Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Law and Order Method of Genealogy

Genealogy people often talk about “the thrill of the hunt” and “sharpening our detective skills.”

“Playing detective” seems to be a large part of the attraction for those of us who love genealogy. Yet there is also that other aspect of genealogical research that may be either part of the attraction or a big turn-off: the scholarly aspect. You know, citing your sources, adhering to the genealogical proof standard. Yeah, that stuff.

This is how I described that combination in one of Randy Seaver’s famous Saturday Night Genealogy Fun challenges at Genea-Musings (“Why Do I Pursue Genealogy?”):

“You get to be a cross between a detective and a scholarly researcher. Sometimes you are pursuing the thinnest of clues (detective), and other times you are amassing, comparing and cross-checking, and filtering out many different pieces of information from sources of widely varying thoroughness and reliability (researcher). Depending on your mood on any given day, you can assume one role or the other, or both.”

I still do think of it this way.

However, while watching TV and doing genealogy on my new laptop the other day, I realized there was perhaps a more compatible and natural combination of vocations that might describe this dual nature of genealogical research.

We were watching “Law and Order UK,” the latest version of the franchise – you know, the one with crown prosecutors (wigs) instead of district attorneys (no wigs). And it struck me that much of what the prosecutors/district attorneys do (or are supposed to do) is that “second half” of the genealogical process. And in an ideal world, as they investigate crimes, the police detectives work closely with them to build the case.

Some of us prefer one role over the other, and some like both but may give preference to one or the other at different times. The most common problem is when research does not focus enough on the second, proof-oriented, role. However, while being scrupulous and thorough, we should not forget that sometimes it is necessary to get down and dirty, to try something off the wall or unconventional, or even – gasp! – to use Google or check online trees.

Sometimes it’s time to call that psychic.

Like the police detective, sometimes ya gotta rely on that tip line. You have to check out some places where those genies, even unsavory ones, hang out. You know which sources tend to be unreliable, so you take what they say with a grain of salt. Yeah, sometimes you let your guard down and accept something at face value that you shouldn’t have – but what mystery is not made all the more interesting by a red herring or two?

And when you think you’ve got a good case, one that will nail that ancestor/perpetrator, you take it to the district attorney.

And he tells you that won’t fly with a judge and jury. You have to have proof – maybe not beyond a shadow of a doubt, but beyond a reasonable doubt.

You have to pound the pavement some more. Get deep down into the paperwork. Maybe you won’t find anything that supports your case, but you have to be able to demonstrate at the very least that you didn’t find anything disproving your case, either. And, the really tiresome part is, you have to keep records of everything you searched, everything you found, and everything you didn’t find.

You hand it all over to the lawyers, who put it in the right order and dress it up with some fancy and, you hope, convincing words, hoping against hope that the perpetrator/ancestor will not get off on a technicality.

And then maybe – just maybe – the judge and jury will agree: “Yeah, that’s the guy.”


  1. I really enjoyed this post, thanks! Now I will think of even the dodgiest online tree as kind of cool, because it's obviously an unsavory genie haunt. If I find parts of my tree that aren't up to scratch, I can salvage my credibility by saying it was undercover work.

  2. I absolutely loved reading this post. As part of my New Year's Resolutions, I posted that I would try to overcome my extreme dislike of citing my sources using a specific format. I even talked my husband into buying me a copy of Evidence Explained. Here's to resolutions!

  3. Greta - I too loved this post.

    Personally I prefer the law part of the process--hunting down the clues, solving the mystery. I bought a copy of Evidence Explained for myself for Christmas to help with the order part of the process. One of my New Year's resolutions is to verify and cite all my sources.

    Don't tell anyone, but I love online trees. Shocking I know. The key is to use them for clues not evidence. Unless a tree cites a source AND I can verify the information, it's just another red herring.

    Thanks for the great post! Happy New Year!

  4. Good points, sometimes just knowing WHERE to look (found by sneaking a peak at those online trees) is all the help you need! I do it all the time, cannot recreate each family wheel by myself with no idea of where to look, where did that wheel roll??

    Great post!

  5. Very well stated!! I've decided to become psychic, I just have to learn how...

  6. I am definitely the law part of the equation. Now if I could only find the order part - ideally someone else willing to take my evidence and tidy it up. No one's knocking on the door so I guess that'll be me.

  7. This was a fun and interesting analogy, Greta. I can see myself on both sides - I love the sleuthing but (or and) I'm a bugger for sources. Gotta have 'em or the names and dates aren't worth much (other than clues). However, I'm probably not so great on the ways of stating sources. I need to look at Evidence Explained again.

  8. Enjoyed this post, Greta. I work both sides of the genealogy fence, sources and sleuthing...I do love the sleuthing more though!

  9. Shelley - Yeah, I like to think of us as tough undercover guys!

    Kathy - Oh, those citations. I try to do them for some of the articles I write up (using Evidence Explained), and then when I need to remember how I did it, I go back to the articles. So it gets easier as time goes by, but there is still a reluctance to spend time doing it.

    Cynthia - There is nothing like that thrill of solving the mystery; I guess the "order" part helps us say "And here's the proof!"

    Carol - This was my central thought in this post: we are so anxious to solve the mystery - yes, with proof and all - that we are not too proud to look anywhere and everywhere.

    Tonia - Thanks for stopping by - hope to see you at NGS this year!

    Leah - I wonder if there's any money to be had in starting a School for Genealogy Psychics? Maybe Kerry would go in on it with us?

    NR - We need personal assistants or something ... or I wish we could summon up the spirit of Elizabeth Mills when we need her!

    Nancy - Even the detective walking a beat has to admit, if you keep track of your sources, you can always go back to them and wring a bit more information out of them.

    Arkie - I love the idea of "working both sides of the fence" - it brings in even more of the element of "derring do"!

  10. You are so right!! Loved the post-makes my research feel so much more important after reading it : )