I must admit that when endeavoring to write this first installment of my new genea-blog series I was, in the beginning, a bit overwhelmed! I mean, there are so many different angles and aspects and sub-topics that I wasn’t sure where to start. A good friend of mine calls this ‘analysis paralysis’ and rightly so! So the best thing I can think to do is break it down into the smallest portions and work from there- so here are the facts as I see them:
1) As all genealogists (and researchers of any kind, really) know, the quality of the final product (family tree) is directly proportional to the quality of the data used. (Notice here I did not say ‘compiled.’)
2) There are multiple research tools at our disposal – both with and without technology.
3) There are varying degrees of quality when it comes to data- regardless the source. Unlike science, genealogists don’t have a lab in which to test their findings, so ALL data should be subject to scrutiny of some sort.
4) There is a rift between the schools of thought regarding internet research and the more organic, grass-roots (purist) approach which includes studying various archival data (e.g. historical society and libraries, county, state and various other institutional archives such as universities, churches, museums, and so on).
5) There are caveats to everything.
As you probably know by now, there is a debate (and quite a lively one at that) regarding the validity of data compiled through various internet resources. One side believes the internet is a hotbed of misdirection and misinformation; the other side values the information that can be accumulated via internet research. You get the picture; it’s been a fireworks show all month over it.
In the argument, the biggest culprits of the data-debauchery (allegedly) are personal genealogy sites, blogs, chat forums and special interest groups via social networks, wiki sites, historical novels and movies, etc. Now- and hold on to your pants genea-world this is gonna shake you up a bit: some of this is actually true…at least to some [small] extent. Of course to say some blanket statement calling ALL of these items BAD is just stupid and short sighted (we do all have our rights to our opinions), and completely disregards the actual VALUE that these resources hold. AND it is also completely insulting to all of us out here who have worked so hard to create whatever resources we have put forth. So shame on you (you know who you are) for not thinking your statements through before you kicked the hornet’s nest that is the genealogy sphere. (Or maybe you knew exactly what you were saying when you said it, I mean, look at all this buzz!)
The fact remains, though, that there IS some measure of truth to the arguments made by the other side. It is irresponsible to your project to simply take the data as gospel (wherever you find it) without corroborating it with other data that supports it. Every smart researcher knows this. Would you buy a million shares of stock just because you overheard that the company was on the verge of a major breakthrough that would revolutionize the world without at least looking the company up first? It’s a weird analogy, but the idea is right. No matter where you get your data from, fact checking and supporting evidence is essential to creating a completely validated and thorough product – whether that is a family tree or a dissertation on the effects of death metal music on today’s youth.
The only completely valid 100% undeniably credible data we can ever hope to amass would be the original documents straight from the source. There is no denying that, at least when you discount the possibility of reproduction or false documentation, etc…I’m sure those are rare cases.
That all being said, there is absolutely value to the resources available online- INCLUDING personal genealogy sites, blogs, chat forums and special interest groups via social networks, wiki sites, even historical novels and movies, etc. These things can point us in the right direction, give us perspective and insight, put us in touch with living relatives we knew nothing about as well as entire branches of possibility we were completely unaware of. They can inspire, educate, provide leads and threads of hope; these can help us tear down the walls we’ve hit in our search.
While as a practice it is not the only qualifying factor for data, one of the biggest things we can do as publishers is to provide source citations. To learn how best to do this, you can go to your local library or bookstore and select a related item to study- OR you can use one of the multiple online resources for such things. A good one from a source I trust is: http://www.geneabloggers.com/Citations_Quick_Reference.pdf. Another one that offers multiple styles is: http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/online/citex.html
If you are not happy with the look of your documentation with a bunch of source citations all over the place, you can do something similar to what Wikipedia does and use footnotes or a bibliography page. This is a great way to post your source citations without having them muck up your content visually- something is certainly better than nothing at all.
From the researcher perspective, it’s important to remember: many personal websites include data that has been transcribed in part which includes church records of baptism, marriage, and death, county marriage books, census transcriptions, copies of family bibles, wills, and deeds, newspaper announcements and obituaries, and almost anything else you can think of. While these records and indexes may not be of the reliable quality of actual certified copies they do give a researcher a starting point to acquiring these records from the source. Not only that, but people are generally honest and they post their work because they are proud of it- not because they want to dupe you somehow.
If you do not see a source citation that does not mean the data is useless. In fact, quite the contrary…While you may not want to use it specifically to base your entire heritage on, you can absolutely use that information as a springboard for finding more elsewhere. Not only that, but you can ASK the researcher where they found that piece of info and possibly get a nice lead out of it as well as a new connection. If you overhear a great stock tip, you look up the company and learn what you can about it – maybe make a call or two- then decide whether to invest, right? It’s the same with data you come across in genealogy research….it all leads to something else- some other rock to turn over.
Regardless of whether a source is cited for the data or not- EVERYTHING you get should be corroborated by some form of supporting evidence where possible, otherwise there will always be a question mark next to it. I’m not saying that you should leverage several resources for the same piece of data and if the whole crowd says the same thing that it must be true; that’s faulty thinking since a lot of the resources out there have largely the same data (history doesn’t change that much over time). I’m saying that more than one type of record is necessary to fully represent someone. We are more than our medical records, the census, our marriage licenses, our army service, our death certificate. We are everything that happened in between these documents and the documents are the breadcrumbs we leave behind; we are more than a single moment in our lives. These documents can corroborate each other, validate each other…OR they can sometimes serve to debunk each other and ultimately help us get to the real truth, whatever that is. This is accomplished either way by the data within that overlaps. Census data holds marriage and offspring info, as well as some location and occupational data. Marriage records contain some parentage info as well as location. Death Certificates and obits list survivors, some location data, possibly occupational, cause of death, etc…all of these things are dated, so you can get a sense of the time span. If you know your uncle Henry Thompson married Selma Smith on Oct 22, 1823 in New Orleans, then you can bet it’s not the same Henry Thompson, husband to Selma [Smith] that died in a fire on July 18, 1814 in any town.
The biggest thing about online research is this: travelling to every archive office and poring through hundreds of records takes a LOT of time and a LOT of money- both in travel AND in the actual poring. Doing your preliminary research online can save you a lot of both and help you to pinpoint the right offices to visit for your specific needs. It is so much easier to order a copy of the record from the county to verify the data when you know the names and dates and I’ll bet the county personnel appreciate it too!
Most people out there have occupations, kids, social lives, etc- and can’t afford to go traipsing around the country (or world for that matter) on a wild goose chase for information. Online research helps to justify that travel, to make it worth while and efficient. It’s a lot easier to find what you’re looking for when you already know what it is.
NEXT ISSUE: LEVERAGING SOCIAL NETWORKING AS A VIABLE RESOURCE
Some great resources for online research:
Free Genealogy Marriage Records; US, UK, CA www.genwed.com
National Archives http://www.archives.gov/
LDS Records Search www.FamilySearch.org
Census Records http://www.censusfinder.com
More Resources http://www.genwed.com/links_page.htm