Rip & Run vs. Write as You Go

by Harold Henderson | Aug 19, 2013

Back when I was a journalist, research was part of the job, but footnotes were forbidden. I developed a factory-like mass-production system for visiting libraries. By planning ahead I managed to more or less automate a speedy process of looking up references and photocopying the good parts, before returning home to read and reflect on them.

"Rip and run" may not have been the best strategy even then. Now that I work in an environment where footnotes are mandatory and where it helps to think on your feet while in a repository, rip and run is a bad habit to have - and a hard habit to break.

Write (and Think) As You Go

There is an alternative to ripping and running: Write as you go. In this system, we still plan carefully ahead, but instead of running down the list and out the door, we

  • read each document in full,
  • cite it fully,
  • reflect on how it fits or doesn't fit with other findings, and
  • consider changing the next research step based on what we've learned.

hand-on-keyboard.jpgWrite-as-you go can manage time better than rip-and-run, because what we write can often go directly into the research report or article. Stopping to read and ponder and write also enables mid-course corrections that can save time and trouble later.

Barking Dogs and Whining Companions

But the recommended system is not the whole story. Context happens. Even though we may hate to admit it, real life does intrude on the research idyll. Many repositories are far away; we can't visit them as needed; and when we do we often have non-genealogist companions. The living may battle with the dead in more ways than one.

My friend and colleague Patti Hobbs, a genealogy librarian in Missouri and a veteran research traveler, wrote recently on the Transitional Genealogists Forum that she would plead guilty to what she calls "pinball genealogy," adding,

"It was either do it that way or not at all. I didn't feel that I could constantly test the patience of my family by doing more than collecting the documents when at the courthouses. People say that you will invariably have to go back to follow new leads, but I find that's the case anyway."

Sometimes we can finesse the problem, depending on the accommodations for our non-genealogist companions. In my experience, unless we know the turf well, urban repositories rarely offer the flexibility (such as nearby parking) that spouses, children, and dogs need. Small towns are often easier to negotiate. My candidate for a spot on the "top ten repositories to visit with family" is the hospitable green expanse of Spiegel Grove in Fremont, Ohio - home of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, AKA obituary central for northwestern Ohio. (Other nominations are welcome!)

But even there, our traveling companions usually reach their limits before we do. In such cases, Hobbs says, "Do the best you can, but don't wallow in guilt if you can't do it perfectly." Or as I have said in the context of citing sources as well: Something is better than nothing.

Saved by the Cloud?

Of course, an even better finesse is in the works. Millions of images of original records, some indexed, are becoming available online for free. They are making genealogical travel less necessary, softening this dilemma a bit - and tipping the balance in favor of writing as we go. When we can return to the "repository" with a few mouse clicks, there's less reason to rip and run, and more reasons to slow down and do the job right the first time.

Still, travel will not drop out of the researcher's repertoire any time soon. I love having New York probates available online, even with limited indexing, but there's only one place to search through the loose civil court papers for Jefferson County, and that's in Watertown.

The Trade-Off

Finesse or no finesse, for now the trade-off is still there. On one hand, if our research does proceed as anticipated, the rip-and-run approach enables us to get through more material than write-as-we-go. But we will be ill prepared for a surprise. We may not realize that we've been surprised until we get home - and not even then if we have another really dangerous habit: not following up promptly on the day's research to get the new-found material out of travel mode and into our system.

I used to think that it made a difference how far away from home the repository was (or how soon I'd be able to return to it). Now I think the choice may depend more on the kind of research we anticipate. The simpler and more straightforward it seems - the more it is like a look-up instead of advanced research - the lower the risk of being surprised and redirected by a new find. But that risk is never zero.

More advanced, less straightforward research is another story. When we've exhausted the obvious direct evidence, and we encounter a manuscript collection with a general finding aid (and of course no index), then the situation places a premium on working slowly and thoroughly from the start. That's when we need to spot and evaluate associates, relatives, exact locations, exact times, nuances, incongruities, inconsistencies, mistakes, deceptions, and more. And, frankly, once we get to a certain point in genealogy, this is the kind of situation we live for.


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