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.


Genealogy as an Academic Discipline

At the Colloquium held at Salt Lake City on the Saturday between the Association of Professional Genealogist’s (APG) Professional Management Conference (PMC) and the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG), genealogy as an academic discipline was the first of three topics presented that day.  Some of the best genealogical minds–Craig Scott, Jay Fonkert, Jean Hibben and Tom Jones–participated in the discussion. You can see my initial blog posting here.  Our host was the Utah Genealogical Society.

“The GPS and Beyond: Genealogy as a Profession,” presented by Jay Fonkert, addressed the challenge of genealogy being taken seriously as an academic discipline.  The conversation which followed the presentation continued for about 40 minutes without clear direction of next steps and with an air of frustration by the audience.

Before I proceed, a little background might be helpful.  There is a perception (?) that genealogy is not taken seriously by academia.  The contention is that genealogists are not scholarly enough.  In spite of these attitudes, even in my lifetime I have seen significant advances made by genealogy and genealogists. In the past 20 years, Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, Thomas W. Jones, CG and others have, by teaching and by example, encouraged and cajoled us to impose a scholarly approach to our family history. A entire generation of genealogists have benefited from their selfless commitment to “raising the bar.”

But, the the question remains….what do we as scholars and genealogists want?

It’s a simple question. Do we even know? Is “it” something we can actually affect?  Or is “it” something we have to earn?  Or a combination?

So, I pose some questions for you, the readers…

 If genealogy became an academic discipline, what would be different?

If genealogy became an academic discipline, what would be the same?

First, let’s start with a definition of “discipline” in our context. The OED defines discipline as “7.a. A branch of learning or knowledge; a field of study or expertise; a subject. Now also: a subcategory or element of a particular subject or field.”1

In a survey (very limited numbers and a regional subset of genealogists2) genealogy was identified as being most closely aligned with history and cultural anthropology and that academics within those fields do not value the micro-history which we find so fascinating.

So, here are some questions, of which I have no answers…

  • Is there a lack of respect by mainstream academics or are we just imagining that it exists?
  • If it exists, what is the basis for this lack of respect? …was it deserved? …have we ever asked?
  • Is the level of acceptance and/or respect changing?  If so, how much?
  • What does genealogy have to offer the other academic pursuits?
  • What baggage do we bring?
  • Can we affect change?
  • What are we doing to change the attitudes of others? …can we do more?
  • Does technology have an impact on our acceptance? (see article below by O’Hare.)
  • Are there any downsides to acceptance as a discipline, e.g. being subsumed?
  • What would be the criteria by which we would measure whether we were a discipline or not?

These are just some late night thoughts.

Of course, I will not let it alone.  I am a bit of a “dog on a bone” on this topic. I would appreciate any comments about approaches to advance the discipline of genealogy and on this blog in general.

You might want to read:

O’Hare, Sheila. “Genealogy and History.”, April 2002. : accessed 5 February 2015) 2 : 3.

I will soon have a reading list for you, if you wish to learn more.  I will, however, continue to explore this topic in this blog and outside of it.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last posting: I have been working on the completion of my presentation for the South King County Genealogical Society on “An Overview of Scandinavian Records.”  I am pleased with the product but it, like “House History–Wherever You Live,” has taken an enormous amount of time to put together.  I hope to wrap it up this weekend.  I attended two GS Board meetings and made a decision not to run for office of one of them.  I had a wonderful lunch with my genealogical friend who challenged my thinking on this blog.  Thanks, Lisa!

1 Online Oxford English Dictionary. December 2013 update. : accessed 5 February 2015.

2 I confess, I asked my friends!