Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Timelines and Biographies as Research Tools

Timelines are great visual representations of your research – especially the fancy ones with pictures and documents attached. Biographies – telling the story of your ancestors in a narrative – is a great way to share your research as well. But the value of timelines and biographies as research tools are often forgotten. And while timelines are getting more and more recognition as a research tool, to see if there are any gaps in your research, biographies are still mostly seen as an end product, something you write once you’ve finished your research on a specific ancestor. But both timelines and biographies offer researchers a way to get insight into their research – and what’s still missing from it.

When I started my research into my grandmother’s maternal ancestors, the Wesselo’s, I was very lucky. Several generations of genealogists had already worked on them, and not only was the family tree well known, a lot of documents on the more recent ancestors had been collected into a family archive residing at an archive accessible for all who cared to look. But I was not only interested in the bare-bone facts, but also the stories behind the people, so I decided to check all the sources and then write biographies of the Wesselo’s – my contribution to the genealogical research already done.

I started with my great-great-grandfather’s eldest child out of his second marriage – the same marriage my great-grandmother was born from – Lodewijk Wesselo. There was a wealth of information on him in the family archive, a lot of letters, and some clues to further documents held at other archives. Just by going through the family archive, I had documented his entire life from birth to death. Still, I pulled those other documents, because I hoped that maybe they held some information not yet known. There weren’t any surprises in those documents. And then I made a timeline – to see if there were any gaps in the research. There wasn’t, so I was pretty confident that I was ‘done’ and ready to begin writing a biography.

But as soon as I started writing, I ran into problems. Or not so much problems, as questions left unanswered by the research already done. For instance, where exactly was the house Lodewijk built located? And did he actually live in it? Logic dictates he did, but until I connect the neighborhood designation given as his place of residence on several documents with the (as yet unknown) location of the land he owned where he built his house, I can’t state it with certainty. Also, once he left Voorschoten – the village where the land was located – he never returned there, so what did he do with the house? Sell it or rent it out?

To answer the questions that popped up during my writing of this biography, I needed to do more research. I’m currently in the process of tracing the plot of land, and in order to see if Lodewijk sold or rented out his house, one of the documents I’ll be looking at is his will – if he left one. Yes, you read that right, I have not looked for his will yet. I honestly did not think about doing it – I already had every part of his life well documented, I thought, and I didn’t need the will to establish family connections as the tree is quite complete already. Since I didn’t need it to answer a specific question, I completely forgot about it. An oversight on my part that I will not repeat again – if only because I’ll bump into the same trouble next time I try to write a biography without having all the available information!

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