Learning to Research Background Information

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Kay Haviland Freilich wrote and article entitled, "Skill Building: Background Information: An Overlooked Research Tool" which appeared in the September 2005 issue of On Board: Newsletter of the Board for Certification of Genealogists pages 17 and 18. She wrote about the importance of knowing the background information on our ancestors time and place. She zeroed in on learning the laws, geographic and political jurisdictional changes, and the creation of records. This is the sort of thing librarians have training in, searching for background information. How do they do it?

Here's an idea to learn from a competent professional librarian how they approach a problem and what resources they would consult. First you need a "problem" for them to work on. Here's the fictional case:

"William Gifford leaves a younger son, possibly named John, to run his farm and store in Stephentown, New York in 1768 and follows his eldest son William Junior to Raleigh in what is now, North Carolina where he buys a second farm, and opens another store. He dies near Culpepper, Virginia while travelling home from the marriage of his youngest son in 1773."

Now the questions:

  • For each locality how do we determine the county and township parameters in 1768-73?
  • Which court would have jurisdiction over his estate for the purposes of probate?
  • How would the property be divided? What rules apply?
  • What was a legal age for marriage in in Virginia?
  • Would tax records in New York identify the son (the tenant of his father)

This would be an interesting exercise for a university law or history librarian, and result in an eye-opening presentation for a genealogy group. What do you think?

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3 responses to “Learning to Research Background Information

  1. Hope you don’t mind an aspirant jumping in.

    It would indeed be a great exercise, not only for law or history librarians, but for general reference or (of course) genealogy librarians as well. Not to mention for students as well!

    This is starting me thinking on the kinds of ideas I might start to develop, for example, to present to my local genealogical society. That sounds like a dandy start for me to develop skills in lecturing, which is what I want to do. (I also want to write in the field, and have been contributing articles to the society’s quarterly.)

    How do you develop ideas for lectures? Where would you look for a case like the one above? Is it pretty much the same process as developing article ideas, or do you see some significant differences?

  2. Karen, et al
    The wonderful thing about reading articles in scholarly genealogy journals like The American Genealogist or the National Genealogical Society Quarterly is that they inspire you to think. The little case study I wrote for this was inspired by just such and article. I changed the names, places, and part of the problem to focus on what I thought a good law librarian or social sciences/ history librarian could wrap their brains around.

    How do I develop ideas for lectures? Originally I focussed on creating lectures to introduce specific records and how to find, and use them. You might, for example, select a topic like Lutheran baptismal records, and study them in detail, then teach people about them. How they were created, evolved etc., how they were stored, archived, microfilmed, etc. Then how to use thm to correlate with other records– like census records for instance.

    Later I began to look at how social scientists and historical demographers used records and looked to how genealogists to use them in similar ways. Recently I've been looking at the BCG Standards Manual and thinking how to relate the standards to my experiences– Heavan only knows in 25 years I've done a lot wrong– these experiences can be used to create little case problems that draw on the standards to resolve.

    Occasionally I have been inspired by badly written articles in local genealogy journals where faulty logic is apparent to me. I of course rework the data, or research a comparable problem to use in the presentation.

    Read the past postings for other ideas.

  3. Thanks so much. This website is a goldmine, especially for an aspiring genealogy writer/lecturer like me! I’ve learned a great deal just today (well, yesterday and today, as it’s 2:43 a.m. here (Florida)!

    Ideas seem to come to me in conversations. I was talking to the president of our local genealogical society (the Southern Genealogists’ Exchange Society) and mentioned lineage societies. “Why don’t I do an article on them for the quarterly?” Jon liked the idea, and now that I’ve begun researching it, it is turning out to be a series of articles. It’s a very large topic.

    And this evening, talking to my younger daughter, I came up with ideas for an article or a talk on black sheep (I’m a member of the International Black Sheep Society of Genealogists) and on genealogy frauds to watch out for. I need to start a file already.

    Again, thanks for hosting this site.

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