Genealogy Well Done

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This is one of a series of articles on Genealogical Methods, prepared in association with The Tapestry. See Index for a list of related articles.


Quolla6/The problem of the commons
Criteria for Genealogy Well Done


What constitutes Genealogy Well Done?

As phrased above the question emphasizes "Well Done": not "Perfectly Done", or "Adequately Done", but "Well Done". These distinctions are meaningful. I seriously doubt that any genealogy could be ever considered "Perfectly Done"; there's always something more to be discovered, or improvements to be made in the documentation, or presentation. "Perfectly Done" is not an obtainable goal. "The terms "Well Done" and Adequately Done" imply that the works meet some purposes of the particular genealogist, and is sufficient to meet immedite goals, but still leaves something to be done, particularly if its to be used by other genelogists in their own work. We'd all like our work to be more than "adequate", but have to recognize that "perfect" is not obtainable. Hence, we try for "Well Done".

How do we know when we have done our work well? How do we know when we encounter a work by someone else that it is "Well Done". In short, what are the characteristics of "Genealogy Well Done"?

One approach that can be taken in answering this question is to look at the kinds of things that professional genealogists are concerned with.

Things that contribute to 'Genealogy Well Done'
Makes good use of primary or original sources
Limited reliance on secondary sources;
No reliance on tertiary sources
First and foremost, genealogy is well done when data, analysis, and conclusions are based on original sources that can be independently verified.
Shows a reasonably exhaustive search of the relevant source recordsIt is important that a comprehensive search of local records be made. The immediate benefit of such searches is that they often yield more information about an individual and family. A more important benefit is that they may turn up conflicting data that might affect your interpretation. For example, you might find multiple records for a certain name, but those records might conflict with each other such that they can not represent the same person. A specific example of this would be locating a death record for John Smith in 1807, and then a marriage record for John Smith in 1808. One interpretation of this might be that there are in fact two separate "John Smith's" in the area.
Provides analysis of the data to "make the case"It is rare for data to be so clear cut that no discussion is needed. A written analysis of the data directed toward a conclusion makes the conclusion more credible. In the John Smith Example above, the evidence for two John Smiths should be discussed and explained, attempting to identify their relationship (if any), as well as associating various records found for "John Smith" with one or the other of the two so-named individuals.
Considers alternative viewpoints, and addresses conflicting ideasThere are usually multiple points of view about everything. Recognizing alternative viewpoints, examining the basis for those viewpoints, and finally providing a cogent discussion as to which viewpoint is best supported by the evidence, makes the conclusion more credible than just dismissing the alternative views, or not mentioning them at all.
Things that make for a better Article, and make for better genealogy
Make good use of Narrative to "tell the story". A good narrative is more than a simple compilation of DOB's, DOD's, and begats. When you take the trouble to layout a narrative discussion of a persons life, you often find that your understanding of that life improves, and just as often, reveals conflicts and discrepancies in your understanding of their life history that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.
Provides background information to place the story in its historical and social context.As often as not, understanding the historical and social context for a person will help get the facts of their lives straight. As an example, a very common problem with many presentations of American genealogy is the designation of the POB as being in an area at a time when there were no European settlers. A specific example would be placing someone's POB in Washington County Virginia in 1726, when the first European settlements in that area did not come until 1750 at the earliest---and even then, the settlements were short lived, with no permanent legal settlers until about 1769.