I can’t remember when I last got along to a Family History Society meeting. Well, not precisely. It was a few years ago when we were staying at the Brighton Caravan Club site and our week just happened to coincide with a Sussex Family History Group meeting in Hove. It was a very wet night and Mick Henry was speaking.
But week last Monday we went (virtually) to an Oxfordshire Family History Society meeting! I’ve never been able to get to one of their meetings before, not living close enough, but when the email came through that they were organising a talk via Zoom I lept at the chance to sign up.
Zoom has quickly become part of everyday life for many of us (and just think – 12 weeks ago we’d never heard of it!). My husband has a lot of work meetings using it, we have a weekly extended family catch-up using it, our Church service is on Zoom and so too is the weekly social for my morris dancing group. Conversations are frequently had on how to unmute yourself and where to find ‘gallery view’.
But this particular Zoom meeting seemed to be blessed with few technical difficulties, despite well over 90 people attending. It was certainly the largest Zoom meeting I’ve been to and was very well organised.
The speaker was Phil Isherwood and the subject of the talk was ‘Research Methodologies’. He gave an excellent, very clear presentation. It felt just like old times, except that, rather than sitting on a moulded plastic chair in a school/village/church hall, we were sitting in comfort on our own sofa and didn’t have to drive home afterwards!
Phil took us through a very useful methodology, demonstrating how he had used it to break down a significant brick wall in his own research. In defining the particular research problem he suggested four questions to ask: what is the research objective? What is the state of the research so far? What is the sticking point? What do I need to do to move forward?
He then advised creating a timeline of all existing evidence, ensuring that all evidence is correct, fully researched and for the correct individual. In the timeline he advocated including all members of the immediate family as well as the target individual and including sources. It is then important to analyse the timeline: where are the gaps (eg missing census)? What are the common factors? Are there noticeable trends? For example, is the name used always consistent? Do the various sources agree on date of birth? Did the family move around? You could create a table to look at the variation of information given in different events and sources.
This detailed and systematic analysis may then enable you to go on to search for additional evidence both during and before the period of the timeline, eg a census entry previously dismissed due to an apparent age discrepancy; a newpaper report; an earlier banns certificate.
From this additional information Phil then proposed building a case, using family reconstruction to eliminate individuals. Having constructed a case, you then need to prove it, taking the prime candidate forwards, looking for life events to check you have the right person. You will then need to analyse and resolve any conflicting evidence and identify new research objectives.
If this is all a little difficult to follow, I would recommend checking out Phil’s blog at https://familyhistory.car.blog/ where he uses his case study ‘The woman who fell from the skies’ to illustrate the methodology in detail.
Although family reconstruction is something I do frequently in my research, I have never tried this timeline approach. I can see that it would lend itself easily to ancestors who conveniently lived during the latter half of the nineteenth century, with censuses, parish registers and wills to consult. However, I suppose the same methodology can be used for earlier ancestors – you just don’t necessarily have the same number of sources to refer to, at least not so readily.
So, family history society meetings via Zoom – could this be the future, even after lockdown? Well there were folk attending this one from Australia and the USA as well as closer to home. And an attendance of over 90 indicates scope for much greater connectivity between members and perhaps more active engagement in the ongoing work of the society if people can feel involved in this way. Perhaps, as in other spheres of life, there will be a ‘mixed economy’ going forward of virtual and face to face meetings, but I for one would really welcome the opportunity to attend talks of the societies I belong to and I really hope that others will embrace this technology.