Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Makin' a List, Checkin' It Twice

No. This is not a Christmas story. But the carole is right, you know.

Did you ever have that teacher who kept insisting you show your work? Did you ever have points counted off your math test because you didn't show how you obtained your answers? Even though you got the correct answer? How many times were you told to check and re-check your work to make sure you didn't make a mistake? Even worse, how many times did you re-check your work and find a mistake you made? Yeah, me too.

I call it "The Discipline of Documentation".

It's not just some dumb thing teachers and parents make kids do as punishment. There's value in showing your work. There are benefits to double checking your conclusions, your plans, your grocery lists, your checkbook register.

It's life. We know it's true. I would suggest it's just as true in the world of genealogy research. But not just for reasons you might assume. Yes, there are mistakes you need to catch. But more importantly, I have found on many occasions that when I go through the discipline of documenting my work, I learn something new that I wouldn't have seen otherwise.

It's like the football player who goes through the discipline of practice. Over and over and over. He begins to see patterns in the way his opponent is defending him. At that moment he is then able to see ways he can beat his opponent. Strategies unfold that would not have been realized without going through the discipline of practice. Repetition. Streamlining. Efficiency.

As I have recently been rebuilding the Timeline of Recorded Events for Robert Patterson (my 6-greats-grandfather), it has taken me through this discipline of documentation once again. It can be very tedious. It can be time-consuming. But it's worth it.

Here are some benefits I have found in taking the time to show your work, document your sources, and double-and-triple-checking your information:
  1. Erroneous Inclusions: I built my initial list on paper. Hand-written. There were 55 events for which I had vague references scribbled in my notebook. As you can imagine, with that many items on the list they can run together. As I began to enter them into a Word document, the repetitive process began to take place. I began to get them in order. I even found one item that was for the wrong Robert Patterson (Jr. instead of Sr.). This process of double checking my work and showing my sources helped me find one record I should not have included.
  2. Duplications: And yes, I did accidentally include one event twice by mistake. Again, not a difficult mistake to make, and certainly one that should be caught before presenting your work.
  3. Omissions: Here's the fun one. I had my list built. I got it transferred from paper to the electronic version. I then went through my source documents to double check my documentation (book number, page number, record type - was it a Land Entry or a Survey or a Land Grant or a Deed, etc.). The process of going through the source files again brought three more records to my attention that I had missed previously. Discipline pays off.
  4. Clarifications: One court case Robert Patterson was involved in was listed as "April and June 1746". Initially I put this down as two events. One for April and one for June. Makes sense, right? It did to me as this case continued on for almost a year. But when I checked the source information, I learned that this particular event was just one event. It was recorded in a block of court minutes that was actually one recording for both sessions - April and June 1746. In other words, there weren't two sets of minutes recorded, one for each session. There was just one set of minutes recorded for both sessions. So this court case was heard one time, in either April or June 1746, but not both.
  5. Presentation Issues: It's important to present your work in a professional manner. If it's worth presenting, do it right. If your work is sloppy no one will read past the first paragraph. Correct spelling is necessary. Good grammar is important. Consistent formatting is pleasing to the eye and will not distract the reader from the message of what's being presented.
You can probably think of other benefits that I have not listed here. If you think of any, please leave a comment below.

Yes, it takes work. Yes, it can be tedious and time-consuming. But it's worth it. You find more nuggets in the process of just doing it right. It makes your work trustworthy. People will share more information with you because they see your professionalism. But more importantly, you'll find great satisfaction in producing a piece of work that will stand the test of time.

Have you made your list? Did you check it twice? Can I look at your work and see how you came to your conclusions?


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