A prospective client posed that important question recently. He wanted to know how the cost of professional research would change if we found that research has already been done. How would he benefit? Part of my answer follows.
It is true in genealogy that we share our ancestors with others and axiomatic that, especially in American research, the further back we go in time, the more likely that others have researched the same ancestors. So, yes, indeed, I suspect that there has been some previous research done on some of your early family lines.
Today, much of that research (good, bad and ugly) appears on the myriad of electronic family trees on the Internet and CD-ROMs. The first step of every good genealogist (professional or personal) is to investigate any such “previous research” as it is often termed. Such research may be online, but it may also (or only) be in print (books and journal articles).
When found, such previous research must then be carefully analyzed to determine if it is valid or not. Typically such previous research is poorly documented, if at all. However, it does provide clues for further research. I often liken such research to blueprints for building a house. They suggest how the ancestry fits together, but the true genealogist still needs to verify and actually build the family tree.
If it is well documented, the genealogist can move on and explore other areas of a family’s ancestry. If not, then that’s where the real research begins. Depending on the client’s objective, the professional genealogist may not stop to document every date and place on an undocumented lineage. However, the professional is honor bound to advise the client about the apparent quality (or lack thereof) of any such “previous research.”
Clearly any client benefits when previous research is found. It is almost always much faster to compile a valid family tree with “blueprints” in hand than to have to research a family with no clues from earlier researchers.
There was actually a second part to his question:
How do I know that you are not just repeating to me, research that has already been bought and paid for [by one of your previous clients]? Will I benefit from that?
That is an important question that deserves a future blog post. Stay tuned.