David Rencher, the Chief Genealogical Officer at FamilySearch, presented a session at the 2014 annual conference of the National Genealogical Society. It was titled, “Framing the Problem for Overseas Research.” Rencher has noticed that when people make genealogy trips overseas, they often fail to accomplish their objectives. Thinking about frames can help us have success.
Each of us has a frame in which we view a problem. Identify your desired outcome and then frame your objective.
You need to manage your frames. Recognize that your frame is not complete. If you know the boundaries of your frame, you recognize other frames lying outside of those boundaries. For example, if you are used to using U.S. land records, and you try to apply that to, say, Irish land records, you will have problems. Only the upper 10% of people owned land in Ireland. The indexes are different. Applying the same frame to both does not work.
At the end of WWII an American Intelligence Officer was asked to find war criminals. The officer thought through the problem, thinking about how the criminals would think. Rather than trying to hunt down each one of them, he ran an ad in the Berlin newspapers asking for security experts, figuring they would apply. Sure enough, many applied for the job. That young officer was Henry Kissinger.
You know you need a new frame when you’re getting poor results, having surprising outcomes, and having difficulties communicating your frame. If you’re driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, you see one view through your front window. If you’re in a boat driving under the bridge, you see a different view. If you’re in an airplane, you see yet another view.
Ask yourself some basic questions. What boundaries do I put on the question? How do I measure success and failure? What metaphors do I use in thinking about the issue? Why do I think about this issue the way I do? What does the frame emphasize and minimize? Do others think differently about the issue?
Identify your desired outcomes for travelling overseas. Some might want nothing more than to stand on the old homestead. Others might want to identify and meet living relatives. Others want proof that they came from a particular parish. Some may want to visit the homeland area, learn the history, and visit historic sites in the area.
Your objective frames the research problem. You need to stay lasered on your objective. Depending on what you want to do, you prepare differently, you plan to visit different archives, and you plan to look at different records.
Say you wish to find the property where your ancestor lived. You’re going to check tax records, detailed survey maps, deed and mortgage records, and landed family estate papers.
For this objective, you should plan to visit the National Archives, the Ordinance Survey Map Office, map collections at national libraries, and local record offices.
For other objectives, you approach the objective differently. (Rencher went through each of the objectives he’d listed earlier and outlined the different records and archives. The records and archives varied accordingly.)
If you go overseas and you have not locked in where you’re going to go and what you’re going to look at, you’re not going to be as successful. Be lasered on the objective.
Think of many alternatives to pursue during a trip. Have backup plans. Build in consistencies. Say for example, you can’t find a person in a particular parish. What are you going to do? What adjoining parishes might have the record? What places might have duplicates of the records?
Our minds usually ignore evidence which does not fit into our frame. Sometimes we try to dismiss it. Challenge your assumptions. Some of you have made assumptions about your family and don’t have evidence about it. Ask others about the problem. Then listen; don’t interrupt with comments like “done that.” Label knowledge as known, presumed, or unclear.
Be realistic about what can be accomplished in a day. Visiting an archive may involve waiting late in the morning for the archive to open, registering, receiving instructions, looking through indexes, waiting through staff breaks, waiting for records to be delivered from storage, and leaving at the close of the business day. Dinner is a 2.5 hour process there. Realistically, you may get in only four or five hours of productive research.
Lastly, have fun!