methods for organizing information, which hopefully will make conclusions easier to reach.

“Framing the Apgars”— Showing a census entry is the right one.
From the Ancestry Daily News, 25 September 2002

“Euclidean Genealogy”— Proving your case.
From the Ancestry Daily News, 7 July 1999

“Organizing Data”
From the Ancestry Daily News, 18 June 2003

Those who wish to learn more about proving their case for themselves and for others should refer to the BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, written by the Board for Certification of Genealogists and published by Ancestry. Even if you have no desire to become certified as a genealogist and never intend to publish your family's history in a reviewed publication, this manual is excellent reading and provides a detailed framework to assist you in clearly proving your case. Detailed case studies such as those appearing in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly are also excellent reading material in this genre.

Many genealogists do a significant amount of their original research away from the comfort of their home and local library. Based upon my own experience and the experiences of others, these trips are times when one is tempted to hurry as much as possible and worry about keeping track of things “later.” If later comes too late, the result is needless confusion and wasted time. There is never enough time when one is on a research trip. Records are seemingly always located at the last minute and other family members sometimes hurry us so non-genealogy activities can be pursued. As a result, planning in advance for your own research trip is extremely important as it frequently makes organizing on the fly easier. This will help you to create trails for yourself as you research while traveling.

Suggestions for Researching during a Trip
- Prepare adequately, over-adequately if possible. Having specific lists of the records you want to search and what you want to search for will facilitate tracking what you search for as you search it. Learn about the area and its records if you are not already familiar with them.
- Write very neatly. You are making research notes, not taking the 1850 census.
- Do not rely on memory. Write it down.
- Organize as you go while the material is fresh in your own mind.
- Use full sheets of paper. Scraps will get lost.
- Track the source of each copy. Some prefer to staple sheets together, using the book's title page as the cover. Some also copy the relevant index pages and indicate that surnames were searched for on those pages, perhaps marking with a colored pencil the pages that were copied.

These suggestions are also applicable for researching close to home.
Trip Planning Articles and Links
“Before Your Trip—Doing Your Homework”

Cyndislist—Travel and Research

“Preparing for Your Library Research Trip”
(From Ancestry Magazine, Sept/Oct. 1998)

“Five Library Preparation Tips”
(From Ancestry Magazine, Sept/Oct 1998)

This April, I'm leading a group of genealogists to the Allen County Library in Ft. Wayne (more information on the trip is available). Our preparation for the trip starts months before we leave. While I would never turn down an opportunity for a last-minute research trip, I do know that I make better use of my time if I plan first. Bringing home notes that are relatively organized makes it easier for me to record my findings when I get home and to follow the line of reasoning that I used while researching. I do not want to be in the situation where I'm spending an entire afternoon recreating work I have already done.

Your genealogy audit trail should weave sources, citations, and thought processes together in a logical fashion, as seamlessly as possible. The sources and what you have learned about the history and culture of the area should tell a story that supports your conclusion. But it should be a story based upon as many facts as possible, not assumptions, innuendo, or outright fiction.

In summary, creating a genealogical audit trail consists of:
- Clearly citing your sources
- Indicating all sources that have been used
- Noting your assumptions
- Clearly explaining your reasoning
- Clearing stating your conclusion

The benefits of a clearly written genealogical audit trail are:
- Being able to review earlier thought processes
- Being able to share that thought process with others
- Potentially exposing gaps in your own thought process

And all of that leads to better research, and maybe even more ancestors.

De Fermat might not have had room in the margin of his book to prove his point. Chances are you've got some paper or hard disk space somewhere!

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him or visit his website, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2004,

Used by the author on his website with permission.

Other genealogy articles by Michael John Neill