Most family historians have probably never heard of Leopold Von Ranke, but he’s largely responsible for many of the methods they use in studying their family’s history. Von Ranke, a great German historian of the 19th Century is generally regarded as the founder of the empirical school of source based history. He
believed that we should use primary sources to learn "how things actually were." Family historians have happily embraced the search for documentary evidence about their ancestors. Unfortunately there’s another element of the historical method Von Ranke suggested which is much less rigorously applied by genealogists and family historians. That involves the purpose of research. He said, "To history has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages.”
The task of instructing can only be accomplished when the historian constructs a historical narrative from the information she has gathered through her research. In short, you have to tell the story of your ancestors if anyone is to learn from your research. How do you plan to do that?
Far too many family historians don’t have an answer to that question.
If you talk to genealogical researchers and family historians about the subject of writing their family history, many get misty-eyed and say that they plan to write a book about their family “someday.” Most of them quickly add, “But I’m not there yet. I need to do more research.”
The fact is your research will never be “done”. There’s always generations further back in history or elusive questions about those closer to our own time that we can research. If you are ever going to tell your family’s history, you’ll need to stop researching to do it.
Research is potentially infinite, but a family history book is not. As you research, it is important to decide upon the limits of the story you want to tell and to plan how you will do it. A book is an excellent way to capture the product of your research to pass on your family’s story to the next generation. Think of that generation as your audience. What sort of narrative based on your research will interest and engage them? Shape the information you have gathered to fit them.
It’s only when you have created a family story to pass on you have achieved the goal of ”… instructing the present for the benefit of future ages.”