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.”