Friday, May 8, 2020

Unreasonable Exhaustiveness?

When I was a graduate student, one of my faculty mentors frequently admonished me to "leave no stone unturned" in my research projects. If there was a source that looked like it might at all relate to whichever topic I was working on, it was my responsibility to do everything humanly possible to track it down and at least have a look. Even one unturned stone, she implied, could be the reason one or more of my hypotheses unravel. It took me until I was out of grad school, and doing research on a professional level, to fully appreciate the wisdom of her advice. Not that I have always been able to look at every single tidbit I've wanted to for this or that project, but I try hard to conduct reasonably exhaustive searches for information.

I do the same with genealogy, per the GPS. I can't always travel to this or that far-flung location to have a look at records. Nor can I say that I have seen every source (even every significant source) for even the most fleshed-out of my ancestors. But I usually have a good idea of how far I have gone in checking the most obvious places and important record types for every person in my tree. And while genealogy is never really "finished," there's a definite point where I'm satisfied with the exhaustiveness of my research....even if it's actually incomplete.

One place where I remain doubtful about exhaustiveness, however, is the process of duly recording every fact in every genealogical source. In my last post, I bemoaned the difficulty of citing tons of different birth facts about one ancestor in a Microsoft Word narrative. For instance, if 20-odd documents pertaining to my paternal grandfather all give birth dates, how can I organize them in a prose setting? I found the venture difficult and praised genealogy software for being able to do this much more quickly and efficiently. Then I thought, "wait a second, with all due respect to genealogists who say otherwise, why the heck am I obligated to account for and record EVERY birth fact in every source?"

No, seriously. If my grandfather, who was born on 9 November 1909, has some much later and indirect source saying he was born in 1910 (which I indeed have in the form of his father's naturalization papers), of what direct use is this to the question of his birth date? Little to none, I would argue. It becomes important if there are NO other available birth sources, but in his case I have earlier and more reliable written witnesses to the 11/9/1909 DOB. So, in my Microsoft Word document, I don't have to record 20, 15, or even 10 birth facts attesting to 3, 4, or however many different dates. I just have to cite the strongest sources available (baptism record, birth certificate, newspaper announcement, the earliest censuses, etc.) and leave it at that, unless there are none of these sources at hand and/or there is a complex research question necessitating that normally less important sources be included in the analysis.

But I couldn't help notice that, while my brain accepted this approach, my heart sank a bit. Why? I think it's because genealogy breeds a bit of obsessiveness in its most dedicated practitioners. We don't just want to overturn every stone; we want graphs, spreadsheets, and PDFs analyzing everything about the stones and what was under them. (These would be stored, of course, in the most obsessively careful ways possible.) We don't just want good citations that reliably describe the source and lead us back to it; we want the deluxe scaffolding...the dissertation within a dissertation.

Maybe some of us can spend unlimited time Climbing Ev'ry Mountain and Fording Ev'ry Stream in these and related fashions, but I have to draw lines somewhere. I think it's fine to limit yourself to recording the best sources for a fact, if you have them...and perhaps in most birth fact cases leave out the things like the great granddaughter's guess about her great grandma's DOB in her high school yearbook. So whether I'm using Microsoft Word or my genealogy software, maybe I'll proceed with the renewed conviction that obsessiveness isn't always a virtue. This particular kind of Exhaustiveness very much needs the Reasonable.

No comments:

Post a Comment