The most basic definition of genealogy is “the study of family history and descent”, from genealogy.about.com.
Val Greenwood’s definition: “Genealogy is that branch of history which involves a scientific study for the determination of family relationships.” The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. 3d ed., pp. 8-9. (Emphasis in original statement.)
Family history has a more encompassing definition. Creating a family history means placing each individual and family in a social, cultural, economic, and religious context within their lifetimes. This means going beyond just collecting names and dates and finding out who we are descended from. It means studying the entire family over a period of time, discussing each family group and person and how they fit into a larger historical picture.
Elizabeth S. Mills, in an article in the National Genealogy Society Quarterly also defines genealogy and genealogists, striving to bridge a gap in public perceptions of the hobby and the profession. One of her definitions of a genealogist is “generational historian,” meaning those who “value the difference between gathering names and reconstructing lives.” (National Genealogical Society Quarterly: Centennial Issue 91 (December 2003): 260-277. p. 272)
Being a genealogist means applying analytical and documentation skills beyond most generally accepted history and social science standards. This requirement means being able to decide which one of two people with the same or similarly spelled names is the correct ancestor for a particular family group and using the best evidence available to document the conclusion.
Accepting as truth commonly available or undocumented statements is a mistake many “family tree climbers” (E. S. Mills, same citation as above) and early compilers of family information have made. These statements should be treated as clues for further research into direct, original, and primary sources.
Modern genealogical research standards are discussed in several of Mills’ books and articles (Evidence!, among them), and the BCG Genealogical Standards Manual.
The basic process for genealogical research is to
- Select a research project
- Search for sources of documentary evidence
- Search those sources of evidence at the repository
- Analyze the evidence found and transcribe, extract, and/or store images found
- Create a factual statement and draw conclusions from the evidence
- Present facts and conclusions through a report or database record
- Select a new research project using results from the current project and start again from step 2.
Selecting a research project involves looking for inconsistent data, weak sources, and other oddities in the available data. A common example is having several dates for birth for one person. Which date is correct?
Where does one find resources to find out which birth date is correct? That’s step two.
Step three is visiting or contacting the repositories where you are likely to find the correct birth date information.
Step four involves looking at the real birth records or reproductions of those records and determining whether they are directly related to the event and were created to document that event. Even if a record does not directly relate to the birth, the information is still valuable. Make a citation for the source checked, using record number, film information, and call numbers, as proper.
Creating factual statement and drawing conclusions from the found evidence comes next. Sometimes the evidence is enough to prove the correct birth date, so the project is a success. If the evidence still does not satisfy the research requirements, more work is necessary.
In any case, write a short report summarizing your results so you know that you’ve already checked a specific repository and set of sources. In the report, describe and comment on the records found and what they contain. This step helps refine ideas for more searches and can generate ideas of places to look elsewhere, which is step seven.
Some of my research several years ago was extracting birth, death, and marriage items from the White Center News, a local neighborhood newspaper here in Seattle. I’ve put it up on the internet as a separate part of my web site. The project covers about 6½ years worth of news items from a weekly newspaper focused on a number of neighborhoods south of Seattle proper. Some of the neighborhoods are now cities of their own or have been incorporated into Seattle. There are almost 700 entries, with some duplication because of multiple publication dates and cross-referencing.
[Update 11 September 2011: The extracts have been republished in book form. White Center News Extracts at Lulu.com]