Genealogy Sleuth Work: What's the Answer?


And what after all is the matter on hand?
- "I" [Dupin's friend]

A friend of mine had a philosophy professor in college who wrote a question on the chalkboard the first day of class. He announced that whoever could answer it would get an A in the class without having to come back to class the rest of the semester. Nobody could respond. The teacher asked, "What is the answer?" What would you have said? (What the professor wanted was, "What is the question?")

For the rest of the semester, the professor focused on the reality that we have to be able to ask the right questions. We have to define the question or define the problem before we can look for an answer. When we face a large or complex set of information, as genealogists eventually do, we must break it down into manageable pieces. We must identify one small question to try to solve. Then we work on other small questions one at a time. Eventually we have only one piece of the original set left to handle.

This process is much like working a jigsaw puzzle: categorizing the colors and the straight edges, then working out a system to test pieces and begin to fit them together. It is also what we genealogists must do in trying to unpuzzle our pasts. We amass information (the puzzle pieces), but what do we do with it once we have it? How can we deal effectively with all of it? Hercule Poirot gave part of his answer to this question when he said, "It may occur to you that I am eccentric, perhaps mad. Nevertheless I assure you that behind my madness there is - as you English say - a method."5 Method is what we hope to learn from him and other sleuths.

     Emily Anne Croom, "Genealogy Sleuth Work: What's the Answer?," extracted from The Sleuth Book for Genealogists: Strategies for More Successful Family History Research, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008), Chapt. 1, pp. 4-5; digital edition, ( : posted 26 Jul 2012)

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