Confirmation Bias

I am my best example of bad practices! In this case, confirmation bias. It created a false brick wall of my own making. Only recently did I see how it delayed the outcome of the right answer.

But, first, what is “confirmation bias”?

Confirmation bias is where you have some assumption of an answer to your question and you set out to prove it….you set out to prove it without thinking about what other answers there are to this problem.

Let’s say your research question is “Was John F. Smith the father of Mary Smith, b. 1895 in Avon County, MA? In this research question you are assuming the John F. Smith was the father and structured your question around John. Your research focus will be on the unknown father, John F. Smith. Having crafted your research question in that manner, you blithely set out to find all the John Smiths in Avon County, only to discover that no one had a child named Mary!

“I have a brick wall!” you wail.


You instead have committed confirmation bias.

Research questions should start with known information. Reword your research question to “Who was the father of Mary Smith b. 1895 in Avon County, MA.” Now, you have shifted the focus from what you didn’t know (the father) to what you do know (the year and place of birth of Mary). You also shifted your research focus from John to Mary.

Of course all the above is fiction, but serves to illustrate my point.

We can also commit confirmation bias any time we are looking for a DNA match for a bio-father. We see the same surname and decide that is the one. We can discover later, after making the “big reveal” to unsuspecting and proposed relatives, that the person changed their name when they, too, were adopted. And the real DNA link was the next person down on the list.

We can commit confirmation bias any time we assume an answer and set out to prove it without checking the other candidates.

I am my best example of bad practices. I have worked on and off for years hoping to identify the mother of Margareta Andersdotter, b. 8 February 1750 and her place of birth. I knew she was born in 1750 because the 1817 Swedish census said so. There were other sources that gave me a range of 1749 to 1753.

I committed confirmation bias by trying to prove she was born on 8 February 1750. I focused on that date and made the range of years I would look at extremely narrow. While I was working though all the possible parishes, I failed to notice the importance that one location had a year missing, 1752. It wasn’t what I was looking for.

I decided to build a time line and things started falling into place–every activity of the family was revolving around 1752. Oddities in the records came into focus like I had just changed the prescription on my glasses! Those oddities could now be interpreted with more meaning, rather than just someone’s mistake.

The article is now submitted to the Swedish American Genealogical Quarterly for their possible publication.

Here are some things I do to help me avoid confirmation bias:

  1. I write up my problem ancestors in research reports. This consolidates my research in one place, including my research plan, my research log and my notes in one place. It focuses my mind on one problem, avoiding “bright shiny objects.”
  2. I work slowly. Some of that is because I am a mediocre analyst and it takes sometime for me to internalize the evidence I do have. I cite everything, which slows me down but reaps great benefits later.
  3. I work with hypotheses. My language reflects that the options are open. I work each hypothesis to prove it viable or not. It’s a “last man (or woman) standing” approach.
  4. I build timelines to help me see what I have and what I don’t have. I can see where there are gaps and overlaps.
  5. I assess every record set I use for completeness at a macro level (does it have that year?) and the micro level (is it missing pages)?
  6. I work hard at trying not to come to a conclusion too quickly. It closes doors to other options.

I hope this has helped you. I suspect that I will commit this “genealogical sin” in the future, but I will (hopefully) catch it sooner.

Take care; stay safe,


What I have done since the last post. I am in Boston awaiting the birth of our next (and probably last) grandchild, Charlotte Emma Shannan. ❤

Review: “Portfolios in a Time of Limited Access”

So many of us are lamenting the inability to obtain records in this time of closure. Many institutions we frequently use, such as  archives, libraries, courthouses etc are closed. On May 2020, the Board for Certification of Genealogists published their OnBoard newsletter with the lead article “Portfolios in a Time of Limited Access.”[1] I know many of you receive this newsletter, but I also know that if you are not “on the clock” now (having submitted your pre-application for certification), are not an Associate, or do not have a subscription (you can do that on the BCG website) that you missed this important article.

(Spoiler alert! I give a great tip at the end of this post to overcome closures!)

Mr. Wilds begins by posing the question– can one submit a successful portfolio when the closure of many of the repositories we use prevent us from doing on site research?

Mr. Wilds then reviews all the elements of a portfolio and points out that only two require “reasonably exhaustive research, a requirement of the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).”[2] Only the Case Study and the Kinship-Determination Project (KDP) require reasonably exhaustive research or RER. You can find the requirements for the KDP and the Case Study in the Application Guide.[3] You can find what standards the judges use to evaluate your portfolio using BCG’s published rubrics.[4] You can find the quality of the work ALL genealogists should aspire to by reading and applying the guidelines in Genealogy Standards.[5]

The article does a good job of taking the definition of reasonably exhaustive research and pointing out the qualifiers in each bullet of the definition–“at least”, “where possible” etc.[6] Alerting us to what RER is and, more importantly, what it is not.

I want to focus on recommendations for achieving RER in this time of closure.

  • Mr. Wilds states early in the article: “Depending on the research question, the GPS may or may not be able to be met using online research.”[7] The implication is to craft your research question so it doesn’t rely on information you cannot gather, i.e. perhaps using an identifier instead of a relationship question….conflicting BMD dates or participation in an event. For example, where was Michael Wood born?[8]  Combining information from pension packets I had gathered three years ago a location of birth in Canada was identified, but wrong. Recently, using only online resources I found the correct parish.
  • Present a problem you have already solved. This is a good recommendation no matter if the repository is open or not.
  • Perhaps you are making it more complicated than it needs to be. The Case Study doesn’t have to be 40 pages long–what if it were only 9 or 10? Remember the definition of a proof argument is “A documented narrative that explains why a genealogist’s answer to a complex genealogical problem should be considered acceptable.”[9] There is no page number goal. Short portfolios have been successful.
  • Don’t let “source snobbery” get in your way.[10] Relying on the on-site work you have done on the past and supplementing it with the terrific items that are online is a great strategy.
  • You can over prove your work; a good genealogist knows when to stop. I was advised that I had “over-proved” my Case Study.
  • Don’t let the closures of repositories keep you from writing up what you have. OK, you may find that you have to wait, but you will be well along with the writing, have identified exactly what you need and have put in a request. You may have the evidence in a closed repository but don’t use that as an excuse not to write up what you have.

My portfolio case study was of a 18th c. Swede, with conflicting direct evidence (birth date off by 6 years). The Swedes have marvelous records; the ones I would reasonably use were on line. I did check to see if others records would reveal corroborating evidence. I found that there were no records that would clarify the question better than the ones I already had access to online. I never conducted any  onsite research for my Case Study, nor have I ever visited Sweden. Again, I picked carefully. I consulted frequently with experts at the Family History Library on technical aspects, but you can do that now online with their “Communities” feature under “Help.”

My Kinship-Determination Project was set in the Midwest, where I had researched for decades. I thought I should do one more trip through the Midwest to “wring water out of the washcloth.” While I got great info on that trip and there are no regrets, only ONE citation shows up in the KDP that was gathered on that journey. Could I have submitted without it?–yes.

I predict that the number of complex problems we solve using only online information is going to radically increase in the coming years, due to the great records being placed online by FamilySearch ( and others.

Scott’s article does a great job of laying out the requirements and where the flexibility lies. I highly recommend reading it.

Here is the tip: Ask for the document NOW electronically. Anecdotally, I am hearing that many people are asking for and receiving their requested items from courthouses and governmental authorities. It appears that the staff are working, but not taking walk-ins. So a request placed now may even get expedited. If nothing else, your request will be at the head of the line when they do open.

Stay safe; stay healthy!


What I have done since the last posting: taught the latest Certification Discussion Group (if you are interested in what it is all about, sign up at; wrote an article about emigration from Sweden based on the patterns of three small parishes; hosted a series of talks by certified genealogists about their portfolio journey on FB, baked bread and didn’t exercise. how about you?

[1] Scott Wilds, CG, “Portfolios in a Time of Limited Access,” OnBoard: newsletter of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, May 2020, p. 9-11.
[2] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville: 2019) p. 1-2.
[3] Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Application Guide 2019 (, sections 5 and 6. The Guide is a free download.
[4] Board for Certification of Genealogists, “Rubrics for Evaluating New Applications for BCG Certification,  revised 15 May 2019,” website This document is a free download.
[5] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards.
[6] Wilds, “Portfolios in a time of Limited Access,” OnBoard, p. 10-11
[7] Wilds, “Portfolios in a Time of Limited Access,” OnBoard, p. 9.
[8] These are bad research questions and I know it. I need to add additional information about Michael to make him unique in the world.
[9] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, Appendix D: Glossary, “proof argument,” p. 83.
[10] Thomas W. Jones, CG, “Skill Building: Perils of Source Snobbery,” Board for Certification of Genealogists, website (, originally published OnBoard, May 2012.


Genealogical Societies in the Time of the Pandemic: Part 2

Screen Shot 2020-04-19 at 9.40.23 PM.pngIn response to the previous blog post, a reader asked me to elaborate on what programs Seattle Genealogical Society (SGS) started that didn’t work so well. Hmmmm. Let me give that a try.

You need to know I am my worst enemy….if there is a volunteer who is passionate about the idea, I will try just about anything. In fact, I frequently get ahead of the Board  with my own ideas, much to their chagrin. When the idea is finally vetted by others, I see the error of my ways and the concept is modified or dropped. I don’t view this as “personal.” Some ideas are ahead of their time and others may be late, but get launched eventually. Some do not have the right personnel engaged or circumstances made execution challenging. I would rather try something and have it not be successful (“fail” is too harsh a word), then to not have tried it at all

What I am trying to say is that none of the concepts noted below were “failures.”

CDG class free registration: I wanted to get the name of the Certification Discussion Group (CDG) in front of the ProGen alumni group at Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG) in January 2020. I made a certificate and sent it to the organizer and then realized I had not asked the Board for approval. After much discussion in the February meeting (SLIG is in January.), the Board agreed to the reimbursement, but asked that I bring it to the Board in advance next time.
Concept: Obtain approval prior to proceeding and certainly with financial commitments.

Online classes: I personally think that we ought to have a full array of online classes for all types of genealogical researchers–beginning to advanced. In an effort to do so I solicited two different individuals to see if they were interested in teaching online. Both initially accepted. Teacher #1 and I put together a proposal for the Board, before I engaged the Education Director (very bad form on my part). There were legitimate reservations and concerns. SGS proceeded with one, but the other declined based on some reasonable stipulations of the Board.
Concept: Engage the proper genealogical society director before you go rattling off with some new idea.

Beginning online classes (we will not call them “beginning” ever again): We tried two online classes early on that are no longer given. I think the instructors had other commitments and we were inexperienced in how to ensure their success. With very little advertising we launched two–both had enough students the first time, but one failed to pull in enough students the second.  The instructor of the other course had family issues and could not continue.
Concept: You need to identify all the team members who will need to participate to make it a success. If they are max’ed out, effectiveness is hampered. It takes a team. This includes the Board, the registrar, publicity etc.

Under its own weight: We wanted a new website starting 6 years ago or more. What we had was so difficult to modify, it drove volunteers away. We fussed with using various platforms for YEARS, but it never got off the ground. We finally went very simple, no bells and whistles. In one year, we had a new website.
Concept: Sometimes rather than doing the tippy-top best–simplest is better.

External Funding: We apply for, and regularly receive, money from the County for operations. While it is relatively small, it is a big help. The past couple of years the County has bolstered their request for Seattle GS to give evidence of reaching out to diverse ethnic groups. SGS has a tendency to be white, older and middle class and above.
Concept: We have not internalized the advantage to SGS when we reach out to diverse groups. We need to do that. To date, we only know of one instance where our desire to be more responsive to diverse audiences has resulted in a less than enthusiastic response. We are trying again. We need to keep this on the forefront of our thinking and conceptualization for our audience.

External circumstances: We applied for and received a program grant to run a Japanese Genealogical Seminar (Seattle is 17% Japanese ethnicity.) I was the lead. I really wanted to come out of the seminar with a useful booklet of how to do Japanese Genealogy in Seattle. I got sick and had to depend on others to pull off the seminar which they did with great success, but the booklet never got put together.
Concept: Sometimes pieces have to be compromised for external circumstances. This idea sits there waiting for a focused person to develop and publish it.

Thinking something through to the end: In 2015, SGS put their documents in the cloud. This was and is terrific. What we didn’t think about was the next “layer” and the next. What did the filing system look like? What were the divisions?  Just because a Director “touches” a document, doesn’t mean it should reside in their folder! Should the Directors have folders at all–or should they be topical? How should documents be labeled?
Concept: We were so excited to get some of 98 YEARS of accumulated paperwork out of our space and get it cleaned up, just a little extra thought would have perhaps alleviated some issues we face today.

These are my personal opinions and not the opinions of others.  Let me be clear, it is not for want of dedicated volunteers to get the programs up and running. We have a great team on the Board. I could go on, but you get the drift.

Happy hunting!


What I have done since the last post:  The highlights include: I attended the writing course with Tom Jones at the Institute for Genealogical & Historical Research (5 days of intensive learning). I was able to do this because they went virtual. Many events went virtual, e.g. National Genealogical Society 2020 Family History Conference and Federation of Genealogical Societies. You can still “buy” the conferences. I just submitted an article to Swedish American Genealogist on a problem I have worked on for years and have finally solved! And, the next series of the Certification Discussion group gets started in a couple of weeks. I am very busy; and rarely even have time for a nap!

Genealogical Societies in the Time of the Pandemic

Originally posted on:
Facebook, The Genealogy Squad, 1 April 2020, “Genealogical Societies in the Time of Pandemic,” Jill Morelli, guest post.

I can brag to my husband about a new record set or a brick wall busted, but I “happy dance” alone! One of the major reasons I joined my local genealogical society is to enjoy the company of like minded individuals. It is fun to share our discoveries with genealogical buddies at the society meetings. But, what happens to the “place,” when the “place” can no longer be occupied?

We are told to stay home and our genealogical community can’t meet. Does our society no longer exist, because it doesn’t meet?

I am seeing some good coming out of this enforced isolation—societies are forced to embrace technology in ways they haven’t. Times like these are when urban planners plan, because they know things will turn and they want a plan in place when it does. This is the time when genealogical societies should be planning for the future, because we know things will change. The alternative is to put your society on hold until fall, and see if your members come back. Seattle Genealogical Society (SGS) is not waiting.

About five years ago, SGS tested incorporating some technological solutions to some of our programs and issues. We  came to this decision out of necessity—our annual budgets showed us spending more money than we were taking in, our membership had been dropping for years, and our volunteer base was aging. Sound familiar?

Under the pressure of budget problems those many years ago, the SGS Board and selected others  brainstormed ideas for increasing our income and decreasing our expenses. Every idea was put on the table. Some were implemented immediately, some were dropped and some resurrected themselves years later for re-consideration. (And, some were tried but didn’t work.)

Little did we know that by implementing those successful ideas we were positioning ourselves to be nimble in the time of the pandemic.

Here are some of our initiatives. Maybe some will work for you.

  • Embrace technology. SGS still accommodates those with no email by mailing a paper election ballot (we are down to just 25), and printing a few copies of our SGS Journal, but the assumption is we are going digital. SGS drastically cut the cost of the publication of our journal and mailings by going to an electronic system. Our bylaws had to change to allow electronic voting.
  • Our monthly Board meeting packets are now stored “in the cloud.” Nothing is emailed or mailed. While not an economic move, it saved human time in meeting preparation.
  • About five years ago we had a process audit and discovered that the committee couldn’t find our important documents! We found them, but it precipitated the concept of online storage. All our important papers and historical documents are in the cloud as well—insurance forms, tax forms, historical meeting notes. Even our first meeting minutes from 1923 are there! And they are all searchable using optical character recognition.
  • SGS started teaching one online course; we are up to three and hope to add a fourth soon. These have been a financial benefit to the society. While a fee is paid to the instructors and for expenses, most goes into the General Operating Fund. We would like this to expand.
  • We standardized our monthly member meetings at our facility with a program called Second Saturday. In the time of the coronavirus we are still meeting at the same time—just virtually. This was a free service then and continues. Standardization of the date was important to increase the attendance.
  • SGS communicates with the membership and our friends more frequently then we did a few years ago. Our free eNews!electronic newsletter is composed of happenings of SGS, genealogical tips and events around the Sound. We had a quarterly newsletter that was mailed to the membership. We now communicate with them a minimum of 2x/month, and even more during this sequestering. We have over 1000 individuals on the mailing list, and welcome you to join.
  • Seattle’s vehicular traffic is horrible and most people didn’t want to spend more time getting to and from a Board meeting than the Board meeting itself. We instituted an online option for board meetings. We have been able to seamlessly transition the entire Board to the online Board meeting.
  • Our website was antiquated and only one person knew how to update it. We tried to build one ourselves but that initiative “sagged under its own weight.” SGS paid for an off-the-shelf product for genealogical societies and has been satisfied. No one got all they wanted, but it is easy for our members and friends. The package included a membership and a library catalog component. We dropped our subscription to our stand-alone library package and ended up net zero on the cost for the website.
  • SGS became a FamilySearch affiliate a year ago and saw an uptick in visits to our library to use our computers (of course, now the library is closed). We think this will grow, post-personal lock down.
  • Our membership is growing, counter to trends for most societies.We are also seeing a younger audience at our seminars. I think it is because we have more virtual options and we are reaching out to them in new and different ways that fit with their schedules.
  • We continue to see usage of the books and access to the catalog of the society drop, yet we have one of our more active volunteer groups working tirelessly to catalog donations, and recommend purchases. While I have an increasing appreciation for the book collection, I wonder about its future.

After this is over, there will be a “new normal.” What it will be like, I don’t know, but it will reward the flexible. As we look to the future and as I step down from the presidency of SGS, here are some personal thoughts:

I believe some societies in our region are having problems, usually due to a lack of volunteers willing to assume leadership positions. This may result in some societies merging with others; some that disappear and some that decide to “hibernate”.

I believe that some people are “afraid” to assume leadership positions because they become positions for life—not healthy for any society. A graceful way out has to be provided by the society, not only to get new people on the Board, but to get new ideas percolating in the society. Sometimes “tough love” is the only way to do it.  If you have been in a single position for 10 years—quit! If the society wishes to survive it will. SGS has a three year graceful exit for all Board positions. It doesn’t always work, but it’s there.

If we are sincere about reaching out to younger members, we cannot hold our learning options (meetings, etc.) on Monday through Friday between 8-5.

If we want younger members on our Boards, we have to give them a virtual option.

Revisit your mission statement. You may find that it hinders you from looking forward or does not express the innovative society you are.

Keep it simple—the simpler the better. We know that for SGS to survive for the next 100 years we must focus on our volunteer’s ability to assume the responsibility of positions without a hitch.  There cannot be a huge learning curve upon takeover of any position and that includes operations, treasurer, membership, publications, etc.

It’s not all perfect at Seattle Genealogical Society, but we have balanced our budget, our membership is increasing and we have new volunteers in leadership positions. We look forward to our 100th anniversary in 2023 and are starting the planning now.

You may have members who are resistant to change, but you and other Board members know it is the right thing to do. See this as your opportunity.

Happy hunting!


What I have done since the last post: we are “sequestered in Seattle” but waiting for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan to show up!  I don’t know when this will be published and when it is this segment will be old.  I am working on a paper on Swedish emigrants, setting up for the next two Certification Discussion Group classes, figured out finally why a “behind a password” document was showing up on Google and cleaning out my desk drawers and my three-ring binders.



Verbose? Yes. So, fix it!

Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 7.19.10 AM.pngDo you examine each sentence to determine the value of every word? Each word has a “weight,” based on the fit of that word to meaning the author wishes to convey. You want words that convey  meaning; Words that are ambiguous or imperfect in their settings should be replaced. I should be far more vicious in my editing by looking for words that either 1.) don’t pull their weight or 2.) aren’t needed at all.

Let’s look at a few examples of my typical (bad) writing habits. Maybe you have these same habits?

Example #1: Too many words

“Blekinge County had an average rate of emigration per 1000 inhabitants of 8.2 individuals from 1881 to 1890, classifying it as a “medium” rate of emigration.”

Changed to:

“From 1880 to 1890, Blekinge County had an average rate of emigration per 1000 inhabitants of 8.2, a “medium” rate of emigration.”[2]

Two things happened: I removed “classifying it as.” They were unnecessary.  I also moved the year range to the front of the sentence, resulting in the modifying phrase, “a “medium” rate of emigration” adjacent to the number it was defining, “8.2.” This move made the number and its definition adjacent to each other and removed the intervening range of years, which would only confuse the reader. The word “had” is weak; I could exchange it for “exhibited,” but perhaps a more modest word is ok when you are presenting statistics. And that’s just one sentence!

Example #2: extraneous leading phrase

“I find that I include a lot of words I don’t need to.”

Changed to:

“I include many words I don’t need.”

The word “that” was the indicator. “I find that” was dropped as was the preposition at the end. I changed “a lot” for many–it just sounds better. Also, look for short qualifying phrases with little or no content, often followed by a comma, at the start of a sentence. “I think that,” or “I feel that.” These phrases equivocate your work and make your writing (and you) seem weaker to your reader. Incorporate the content into the sentence and eliminate the leading phrase.

Example #3: passive voice

“Between 1850 and 1900, there were 95 inhabitants anticipating emigration.”

changed to:

Between 1850 and1900, 95 inhabitants anticipated emigrating.

Whenever we can, we should change the sentence so there is an action verb instead of variations of “to be.” I find this hard with genealogy as there is no reasonable way to write the sentence any other way but “Fred was born on 22 September 1856.”

Example #4: weak action verb

It would be possible for an individual to leave the parish without getting a permit.

Change to:

It would be possible for an individual to leave the parish without obtaining a permit.

Somewhere on the spectrum of passive voice (bad) and terrific action verb (good), lies weak action verbs like “do” or “get.” Conduct a word search for all the “dos” and “gets” and test each with a more active verb.

Example #5: verbs that require a preposition

“Do you look at each sentence to determine the value of every word?

Changed to:

“Do you examine each sentence to determine the value of every word?”

“Look at” was exchanged with “examine.” While “look at” was probably ok, the word “examine” conveys a higher level of scrutiny and eliminated the pesky preposition.

These are just some of my bad habits, all taken from what I am writing now, including a first draft of this blog post! Scrutinize your writing. Perhaps hire a professional editor to look at some already published articles and give you a critique of the habits that occur over and over. What habits do you see and which ones are you trying to change?

This blog post was inspired by Melissa Johnson’s course at Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy this past January on “Technical Writing.” Thanks, Melissa.

Flatten the curve!


What I have done since the last post: As President of Seattle Genealogical Society, we have been active in re-defining ourselves in light of the coronavirus. This has taken a lot of work by many people. Check out our online activities at I also have (finally) had a break through on the paper I have been working on for over a month now on emigration from Sweden in the 1850-1900s. All data is now gathered and I am putting the article together; attended the Puget Sound-Association of Professional Genealogists meeting. We are going virtual! Yay!

[1] J. Howard Miller, “We Can Do It,” poster, National Archives, in public domain, c. 1942.
[2] The citation for this will be a reference to a table where I took all counties of Sweden, and calculated their rates of emigration, based on population and number of emigrants by county from the Swedish Statistika Centralbryån (National Central Bureau of Statistics) (SCB). The content of the table will be cited.



The Importance of Mistakes

Screen Shot 2020-03-17 at 11.50.45 AM.png
So many have told the story: after they submitted their portfolio, they looked at what they submitted and found errors. They then obsessed about them until they heard their results from the Board for Certification of Genealogists. [1]

But, those mistakes serve a purpose for all of us–submitters and wanna-be-submitters alike. They prove that perfection in a portfolio is NOT the standard by which the portfolios are judged. Thank goodness, or my portfolio would have hit the dustbin early.

The problem is when you review the sample portfolios at a conference or institute there is not enough time to identify those mistakes.  As a consequence, you leave that review thinking that the portfolio is perfect. The submitter knows their own work product has errors, but when you look at it–it looked perfect. Many decide to defer submission or not submit at all, because their portfolio would not be as perfect as those they had just reviewed.

And, so the myth begins—“my” portfolio had errors but “yours” didn’t; you received the credential and I won’t; I won’t submit because mine won’t be perfect; I will submit but be found wanting because of “all of my errors”. The obsessing begins while we wait.

Let me be clear, all portfolios have errors. And it’s true, if you make enough and they are bad enough mistakes, you won’t receive the credential.  But, some mistakes are more egregious than others. But, we most often seem to fuss over a comma here, a misspelling there, a goofed up citation here.

If each element of the portfolio is testing a skill, then it behooves us to not make a mistake on that skill. For example, if you link the wrong person to the wrong parent in your KDP–that’s a big deal.  Or, if you fail to address another same named individual in your Case Study, that will draw the ire of the judges. Does that mean you are out of the running?—no. The judges look at the totality of the submission. Here are some examples of mistakes made:

Research Report: I referred to the wrong person a couple of times in my RR. Of course, the judges caught the problem, because that section didn’t make sense.   I still received the credential.

KDP: I goofed on my numbering system and fussed about it. In the end, the judges didn’t seem to have even noticed it, but instead mentioned that I din’t have to follow such an elaborate numbering system at all because I had chosen “narrative lineage.” I still received the credential.

KDP: “I found a city directory for a Charles Olin in San Fransisco in 1912. The reviewer followed that through and said it was a different Charles Olin. Fortunately, I had enough other evidence in the case study about Charles Olin.”[3] Mary Roddy still received the credential.

Mary also, right before submission, found she had put the geographic place of interest on the wrong Great Lake.  It wasn’t Lake Erie; it was Lake Ontario![4] She changed it before submittal and received the credential.

Perfection is not the standard, but, that doesn’t give you a license to be sloppy.  Do your best work, so you can be proud of what you submit. Then read the judge’s comments and learn from them. Think of it this way– if you get very few comments from the judges, you probably had a very good portfolio, but you haven’t learned much from the judges’ comments.  Comments by judges or journal peer reviewers force us to look at our writing more closely.

That’s a good thing.

Should your portfolio not earn the credential, think about how much you learned by just doing the portfolio in the first place! Then, try again.

Mistakes are an important part of the learning process. Watch a toddler learn to walk or watch me ski, if you don’t believe me.

If you want to know more: See the article by Alison Hare, CG at “Skillbuilding: A Look at BCG’s Evaluation System.” (second row, first article)

Happy hunting,


PS: I do not speak for BCG. Your experience may be different. This blog is my experience or those experiences of others who have elected to share them with me, and for that I am eternally grateful.  YMMV.

What I have done since the last blog post: not much—pet the cat, make my hubby’s birthday cake, reviewed the emigrants from Björskog parish from 1850-1880 (only 20 more years to go!), etc.

[1] A “portfolio” is a 6 part submission to the Board for Certification of Genealogists to be reviewed by three judges. The portfolio is judged based on rubrics. If the portfolio is adequate, the submitter receives the credential of Certified Genealogist.
[2] Facebook, Photo by Mary Roddy, 17 March 2020, Used with permission.
[3] Mary Roddy, Personal Message to Jill Morelli, 17 March 2020.
[4] Ibid.



Conducting Your Own Context Study

Swedish emigrationI have been working on a paper that I tentatively had called “Baptist Emigration from Hishult Parish, Sweden in the 19th Century.” This is my own research. How does one go about conducting your own study. I had questions: Were there other Baptists in the parish? Did all of them emigrate?  When did they emigrate–earlier or later than the general population?

I was interested in this topic because my ancestors were ardent Baptists from Hishult in a Lutheran country. I could find some documentation on Baptists in Sweden but I couldn’t find anything about the Baptists in “my” parish. I decided to conduct my own study.

I floundered around for a while and now the working title is “An Investigation of the Emigration Patterns of Three Parishes in Sweden in the 19th Century.” Quite a change from the initial focus.

I thought I would share some of my problems and successes with this project so you, too, could conduct your own contextual study if needed; you would have a rough idea of the steps involved in doing so; and you would understand some of the issues you might face.

  1. Be inquisitive! You might never embark on conducting your own study if you are not inquisitive in the first place. Genealogists by nature should be very interested in finding out whether our ancestors were unique or were they “going with the flow.”
  2. Devise a good research question. What question(s) are you trying to answer? As you can see from the two working titles of the paper, my research focus has changed, from Baptists to emigrants, from one parish to three. You might even have a hypothesis, but be careful.  You do not want to research with an assumption of the answer–confirmation bias.
  3.  Conduct a literature search–a topical search. You need to know what already has been published on or about your topic before you start.  You may find that you do not need to conduct the study or you may find there is very little written about your topic. JSTOR is your friend. JSTOR compiles articles written by academics about topics we are interested in.[1] I have found articles in JSTOR on literacy in Sweden in the 1800s; bankruptcy of Iowa banks in the 1930s; and women in mental institutions in the 19th century. You may have to go to an academic library to access this database.
  4. Be flexible. When I decided to add two more parishes to the project, I felt I would get a broader picture of the situation at a parish level. But when I identified there are no Baptists in the other two parishes, the impact of the paper was diminished if I continued with a focus on Baptists. I had two choices–I could look for other parishes with Baptists or change my focus. I took the easy way out. There are over 2500 parishes in Sweden and the concept of identifying those with Baptists AND finding parishes that were similar to Hishult was daunting. I had the luxury of changing the focus. You might not have that luxury.
  5. Decide what data you need and where to find it. I was lucky to have found the Swedish Statistika Centralbryån (National Central Bureau of Statistics or SCB), which had population statistics in the 1800s for Sweden and for the counties.[2] I found it by reading a book written in 1976 of emigration to America from Sweden, and it referenced the source of their data as the SCB.[3] (see graph above of the rate of emigration/1000 residents of Sweden, between 1850-1900 [4])
  6. Conduct a beta test on a small scale to see what you find. I did this on Hishult before adding the other two parishes. I found that I had to do most of my own data collection at the parish level and I wanted to ask the question “How does my parish compare with the nation and the county?” To do that it would be necessary to compare Sweden’s numbers with the county’s numbers with the parish’s numbers.  The study expanded.
  7. Be flexible–again. Knowing that the county of Halland, within which Hishult lies, had a high rate of emigration, I asked another research question, “How does Hishult compare with a similar parish in low and medium rate counties?” The study expanded again.
  8. Decide what is the best way to display your data. Tables? charts? Narrative? Narrative is rarely the way to show numbers over time and so I knew that I would ned to use Excel and have Excel make the graphs. I didn’t know how to make them read right and clearly illustrate my points—so I learned. One graph was worthless because the numbers were so small, so I switched it to a table. I also wanted to know where the Hishult Baptists who emigrated were located, so I added two maps.
  9. Keep writing! As you put your concepts down you may find your focus may change–again.  It’s alright.
  10. Don’t stop until you are finished and you aren’t done until it is published. I am hoping to present the findings of this paper at the SLIG Colloquium 2021 and if possible, find a journal that would publish it.

I hope that his has been inspiring or at least interesting to you. I will keep you posted on my progress.

I have also found that I miss blogging. Hopefully, you will hear from me more often–or at least more often during this virus lockdown.

Happy Hunting,


What I have done since my last blog post: two more of the conferences I was going to speak at are cancelled for this year; I am President of Seattle Genealogical Society and we are deciding, on a two week rolling schedule, what to cancel next and how to bring online content to our members; and I continue to count emigrants and population in parish #3, Björskog in Västmanland, the county in the low category of emigration.

[1] JSTOR, There is some free digital content. Look there first.
[2] Statistika Centralbryån (National Central Bureau of Statistics) (SCB), “Historisk Statistik för Sverige, Del. 1 Befolkning, Andra upplagan, 1720-1967 (Historical Statistics for Sweden, Part 1: Population, second edition).”  If you are interested in accessing this Swedish historical data (pre-1960) you can find it here:ör%20Sverige%201700-1900-tal/Del1-Befolkning-1720-1967.pdf
[3] Harald Runblom and Hans Norman, editors. From Sweden to American: A History of the Migration. A collective work of the Uppsala Migration Research Project. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976.
[4] SCB: For population: “Tab. 2Folkmängden dem 31 December 1749-1855,” p. 44; For emigration: “Tab. 43. Ut- och invandrare samt omflyttningsresultat 1851-1908,” p. 120.

KDP: “Story” or Biographical Narrative?

The KDP: Is it a “story” or a “biographical narrative”? This will take a little explaining, so stick with me here.

When the Certification Discussion Group (CDG) meets in session six (the Kinship Determination Project or KDP), I try to explain how I define each term by asking each attendee if they are natural born story tellers or  technical writers. Each person self identifies easily. There is usually a spectrum of writers of each type who desire to attain the credential of Certified Genealogist. from the Board for Certification of Genealogists, but most lean, sometimes heavily, towards the label of technical writers.

On 11 March 2020, Lynn Palermo of Family History Writing Studio wrote “Why you should almost never end your ancestor’s story with their death.“[1] While often her tips are germane to the portfolio writing (e.g. time management, writing transitions, etc.), in this episode she urged us to not end your family history story with “Fred Smith died 8 August 1872 in Buffalo, New York,” but rather with a value statement. I was just about to write that those of you working on your Kinship Determination Project didn’t need to listen to her tip of the week, because it doesn’t have anything to do with writing a “biographical narrative” like the KDP.

That would have been bad advice. 

I decided to look at the last paragraphs in the eight successful portfolios in the Certification Discussion Group’s library to see how each submitter ended the three generations of their KDP.[2]

  • If the submitter wrote about the death and gave the date or reported factual information related to the death, e.g. probate, heirs, the number of individuals at the funeral, I categorized the ending as “died.”
  • If the submitter ended the generation with a value statement that might be a “lesson for life,” I categorized the end as “value.”
  • If the submitter wrote anything else other than a paragraph(s) that could be labeled a “value” statement or “died, then it was labeled “other.”

Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 7.50.20 PM.png

In the examples above, there is a preponderance of “she died…” statements.

In the discussion that ensued, Cinda Baxter contributed:

“Kinship Determination Projects are REPORTS.

  • KDPs require very specific structural elements, including birth, marriage & death facts…
  • KDPs are not supposed to follow a “plot;” they need to follow a factual timeline.
  • Some generations may provide the freedom to end on a value, while others are better served ending on a factual event (death).
  • Although written in narrative form, they aren’t “stories about…how [ancestors] changed the course of your family history.”… 

Family history writing for other audiences/purposes provides the freedom to craft narrative as a storyline…”[3]

Genealogy Standards requires us, in Standard 73. Biographical Information: to provide details which provide “sufficient information about each person’s or family’s….circumstances…to identify them uniquely within the context of their historical era, society and geographic place.”[4]

Your emigrant’s hair may have blown in the wind as the boat sailed across the ocean, but  where is your evidence of that and does it support their place in the context of their life? The evidence you provide has to be meaningful to the narrative, supporting your case that this is one individual with one life, with no confusion with another individual. What you write in your KDP has to be “relevant.”

There is a broad spectrum from “boring recitation of facts” to “the wind blowing in her hair.” The writing of a KDP leans towards the “boring recitation of facts” rather than “the wind”, but that leaves a lot of latitude for that “really cool story” that you want to include— if documented. Remember, the POINT of the KDP is to show that your individual is not being confused with another individual and they have a smooth transition of life events that are consistent and not conflicting.

Notice that I am not making a judgement as to how you ought to end your KDP, but rather I am showing that there are multiple ways to end each generation.

[1] Lynn Palermo, “Why you should never end your ancestor’s story with their death,” Family History Writing Studio, 11 March 2020 (  : accessed 11 March 2020), video clip.
[2] The Certification Discussion Group has a private webpage for attendees of the course only. At this time there are eight portfolios in the library. If you are interested in taking the course, see The program is sponsored by the Seattle Genealogical Society, 6200 Sand Point Way, Seattle, WA.
[3] Cinda Baxter, response to Facebook post by Jill Morelli,  “Certification Discussion Group,” Facebook, ( : 11 March 2020). This is a private Facebook group for former attendees of the course only. Ms. Baxter’s response is used with her permission and is lightly edited.
[4] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, Second Edition (Nashville, Tennessee :, 2019) 40.



WAYtoGo: An Efficient Way to Write

WAYtoGoHearing a number of people asking for some assistance in how to “write as you go,” Seattle Genealogical Society agreed that I could developed an online workshop to do just that! This two session workshop will be oriented towards the intermediate to advanced researcher, but it should be helpful to anyone who is trying to solve a brick wall, write a case study or client report.

The “write as you go” course, WAYtoGo, is now open for registration.  There are assignments! It is recommended that you spend at least 10 hours on the “assignment.”

You can find out more information at

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last “post” (when I took down the post on verifying my lineage using DNA for my portfolio): I attended FGS and had an extended conversation with Karen Stanbary about what I posted. I am now reworking it. Oh, and I presented 3 times at FGS.  I have to get working on my syllabi for the North Carolina GS conference I will be attending in 1 & 2 November. I am probably already behind!