Last Saturday I gave a heads up to Randy Seaver about his Kenyon ancestors. In Randy's case he had the articles, he just had a backlog of things to do. Who doesn't? But his case is illustrative of something that I've always thought was missing from genealogy.
In the common law system we have in the United States (and a few other places in the world once owned by Great Britain), we use the concept of case precedence and stare decisis in figuring out how to apply the law in case after case. That means a lawyer must (should at least) know what the current case law says on any given topic. For instance, no one would argue the merits of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) because it was overturned by Brown v. Board of Education (1953). Further, no one would even argue Brown because there were two successive Brown cases and many more in the intervening fifty years, each of which tweak the initial decision. In other words, the law is constantly evolving.
So, too is genealogy. Why would you automatically accept a work published in 1921 or 1888 as definitive? It may be on point for your ancestors, but has anyone done any more work on them in the meanwhile? How can you find that out? In the law world, there was a series of books (now replaced by computers) called Shepard's which always told you which cases where still authoritative, which had been overturned, and which had been further refined. Such a resource is not quite readily extant for genealogy.
What I do is this: I first check Donald Lines Jacobus, Index to Genealogical Periodicals, which will let me see all the scholarship for east coast families up to the publication year of 1953. Next I check Meredith Colket's Founders of Early American Families which takes me up to 1985, albeit imperfectly. At least the major journals are indexed therein, but it is only families that fall within that lineage society's rules (a family here before 1657 and continuing in the male line to the American Revolution). Next, and I'll admit immodestly, I check my book, New Englanders of the 1600s which covers 1980 to 2005 (in print), and then my own private update which takes me to the end of 2009. That's how I see what is current for (mostly) New England families.
It's too bad that all of genealogy, geographically, ethnically, and chronologically doesn't have some system to see if an older work has been improved upon or not. PERSI indexes all genealogical journals which is helpful, but only by surname. It would be much more helpful if it was specific to a given family. (Try searching SMITH in PERSI sometime). Part of my exercise in the fall of 2009 in showing journal penetration of the web, was to illustrate that genealogists are, for the most part, ignorant of the latest findings on their own families. The question remains: How do we connect the average researcher with this latest and greatest information?