Thursday, November 17, 2011

Unknown-Unknowns in Family History

“There are known knowns, there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know”—
Donald Rumsfeld, 2002.

Donald Rumsfeld made this interesting statement when he was the Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. This is a great quote, not only because it is a great example of bureaucratic double speak, but it also is an entertaining summary of the first rule of Family History research. That is: start with what you know and work backwards in time to what you don’t know.

In the beginning of family history research, whenever someone asks for my advice, I tell them to write down what you know. When you know what you know, it becomes easy to identify the information that you don’t know. And this opens up the path to decide the next steps in researching your family tree.

The “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns” help us to set goals for future research. If you don’t know grandma’s birthday, maybe you should set aside time and the resources to find out when grandma was born.

Slowly the information begins to flow and the “unknown unknowns” become “known unknowns” which eventually, through rigorous research, become “known knowns.”

Who would ever guess that Donald Rumsfeld was such a great family historian!