Wednesday, November 10, 2010

BCG Lecture: Elizabeth Shown Mills

Elizabeth Shown MillsI wrote last week about the Board for Certification of Genealogists lectures in Salt Lake last month.

I was able to slip away from work to attend Elizabeth Shown Mills's lecture, "Finding Origins and Birth Families." It was fantastic. She used the metaphor of "boxing ourselves in" and "thinking outside the box" to address mistakes we often make in our research.

One common box we get ourselves into is placing implicit trust in any record. Mills illustrated with a case study in which the National Archives had made a mistake in its military pension files. It led to a dead end and a lot of wasted research.

Source Citations

Another common box is weak documentation. She compared the need to document each little bit of information to a garden store's need to document each little seed packet. Without that documentation, you really don't know what you've got.

When Mills and her husband edited the NGS Quarterly a writer submitted an article with a citation that addressed only one of the two basic citation needs. It included enough information to hunt down a copy of the cited periodical. But the writer forgot the other important function of a citation: It gave no indication of quality. When the citation was corrected, it cast considerable doubt on the information provided.

Incomplete Research

Incomplete research can lead researchers to mistakenly conclude that two records refer to the same individual. This happens when they don’t take the time to uniquely identify two individuals. (Sound familiar? The ability to match is difficult, but essential. To see my earlier article on the topic, see “Genealogist-ologist-ologist.”)

Mills’s case study involved two individuals with the same name living in the same place at the same time. She recognized there were two because both were enumerated in the census. I pulled up to see for myself. The name was…

Wait a minute. This may make a good test…

Thank you, Elizabeth. I’m better prepared now to avoid boxing myself in.


For the rest of you, be prepared to work with boxes of a different sort next time. Learn what kind of test I have in mind. You will not need to bring a #2 pencil. Stay tuned…

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