First Things First: a Literature Search

Clock 3I have been working on my Kinship Determination Project (KDP, a component of the BCG portfolio and struggling with the writing, In spite of Judy Russell’s admonition to “have fun,” writing does not come easily to me, but like most genealogists, I like the research and I get the papers written.1  What emerged while I was struggling with writing was I needed a theme to tie the generations together.  Lucky for me, a theme was emerging.

Photo above.2

Now, of course, due to the BCG requirements I cannot write about my KDP theme and certainly not about the family.

For my KDP, the theme emerged after I had picked the family.  Usually, when I decide to write, it is because a theme has picked me!  Often a theme of inquiry has been sparked by an ancestor’s life experience.  In those cases, my writing is not focused on the family, but rather I am writing about the theme.  The KDP is more like the former–it is about the family that has a theme–a twist which makes a difference in how you approach the writing.

I have been looking at the schism between historians and genealogists.  I am trying to understand the basis for the different points of view and to determine if there is any mechanism for narrowing the gap. To more fully understand that gap, I must also understand what constitutes an “academic discipline” and where genealogy succeeds and fails in reaching the goal of being a discipline in the academic sense.

What is the theme?  — the gap between historians and genealogists.  Where do I go for help first? My first stop is the library.  I am lucky — I have easy access to a fine academic library and, sometimes more importantly, several librarians for friends who are also genealogists.

This search in research parlance is a “literature search.”  There are many different reasons for doing a literature search but for this purpose you are trying to find what others have written, educate oneself in the vocabulary and identify the issues.  I also strive to accumulate a library of materials on my topic.

Research Question:  “What elements define an academic discipline and which of those elements does genealogy possess or which are missing?”

I start my search in a orderly way whatever is the topic of my investigation:

  • I read any Wikipedia articles on the topic–yup, I’ll admit of “dipping into the Wiki.”  But I do this to obtain the first level of background and to determine my search terms for the real investigation.
    Result: This was not a place that provided germane information for this field of inquiry.
  • I conduct a simple Google search–this sometimes is too big of a “place” to search, so unless my search terms are narrow, I will sometimes wait until I can use search terms which draw the confines of the results tighter around the topic.
    Result: I found some interesting articles, mostly by Elizabeth Shown Mills on history and genealogy.
  • I search my academic library and specifically JSTOR.  JSTOR is a database of scholarly journal articles from late 1800s.  (I recently conducted a search on Bethlem Hospital and got entries in a British medical journal from 1885!)
    Result: For this topic I found most of my possible sources here.
  • Using my academic library, I search for books on the topic. Many times these are available at my library, on line and through inter-library loan.
    Result: Again, for this topic, genealogy as an academic discipline is not the “right kind of topic” for this media.
  • I identify and search specialty databases.  Recently, iIwas researching an architect on the west coast.  I would check the Pacific Coast Architects Database (PCAD); a health issue might compel me to look in PubMed. Although I have never had great luck with it, I usually also look at ABClio, a social science database.
    Result: This source did not result in any sources on genealogy as a discipline.
  •  I search online newspapers, historic and contemporary
    Result: The discipline of genealogy is not a topic that editors would select.
  •  I then conduct a “do-over”.  I often have learned something along the way that now will make the sorts more fruitful and so I start over.
    Result: After a conversation with a public historian, I did a “do-over” and got several more hits in JSTOR and Google.

I am going to post my findings in a separate blog post as this one is getting longer than I thought it would be! But, not every of my “go-to” sites yields fruit every time for every topic.  Some topics lend themselves to books (Norwegian migration, insanity in the 19th century) and others lend themselves to articles (genealogy as a discipline, Swedish literacy)

But, what I am saying in a round about way is–for me to write my KDP “story” I have to have a theme that ties the generations together.  The theme is not as large as “world peace” but also not as granular as Jed Smith was born and so were his descendants.  I had one family I considered for my KDP where the only theme I could come up with was “unremarkable lives making remarkable decisions”.

So, if you are stuck on writing your KDP, think about your theme and then loosen up those ideas by doing a literature search and see where it takes you.  You might find that the writing comes easier if there is a thread that ties the generations together, because there usually is.

How do you conduct your search for “context”?  What are your go-to sites?  Does your KDP have a theme?  Does that help or hinder?

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last posting: In the next four weeks I am making seven presentations.  I have been toning up the presentations, sending out the syllabi, setting up the web site for each presentation, and testing my computer and projector (had to enlist hubby last night to help get the “presenter view” to show correctly, but I got the remote to work!) Note to self: print evaluations.  I have found most societies do not distribute evaluations and so I bring my own. Had lunch with a librarian/genealogist/friend and discussed the state of the genealogy nation. I volunteered to pull the ProGen group together at Jamboree (CA) in June and to work the APG table at NGS (MO) in May. See you in MO!

1This admonition was repeated numerous times by Judy in her BCG webinar on writing the KDP. I was lucky enough to have heard it but I, like many, will have to wait to have it posted on the BCG website.
2 Isn’t this an elegant clock/compact! I can imagine Mia Farrow in “The Great Gatsby” carrying it or perhaps Lauren Bacall? Photo taken by me of the watch in the collection of the Elgin Historical Museum in Elgin, Illinois, June 2014.


3 comments on “First Things First: a Literature Search

  1. a gray says:

    In your search for a theme, consider what you find in your research is either provocative or evocative. That done, the theme will present itself.

    • Jill Morelli says:

      Good advice Allen. But, sometimes the theme leaps out at us (Dirk and 19th c. insanity) and other times it is elusive and more hidden. The theme for the KDP revealed itself slowly–it didn’t leap out and it didn’t hide.

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