Monday, December 5, 2011

Getting Local with Research

I write and speak a lot about my preference to use original or printed resources in my research.  I like microfilm and am glad to use it when it is my only resource. However, when given the choice, I will always prefer to work with original records or copy books.

I know some people feel differently and would rather exhaust the resources on microfilm before having to look elsewhere.  If I lived in Salt Lake City I would probably feel that way.  Anyone with access to the vast collections at the Family History Library would surely have a preference for microfilm.

I straddle two research worlds - that of house historian and genealogist.  When I began to focus and specialize on house histories my point of view began to change.  When I read In Small Things Forgotten by James Deetz my thoughts regarding how to view and conduct research changed even further.

Instead of tracing people strictly through documents I began to want to explore and understand their world more.  When you are a house historian this is a very easy thing to do because all the research, primarily, is focused on one town.

I became interested in material culture and wanted to be able to find and touch the objects that my ancestors or research targets had touched.  These include historic homes that are still standing in the towns they lived in and the gravestones in the cemeteries.  It also includes church buildings, commercial buildings, stone walls, town pounds, old pathways and forgotten railway tracks. It can even include oil paintings and antique furniture.

Along the way I discovered that good family history research is really a combination of archival research (tracing the documents) and material culture research (exploring the physical objects).

As I got local to look for houses and gravestones I also discovered that an awful lot of unique archival documents are hiding themselves away in Town Hall basements, historical societies, town libraries, private collections and manuscript collections.  These documents can take the researcher through brick walls and beyond to help put your ancestor into proper context.

That, of course (hopefully, as it did for me) will lead researchers to local history (as well as regional and national history) to better understand the events that surrounded and impacted their ancestors lives.

Wrap all this together and what do you get? Locally focused research.  Some people refer to this as location based research.

I have to admit that conducting locally based research has so affected my point of view that it has impacted my ability and desire to do research on my far flung ancestors in New York, Pennsylvania and beyond.

Yes, learning as much as you possibly can from afar is great and an effective thing to do.  But because I know how much information is hiding locally, doing distance research really frustrates me if I can't get local to explore for myself.

I really have a strong desire to visit the town(s) of my research.  I don't feel settled until I've done it.  This was the case recently when I working on finding Nathan Brown's parents.  I had to visit Warren, Rhode Island and Charlton, Massachusetts and see the towns as he saw them and walk the streets and meander through the cemetery.

A lot of people will disagree with me that this is necessary for genealogical research.  And for strictly genealogical research that's true.  But for myself, I can't be satisfied that I really understand what I am researching until I get local.


  1. Ahh, you've hit the nail squarely.

    In addition to archival research and material culture research I might add acquiring a sense of prevailing social mores and the attitudes accompanying them.

    I'm an indexer by trade and therefore tuned into the "nitty-gritty details without glorification" mindset but to me, for genealogy that doesn't work; it seems like only a portion of what's needed.

    Thank you very much for the reminder.

    SJ, in Maine

  2. Hi Marian,

    Yes, you got to get 'local'!
    Walk the streets, imagine what the Ancestors looked at, and what they held in their hands, etc.

    Great post. I enjoyed it

    Peace & Blessings,
    "Guided by the Ancestors"

  3. I remember how I trembled when I held an 180 year old piece of paper written by an ancestor that was located in a local archive. I remember the excitement when walking the land that they worked. It is such an advantage to visit an area and walk in the footsteps of ancestors. I do most of my research through online resources or microfilm but only because my parents moved from Ohio to California thus leaving me thousands of miles from the states where my ancestors lived and worked. I cherish the trips (never enough of them) that I have been able to make.

  4. I too am a paper person, and prefer to do research in the original paper records, but I volunteered in the county courthouse and saw the condition of some of the old records. I trembled when ever I had to make a copy of the oldest and most fragile of the records, so I am glad they have been scanned put online, and the paper originals are now stored in a climate controlled archives so they will be available hundreds of years from now.

  5. I totally understand what you mean about wanting to touch what they touched. I have often stood in places and wondered if my ancestor(s) stood in the very same spot.

    I feel a major stroke of excitement when I see something that appears to be written in the subject's own hand. I'm sure most here will get that but others would think us nuts!

    I love original records but because so many that I work with are old and fragile, it would be preferable to use microfilm or digital copies and only use the originals as necessary. It makes me cringe to turn the pages of some of the old books and literally have them disintegrate in your hand. Those little flecks of dried paper fall off, never to be returned to the original condition. We are very lucky to have alternate preservation options and such diligent archivists these days!

  6. For the first five years of my search, I was only interested in following the document trail to stretch my family tree. Eventually I reached the point where to progress further mandated trips out to the east coast (I live in the midwest) to dig around old written records that can't be found online. I stopped for awhile.

    Then I started digging into the lives of my closer ancestors and trying to understand the context they lived in and found my true passion. This past summer, I spent a rainy afternoon poking around my 3rd great grandfather's barn imagining him building it, working in it and spending a rainy day sitting on the threshold overlooking the valley just as I was. Those are the memories that stick with me and drive me to continue researching their lives. For now, those undiscovered distant ancestors can wait until I happen to be out in their proximity sometime in the future.

  7. So very true! That feeling of unrest, discontent, almost physical need to see where they lived, what they saw, what the town was like...all those things! You described it perfectly!

  8. Very good post, Marian! I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of Deetz's book the next time I'm at the library. I read a book about a Jamestown VA archaeological dig years ago and it really stirred my imagination into the lives of my ancestors during that time period. And there is nothing like being able to touch a artifact that was once touched by an ancestor!

  9. I agree with your post. Local history, family history and genealogy all go hand in hand. I am not just interested in names and dates on a family tree. I want to know/see/understand where my ancestors lived, what went on in their everyday life and how the events impacted their lives and the lives of future generations. I decided awhile ago to take an active role in preserving the history of the communities where my ancestors lived and encourage other family historian/genealogist to do the same.

    Marion Woodfork Simmons