“Context: A Powerful Tool for Problem-Solving”
Presented by Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG®, CGL℠, FASG

Reviewed by Scott Wilds, CG®

NOTE: This post is one of a series reviewing the BCG Skillbuilding lectures presented at the National Genealogical Society’s 2019 Family History Conference held in St. Charles, Missouri from 08-11 May, 2019. Recordings of these lectures and the accompanying session handout can be purchased from PlaybackNow NGS at https://www.playbackngs.com/

How do we know what a source means? Context, in Elizabeth Shown Mills’s words, gets at the “fabric of ancestral lives.” It is not window-dressing added after our research is done to embroider the story. It is the lens through which we must interpret documents and grasp their meaning. If we take words at face value, we risk misinterpretation. “Records we use often do not mean what they seem to say,” Elizabeth reminds us. Milking the correct evidence from documents will help us solve tough research problems.

Elizabeth frames the necessity of considering context as part of the Genealogical Proof Standard’s requirement for reasonably exhaustive research. Our usual starting point for focused research—a name, time frame, and place—needs context to be meaningful. Once found, an item of interest in a record set needs evaluation. What is normal or typical, or stands out as unusual? This “internal context” allows us to get the meaning of the entry, of the event it memorializes, correct.

“External context,” gained through broader study of historical events and community dynamics allows us to understand our ancestors as people, not just names. Actions may not mean what they seem to us as twenty-first century researchers. They may tell us more than we initially think they do. A deeper understanding, gained through both internal and external contexts can help break through our brick walls.

Elizabeth illustrates these points through short case studies drawn from North Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, and Virginia. Those who have marveled at her comprehensive research reports will gain a glimpse of the evolution of reports from an initial literature survey. This lecture is highly recommended for anyone who is trying to understand a document, resolve a conflict, tackle a tough research question, or frame a research strategy.

The words Certified Genealogist and letters CG are registered certification marks, and the designations CGL and Certified Genealogical Lecturer are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, used under license by board certificants after periodic evaluation.