17 February 2014

When to Quit

Immigrant trunk of Ahltie[sic] F. Goldenstein, in possession
of Michael John Neill
I posted this image to the Facebook page for "Genealogy Tip of the Day" and remarked that anyone who had time could search for Altje Goldenstein on a US passenger manifest because I had not found her.

And it got me to thinking:

"When is it time to quit?"

It's a good question, particularly when the record or document for which we are searching may not answer any "burning questions" or has little chance of shedding much new light on the person of interest. If we are looking for something more out of personal curiosity than of necessity, how much search is required? In the case of Altje, her life is well-documented in Germany and in the United States. It would be "nice" to have the manifest (after all, it may list neighbors or close associates), but how much time should be spent before I decide it simply is "time to quit?"

The Board for Certification of Genealogists' Genealogy Standards: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition may have a section on "when to quit," but I certainly didn't see it. While the Standards has a glossary, "when to quit" isn't one of the defined terms and there was not an index I could consult.

There is a paragraph in the Standards on "Terminating the plan" (page 15), but it really did not address the issue of when to quit with much detail. Running out of money is pretty self-evident and running out of time can easily be the result of deadlines imposed by editors, publishers and others outside the genealogist's control. Those want their personal research to be done in the spirit of the Standards have different limitations than researchers working for hire. But they do have limitations (sleep for one) and need to know when they've effectively done all they could.

Part of the answer is a research log--a detailed one. The research log will not tell you when to quit, but it will at least let you have an inventory of what you searched, how it was searched, when it was searched, and what the results of that search were.

As multiple databases and websites offer acces to the same information (with perhaps different indexes) and occasionally modify those indexes, the name of the website, specific database, and date of search must be a part of your research log.

The way in which you searched (first name and last name variations, wildcards used, whether Soundex was used) is also a part of that research log.

The results are as well.

For Altje, it may be time to quit when, I have:

  • accessed arrivals into all US ports that accepted passenger ships during the time period she arrived.
  • if a manual search of those manifests is not possible (or practical)--that's a lot of pages to read one page at a time, my searches of online indexes to those manifests should include:
    • all name variants used
    • time periods used
    • ports searched
    • websites used--with database titles
There's not a real "good" answer as to when it is time to quit in this case--the search for Altje is a personal one, given that I have her immigrant trunk and that she is my great-great-grandfather's sister. However, when I've searched all reasonable name variants, in the appropriate time period for all ports that have extant records, it may be time to stop. Yes, I would like to know if she travelled with others from her village, but given that I already know when and where she was born and who who parents were, that information isn't going to help me as much as it might in other cases. 

The only thing I have not personally done is to search the manifests manually--simply because I do not have time. The detailed research log is something I can review to determine if there is something I missed or if a new database or index becomes available. I could also have another researcher look over my research log to see if there is something I missed. 

There are always ways I could broaden my search of database. The drawback to this is that the number of matches grows with each result.

The Standards indicates that "no other resources" to consult is another reason to terminate the plan. That's not really true in my case either as there are the original manifests. The Standards makes the excellent point that terminating the search will not lead to "genealogical proof." This is usually true. In my case there is indirect evidene that Altje immigrated given that she was born in Germany and married and died in the west-central Illinois.

For me the time to "terminate the plan" is when the perceived benefits of locating the record are less than the amount of time required to locate the actual record. I can easily show that Altje immigrated using indirect evidence. I just can't find direct evidence. That would be on the manifest.

One simply cannot locate every item one wishes one had. And there's not always a clear cut answer of "yes, you've done enough."

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