Modern Software Experience

2011-03-21

Getting started in Genealogy

Start with what you know. is the magic incantation of traditional genealogists.

How to get started

When you google around for advice on how to get started in genealogy, there is one sentence you'll read time and time again: Start with what you know..

That specific sentence is remarkably popular. If you google for that sentence in connection with genealogy, Google reports about a hundred thousand hits. It apparently isn't the best idea in the world to accuse authors of introductory genealogy guides of extreme originality. Start with what you know. is the magic incantation of traditional genealogists.

good advice?

If you are indeed a beginner looking on advice how to get started, and do not know better, Start with what you know. probably strikes you as solid advice. If you, like most genealogists today, are a traditional genealogists simply because you were taught genealogy by other traditional genealogists, you probably nod or mutter in agreement.

Start with what you know. is quite possibly the worst advice you can give a beginning genealogist.

The Start with what you know. sentence itself is hard to disagree with it. Why wouldn't you start with what you know? Starting with what you know gives you a flying start. The opposite advice, ignoring what you know already seems incredibly stupid. Yet this so-called advice is wrong, very wrong.

Start with what you know. is quite possibly the worst advice you can give a beginning genealogist. It is perfectly fine in isolation, and as a conversation starter about what you know and don't know, but this sentence isn't used in isolation. It is followed by other sentences that shape its meaning in an erroneous way.

examples

Ancestry.com

Here is an example of how beginners are sent down the wrong path:

So how do you start your family history journey? it’s easy. follow these easy steps to begin:

1. Start with what you know.

Simply enter a few details about yourself, your parents and grandparents in to an online family tree. Don’t worry if you don’t have all the facts. this is just the beginning.

That is how the instructions on Ancestry.com's one-page getting started PDF, Start Your Family History in a Few Easy Steps, start out.

Plymouth Ancestors

It is not just big-name commercial companies that get it wrong. Respected genealogical societies give erroneous advice as well.

Researching your family’s history can be a fun, rewarding, and occasionally frustrating project. Start with what you know by collecting information on your immediate family. Then, trace back through parents, grandparents, and beyond. This is a great opportunity to speak to relatives, gather family stories, arrange and identify old family photographs, and document family possessions that have been passed down from earlier generations.

That is the first paragraph of the Connecting with your Ancestors page on the Plymouth Ancestors website, a collaboration between the Plimoth Plantation and the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS). The same text can be found in other NEHGS sites and publication.

Michigan genealogy: sources & resources

The well-regarded Michigan Genealogy: sources & resources by Carol McGinnis contains the following text:

Getting Started

What should you do if you are new to genealogy? It's simple. Start with what you know. Yourself. And them move backward in time to your parents. Grandparents. Great-grandparents.

It seems sensible advice if you do not know better, and that is why it is about as wrong as advice to beginners in genealogy can be.

How to Do Everything with Your Genealogy

The sentence Start with what you know. itself is not wrong, nor bad advice. Whether the author is giving bad advice or not very much depends on context, mostly on how subsequent sentences shape its meaning. Consider this excerpt from George Morgan's How to Do Everything with Your Genealogy:

Start with what you know

As with all effective family history and genealogical research, start with the most recent period and work your way backward. Any other approach, especially when research back across the pond can be disastrous. As you proceed backward, start with what other family members may know.

The author explains that what he really means is that your should research your way backwards through time. He then goes on to write that you should start with what other family members may know. The way you are likely to understand that advice as presented here, a partial paragraph out of context, it is just as wrong as the preceding quotes. However, within the context of that chapter, it is perfectly fine advice. That chapter isn't about constructing a family tree, but about locating records of interest.

The first thing a genealogist must learn is what they do not know.

Start with what you know?

The advice to start with what you know is not specific to genealogy. It is general problem-solving advice; when you collect what you know together, you might notice some pattern or a gap in your data. It is advice that makes sense in many fields.

The first thing a genealogist has to understand is that many supposed facts are not facts, but hearsay.

The advice to start with what you know makes sense in genealogy as well. The problem is that you should start with what you know. The first thing a genealogist must learn is what they do not know.

The first thing a genealogist has to understand is that many supposed facts are not facts, but hearsay. The first thing a genealogist has to understand is that, until you have proof, you do not know who your parents are. Knowledge without proof isn't knowledge at all. It is supposition. Without proof, you do not know, you merely assume.  Encouraging beginners to treat their suppositions as fact is the worst thing an instructor can do.

Start with today and work backwards in time.

beginning genealogy

It seems that almost every booked aimed at beginning genealogists contains the sentence Start with what you know, and then goes on to give horribly bad advice; just write down your own details, those of your parents, and grandparents, and you have yourself a flying starts. It sounds easy. It also is dead wrong.

Start with today and work backwards in time. That is good, solid advice for ancestral research. Start with what you know. is different advice. It does not mean the same thing. It does not tell you to proceed antichronologically, it begs a question; what do you know?

A minor issue you may notice with many beginner books is that they do tell you to start by recording your immediate family, but do not immediately mention that you should reference sources for the data you record. That probably offends many citation purists, but as long as the text explains the importance of citing sources, there is no real issue.

There's nothing wrong with the Start with what you know. sentence itself, but it is mostly used to mean Start with what you suppose.

question what you think you know

The first thing a beginning genealogists needs to be told isn't to write down who their parents and grandparents are. The first thing a beginning genealogists needs to be told is that you have to question what you think you know. The first thing beginning genealogists need to be reminded of is that assumptions aren't facts.

In today's world, where few people have done DNA tests, that does not mean telling them to write down who their parents and grandparents are, it means explaining to them that they do not know who their parents and grandparents are.

There's nothing wrong with the Start with what you know. sentence itself, but it is mostly used to mean Start with what you suppose. That is misleading.

words

One of the first thing you need to learn as a genealogist is what words like parent and grandparent really mean, or rather how overloaded these words are.

Parent is not a simple single concept, but many different concepts at once.

The traditional genealogist acts as if these words mean one simple single thing, but they are wrong, these words do not mean one simple single thing. These words are overloaded with multiple, different meanings.

first things first

The first thing a genealogist needs to learn is that there is no such simple thing as parent. There are many things, such as biological parent, official parent, legal parent and social parent. These things are not the same. These different roles are not always fulfilled by the same persons. Parent is not a simple single concept, but many different concepts at once.

To become a true and effective genealogist, the first thing you need to understand is that the simplistic world view implied by everyday words is wrong.
simplistic world view

To become a true and effective genealogist, the first thing you need to understand is that the simplistic world view implied by everyday words is wrong. You need to understand that a legal father isn't the same as an official father and that an official father isn't the same as a biological father. You need to learn that you do not have one genealogy, but multiple genealogies. You need to learn the genealogy framework to make sense of it all, and become able to evaluate the evidence you will examine. Once you've learned that, you'll understand how confused and wrong the suggestion to start genealogy by writing down your parents and grandparents really is.

Start with what you know, not with what you suppose.

Start with what you know

Start with what you know, not with what you suppose. Knowledge without proof isn't knowledge at all, it is supposition. Without proof, you do not know, you merely assume.

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