Monday, 4 April 2011

Learning Advanced Genealogical Skills from Elizabeth Shown Mills

On Saturday, April 2, 2011 I attended a seminar on Advanced Genealogical Skills in Toronto. If you want to feel like you're drinking from the proverbial fire hydrant, genealogically speaking, four hours of expertly presented lectures and a question period by Elizabeth Shown Mills is likely as close as it gets.

Genealogical Problem Solving: Professional Techniques for Everyday Success focused on twelve success techniques to apply every day that you do research. Some are:
- no problem is hopeless, there's always another source left to explore. The expectation of success and failure are both self fulfilling;
- research is not a matter of looking up the answer, but tracking down the answer;
- search your ancestor's FAN Club, friends, associates, neighbours;
- never ignore a potentially relevant record;
- use maps and charts;
- don't skim over material relevant to a place just because the person you're searching isn't mentioned;
- be a skeptic, test the validity of everything (in a later session she had everyone swear to do this!)

Sources & Citations Simplified: From Memorabilia to Digital Data to DNA emphasized learning a few basic rules which will allow you to produce a serviceable citation when no exact model is available without sweating the placement of commas and semicolons. The presentation did not mention DNA!

Finding Females: Wives, Mothers, Daughters, Sisters & Paramours! did not mention paramours! Researching the males with whom these women were associated was the key recommendation.

Dissecting Your Research Problem and Planning a Solution presented a practical process for analyzing the toughest problem and developing new avenues to explore which involves intensive analysis aided by a series of charts.

A previous blog posting mentioned two questions I wanted to pose at the session.

If there's always another potentially relevant source to explore, how do you decide you've found the solution and that the exhaustive search has been reasonable enough? Elizabeth could not be pinned down, there are occasional circumstances when a record from out of the blue may overturn what seemed like a solid conclusion. The closest she came was a mention a couple of times that direct ancestors warrant more effort than those of co-lateral lines.

I, and others, also asked about DNA. Elizabeth has experience with DNA in her own and her husband's lines. She said that DNA is a "very valuable tool to help you resolve genealogical problems." Asked about the level of DNA knowledge that should be expected of a professional genealogist she did not believe all professionals should be DNA experts, but did agree that all should know enough about the topic to advise when that might be an appropriate line of investigation to pursue with a professional expert in the field.

Criticisms? I had very few. Not being accustomed to her southern accent and expressions, and her pace of delivery which veers on occasion to the fast side, I did miss a phrase now and again. There were a couple of mistakes in the material which had been not quite correctly adapted to the Canadian situation.

Comment. This session was billed as advanced, but just as you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, you don't need the advanced skills of a professional genealogist to solve many questions in genealogy. Advanced in the session title implied tackling the knotty problems where information from all common sources does not align and there are inconsistencies to be resolved. Even when such sources do align there are occasional cases where the conclusion may be wrong, such as where paper records don't record the truth about paternity.

An opportunity to listen to Elizabeth is an opportunity not to be missed. Also her slides are exceptionally good, a model for other presenters even if you're not so interested in the topic.

Elizabeth recommended that those who want to upgrade their skills subscribe to and follow the discussion on the Transitional Genealogists Forum of Rootsweb, the archives is at

The event was organized by members of the Ontario Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists, and co-sponsored by the Toronto Public Library

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