Monday 21 January 2013

Finding Method in the Madness

Over the past 19 months I’ve been participating in a ProGen Study Group, based around the book Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers and Librarians edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2001). The programme consists of reading chapters of the book, completing monthly assignments and participating in group discussions.  Additional reading is encouraged, particularly from Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (2nd Edition) by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2012) and The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Washington: Board of Certification for Genealogists, 2000).

One of the main reasons this programme (whose participants are drawn primarily, although not exclusively, from the USA) appealed to me was because there generally seems to be little discussion of methodology in genealogical research in the UK; whether in books, magazines or as part of family history courses.

However, lately things do seem to be changing.  I’ve noticed a few references to the Genealogical Proof Standard cropping up in UK genealogy circles in recent months and last year saw the publication of Genealogy: Essential Research Methods by Helen Osborn (London: Robert Hale, 2012).

Osborn’s book draws upon the American genealogical manuals mentioned above, amongst others, and is written in an accessible, readable style.  It covers a broad range of topics including effective searching, analysing and working with documents, planning and problem-solving, and recording information and citing sources; and highlights the fact that many so-called ‘brick walls’ are of our own making.

I did find the organisation of the subject matter a little confusing, particularly in the earlier chapters.  For example, a description of administrative systems in England & Wales is contained in the same chapter as a discussion of primary and secondary evidence.  Although this brief section does introduce the concepts of original v. derivative sources and primary v. secondary information, it doesn’t include one of the fundamental ways in which the use of sources differs between historians and genealogists: namely, that a single genealogical source will frequently contain both primary and secondary information.

Genealogy: Essential Research Methods draws largely on English sources but, as stated inside the cover, much is relevant to research in other countries and I’m sure it will become a staple on the reading lists of genealogy courses. The reviews on are very positive.

Based on a recommendation in Genealogy: Essential Research Methods, which was echoed by several friends, I’ve recently read Nuts and Bolts: Family History Problem Solving through Family Reconstitution Techniques (2nd Edition) by Andrew Todd (Bury: Allen & Todd, 2003).  This is a highly-readable little booklet and after sitting down to read a chapter or two over coffee, I found myself finishing it in an afternoon.  Todd argues convincingly that family reconstruction (aka tracing collateral lines or kinship networks) can not only solve research problems but also recreates the reality of our ancestors’ lives.  I found the idea that increased mobility, especially in the 19th century, strengthened rather than weakened kinship networks to be particularly interesting. Again, examples are taken primarily from English research, but many of the techniques can be applied elsewhere.  The book covers some of the points that were raised in the interesting discussion that developed in the comments of my recent post, 'Who belongs on the Family Tree?'. 

Also due to recommendations, I’m currently reading Pitfalls and Possibilities in Family History Research by Pauline M. Litton, MBE (Harrogate: Swansong, 2010).  Based on a series of articles that appeared in Family Tree magazine (UK), this is more a discussion of (primarily English) records than of genealogical methodology, but does include some advice on search techniques etc.

With so many books being published on a variety of family history topics these days, it can be difficult to keep up with what’s out there.  I’d be interested to hear of any other recommendations of books that deal with methodology in genealogy research and that may help to foster a sense of order as we pursue our “favourite insanity”.


  1. I recommend Brenda Dougal Merriman's Genealogical Standards of Evidence. It's a very clear and concise look at evidence analysis and the GPS.

    The study group sounds interesting, and it's a book I'm planning to get eventually!

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Maggie. I was pleased to see it's available quite cheaply in the UK. I have ordered a copy and it looks very useful.

  2. Thank you for your very instructive comments on these books. I'm in the US, but soon I'll be doing some UK research, because I am finding groups of British ancestors in my 9th and 10th generations, and I'm glad to have these references. Right noe I'm making my way through Marsha Rising, The Family Tree Problem Solver, and I like its case-study approach.