Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Revisiting Those Research Plans

Those twelve days following Christmas—the time I like to dedicate to rethinking research plans for the upcoming year—are now completed. I now have my Twelve Most Wanted Ancestors for 2020. But you know me: I still have thoughts. Mostly, I'm thinking about all the advice I hear about constructing research plans, and how, bulldog-like, the dedicated genealogist must grab on and never let go, never be shaken from her persistent tracks, until that one sought-after goal has been reached.

Clue #1: research goals are sometimes never reached.

My "but what about" brain wrestles with these off-the-beaten-path exceptions to the rule. After all, for as many years as I've dedicated to this pursuit, there are plenty of unanswered questions I've wrestled with for decades. For me, research—and thus, pursuing a research plan—is more like following the waves washing up on the seashore. The tide goes out, the tide comes in; sometimes, answers wash ashore like driftwood, even after I've struggled mightily, against the tide, in countless failed attempts.

When answers show up in an unexpected snap, after I know I've wrestled with the problem fruitlessly for umpteen attempts, of course I say "thank you" to the unknown provider, and move on to the next question. But often, that cyclical sequence of getting a bit more, each time I look, means that following a research goal is more like testing and revision, repeat, repeat, than a linear process of seek and find.

Clue #2: sometimes, what I need is simply not there to be found...yet.

I learn to be patient. To wait. I learned that when I realized I couldn't hop on a plane and fly to Poland—or Canada, or even somewhere closer like Virginia—just because I needed a record to complete the answer to my research question. But, in learning patience for this never-ending research process, I also learned something else: I learned another application for being able to wait. I learned that, if I just give a problem time, it may sort itself out without my straining to force an answer. The Internet grows. Organizations add to their online collections. They provide new ways for me to connect with people who do have the answer I need, or the document I've been seeking, or a way to re-configure the problem so that two or three other pieces of evidence can add up to more weight than the missing document I'll never find in the ashes of that southern courthouse.

Clue #3: if I can redefine the issue, maybe that will reconfigure the proof required.

I learn to think outside the box. To redefine the research problem. To think omni-directionally instead of linearly or sequentially. I look for the many routes from the issue to the answer. My Irish research friends who learned to look for ancestors' information on applications for dog licenses have left an indelible mark on my understanding of escaping the one assumed route from question to answer, and to redefine, reconfigure, re-imagine ways to find the information I need.

Even if I fail to find Missing Ancestor #12, that doesn't mean I've failed the mission. Lacking the answer to the mystery of Most Wanted Ancestor #1 does not bind me with the orders to Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect 200 Ancestors; it simply means I can set aside that puzzle for this time. I can make my research notes about what I attempted already, and what failed. And I can plan to revisit it again later. Some genealogical answers really do show up tomorrow.

Above: "Fifth Avenue in Winter," oil on canvas by Frederick Childe Hassam circa 1892; image courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

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