08 May 2013

NGS: Day 1

I have been eagerly anticipating Day 1 of the National Genealogical Society Conference and I was not disappointed. The day started with a welcome from NGS President and awards to many deserving recipients. That was the appetizer to the Opening Session that followed: 

"People, Policy and Records: The Importance of Historical Background" 

by Marian Smith, Chief, Historical Research Branch, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

Smith took the type of approach genealogists should love: she looked at a well known compiled record and asked "who developed this source and why?" Certainly these questions are ones that we should be asking any time we use a compiled source.

The Morton Allan Directory of European Passenger Steamship Arrivals, published in 1931, has been a mainstay in genealogy for many years. It provided a list of steamship arrivals in New York and other ports that was useful for genealogists seeking manifest records. 

For those of us who began pursuing family history in the Internet age, using online indices, perhaps this book is not the important source it once was. But its story, as researched and resolved by Marian Smith over an 8-10 year quest, tells us about not only the people involved in its compilation, but also the issues, important at the time, to which the volume's production was responsive.

As useful as the volume has been to genealogists seeking ancestors' manifests, it seems to have been compiled to help immigrants who had arrived in the United States after 1906 and had to provide information on when and on what ship they'd arrived. Whether it helped or hindered that effort is an open question.

Smith's research story and methodology effectively demonstrated that no piece of the research puzzle is ever wasted and that we should not take any resource at face value.

Immediately after the Opening Session I headed to the NGS booth and purchased the two newest NGS publications: Mastering Genealogical Proof by Thomas W. Jones and NGS Research in the States Series: New York City, Long Island, and Westchester County by Laura Murphy DeGrazia. I started reading Jones' book over dinner.

I was concerned that presentations by Thomas W. Jones and Elizabeth Shown Mills would be standing room only, so I arrived about 30 minutes early and managed to find seats near the front of both large rooms. Later, I managed to score a similarly situated seat for Warren Bittner's talk.

Perhaps this as a function of my research interests and the talks I've chosen to attend, but all three seemed to strike some of the same tones as Marian Smith: trust nothing and nobody and vigorously analyze and evaluate records, information and evidence. All three used the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) as the structured basis of their research.

"Debunking Misleading Records"

by Thomas W. Jones

Jones presented a structured approach, a four-step process, for evaluating the veracity of the information found in particular sources. This is particularly geared toward resolving conflicts in information found in a variety of sources. 

He noted that by his estimation, perhaps 5-10 % of records are wrong. Blindly trusting single sources, even eyewitness records, may create brick walls. Jones identified some of the reasons records may mislead and then discussed a process for detecting erroneous records. 

"The Genealogical Proof Standard in Action"

by Elizabeth Shown Mills

Mills' talk emphasized how to build a case when there is no one document that solves the posed research problem. She described genealogical proof as a process and a test of reliability and she used the latest Board for Certification of Genealogists GPS map to structure her lecture.[1] 

She opined that in genealogy, which she sees as "micro-history," the accuracy of our conclusions depends in the preciseness of our research. We must integrate and correlate details; study, not just gather, information and evidence; analyze new details against what's already known; and watch for patterns. We must not only outline our theory of what occurred, but also try to disprove it.

I liked this quote from Mills: "To understand a critter, you study him in his native habitat." 

"Impossible Immigrant! I know Everything About the Man, Except Where He Came From"

by Warren Bittner 

Warren Bittner also started his talk with the GPS, but as the title of his presentation suggests, his search was beyond reasonable and definitely was exhausting. He sought the home village of his German ancestors. It was a long and finally fruitful task.

He was refreshingly honest about his research process which, he much later determined had actually found much of the important clues fairly early on - if only he'd recognized them!

Expanding his search to relatives and possible relatives was an extremely effective strategy, as was leaving no record unexplored. His process had many interesting twists and turns. The watchword is definitely tenacity.

1. See Randy Seaver's 06 May 2013 blog post on Genea-Musings for further discussion of the latest GPS map.


  1. Thanks for sharing with those of us unable to attend! Love the title of Warren Bittner's presentation - along those lines, researching my grandmother might be called "I knew nothing about her, except her name, and the name of the man she married here" :-)

  2. Warren's presentation was a tour de force of all those things one should do to solve a problem and those few small things that one might have done to will keep one from one's goal.

    Thank you for your comment, Nancy.


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