Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Why BillionGraves Is My Preferred Online Gravesite Database

When I first started this blog, I presaged a certain lack of inhibition with my opinions. So far, I have only moderately delivered on that promise. With the present post, however, I'm putting inhibition firmly aside and making what will surely be an unpopular argument. Here it is: is the best crowd-sourced online gravesite tool for genealogy...even better than the hallowed

A good portion of my readers are by now downright irritated with me, perhaps having already read my previous admonishments concerning Findagrave. I've learned that the love for this website among amateur genealogists is something comparable to the die-hard college football fan's fervor for their favorite SEC or Big Ten team. There's just no getting around that kind of devotion. So yes, I understand that I'm inevitably ruffling feathers here. To leaven some of this, I'll just say straightaway that I still use Findagrave for my research. And actually, I've contributed over 4,000 photos and memorials to the website since 2011. True, I haven't done much there lately, mostly because I have redirected my "graving" energy to BillionGraves.

But I also know that some of you might be persuaded to consider another point of view when it comes to graving sites, especially if you're just starting out in genealogy. And I have to say that, while Findagrave has had (and likely will continue to have) a huge head-start in the sheer number of memorials it boasts, and while we should continue to cite and take this resource seriously, BillionGraves is the superior research tool. I have three big reasons for believing so. (These relate back to the site's own blog post comparing itself to Findagrave:

1. BillionGraves' GPS-Tagging Requirement Is Important

Invariably, the research value of any crowd-sourced service comes down to how much it limits the damage done by the masses, and how much it maximizes their positive contributions. By multiple measures, BG wins this battle. The most important measure is that it requires all of its primary grave photos to be taken with its free mobile device camera app. These photos are tagged with GPS coordinates and plotted on its digital cemetery (and world) map. Findagrave merely allows GPS coordinates to be added with posted photos that users can take with any camera and no app. The difference here is huge. Consider what must go right in the case of Findagrave:

-The memorial page creator has to upload a photo in the first place. Findagrave unfortunately allows memorial pages to be created without grave photos. You don't have this problem at BG.
-We must trust that the photographer for Findagrave has photographed the correct stone, uploaded it to the correct cemetery page, and uploaded correct plot information, GPS coordinates, and descriptions to the memorial page. That's a lot of trust (assuming all of this information is even uploaded). BG's system requires much less trust for this data, and its app knows which cemetery you are working in. (There are, occasionally, app bugs that impair contributions to BG. While I haven't encountered them, I am aware of such cases. BG's developers and management seem to be good at addressing issues.)

Having the GPS coordinates automatically tagged and mapped for gravesite photos on BG is huge for another reason. How many photos and memorials on Findagrave come with specific information on where gravesites are located within cemeteries? (Have you ever tried to find a gravestone in a big cemetery, and had no idea where to look?) In my experience, this kind of detail is seldom provided there. With BG, I can in every case look at a gravesite photo on a person page, spot where it is marked on the map, and quickly find the location of this marker in the cemetery. Compared to what normally transpires with Findagrave, this is next-level efficient in terms of information verification. And that's at the heart of this whole comparison: BG is much better at allowing us to VERIFY gravesite information.

2. Nobody "Owns" Profile/Memorial Pages On BillionGraves

The whole setup for Findagrave, where one manager controls a "memorial page" for a deceased person, is crippling. According to the site's protocols, he/she who has first created a memorial for a deceased individual gets to thenceforth run that page and make decisions for the information presented on it until they wish to transfer management to someone else. Requests for changes and additions must be submitted to the "manager" for approval. Protocols require that duplicates of the deceased person's memorial page not be created, and, if they are created by mistake, they must be merged into the first one...which is again under the administration of a single manager. And if this person is a bad administrator, a poor steward of the deceased's information, a poor researcher (all of which are not infrequent), or has some ax to grind, oh well! The squabbling, bad practices, disinformation, "rogue duplicates," and memorial transfer chaos that have resulted from this state of affairs are legendary. As a reluctant manager for many memorials I have created on Findagrave, I let out a frustrated sigh every time I receive a request to change a date given on a gravestone because someone "is sure" that this other source they have is correct and the pictured gravestone is wrong.

Meanwhile, at BG, NOBODY owns anyone's memorial page. There is simply a page automatically created for every person transcribed from the gravesite photos. Whoever takes a photo of a gravesite has first dibs in transcribing the information that will appear on the deceased person's page, but this information is thereafter subject to correction from anyone who submits edits. Edit wars are resolved by the website's management, and not by whichever user "got there first." Duplicates are merged by anyone who finds them. New grave photos can be added to person profile pages any time through the same app. Transcribing can be done (and corrected) by anyone if the original photo uploader passes on this task (which he/she actually forfeits as an exclusive privilege after 2 weeks). This works more like a Wiki and strikes me as much better than what transpires at Findagrave.

3. Memorial Collectors Are Findagrave's Name Collectors

If you have any familiarity with Findagrave, you've likely seen the antics there of people whose primary purpose seems to be hoarding as many memorial page managements as they can. At their worst, these people will simply scan newspapers for fresh obituaries, see where the deceased are to be buried, and quickly create Findagrave memorials for them without ever having taken a photograph or left home. (Often, the deceased people's relatives are shocked to find their loved ones "memorialized" on Findagrave in such a way before they're even buried. This has understandably created much animosity.) In other cases, photographers will simply take large amounts of photos, create memorials for the deceased, and refuse to transfer management of these memorials to family members or anyone else who asks.

You don't have this problem at BG. True, there are contests and running counts of transcribing/photographing contributions there, but this is offset again by the fact that no user can claim management of any deceased person's profile page. I've seen it said that Findagrave can at times resemble an addicting video game for middle-aged people. BG may not completely avoid this tendency, but at least there people's "game" fixes are directed toward the more productive ends of providing photos and transcriptions that can be edited and reviewed by more people than single memorial hoarders.


One thing I don't really like about BOTH Findagrave and BillionGraves is that they aspire to being more than gravesite photo databases. I understand this; these websites have to earn money and support themselves. Extra features may attract users, sponsors, and/or partnerships. But these sites aren't nearly as valuable, research-wise, for being third-rate online family trees (with their linking of memorial/page subjects' relationships, and spaces for record uploads) as they are in providing strictly burial and gravesite information. This "treeing" tendency occurs much more on Findagrave than on Billiongraves, likely due to the former's popularity. But cluttering up memorial and profile pages with often poorly cited (if at all) "extra materials" can obscure, or even work against, properly treating gravesites as historical records, regardless of whether or not we think their data is correct.

I suspect, though, that another reason these features are much less used and abused on BG is because, from what I've gleaned, there is a culture there that fosters this kind of respect. As things stand, it appears that BG has a modest but stable crowd of people who consistently take and transcribe photographs for the site. Many of them seem to appreciate what a valuable research tool it is, and they grasp its potential.

True, BG lags far behind Findagrave in the size of its database. But it is growing steadily, and it needs and deserves devoted users who aren't afraid to go back out and possibly duplicate their photographing efforts in service of such a worthy resource. Even Findagrave had to start somewhere. If you haven't given BillionGraves a second or even first glance, I encourage you to do so.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

A Genealogy Switchboard

When I last posted during the holidays, I promised a post explaining my method of managing and cataloging genealogy sources. I referred to it as my "genealogy switchboard." This is because it tracks not only my different sources according to category, date, etc., but it also shows me where (in which trees) each source has been entered, and for which relatives I have (or lack) specific kinds of sources. In this way, it resembles a kind of central hub that gives me an aerial view of where I am in my research.

I operate this tool principally via Google Sheets and Docs, which are free for anyone to use and accessible anywhere that has internet access. But you can also use the sheets/docs of Microsoft Office, or through comparable software, on your own desktop. (I use these as backups.) Basically we start with a document that will serve as a key for categorizing different kinds of sources. Mine looks something like this:

Genealogy Record Inventory Key
BA = Baptism Record
BC = Birth Certificate
BU = Burial Record
DC = Death Certificate
DR = Divorce Record
I = Interview Transcript
L = Land/Probate Record
M = Marriage License/Certificate
N = Naturalization Record
O = Obituary or Death Notice (Newspaper/Funeral Home)

Actually, I have many more categories in my own key than are listed above, but this abridged list will suffice for the sake of example. And it isn't necessary to use exactly my symbols and categories. One can adjust as it's convenient. We all deal with slightly different kinds of records on a consistent basis. (I must also say here that, while I track census and various register records for particular people, I don't include them in my inventory or key. I'll say more about this here later on.)

Every one of my self-contained, non-census, and non-parish record documents has its own Evernote page devoted to it (you could use another cloud service or PC folder if you like), and each has its own catalog number from my inventory key that reflects both its source kind AND its number within the total collection of my sources.

So, for example, my system lists my paternal grandfather's death certificate with the designation 247-DC62. What does this mean? It means that this source document was the 247th total document that I cataloged in my system, and it was the 62nd death certificate. That's it. By this simple means I can track the total number of sources I own, the numbers of particular kinds of sources, and approximately when in the cataloging process I entered them...all in a quick and efficient way. Next, I list this number in the first page of my inventory spreadsheet, and track multiple categories of information associated with its source.

Let's do a hypothetical example. Say that your grandfather's name is John Smith. He lived 1913 to 1998, was born in Detroit, Michigan, and died in Chicago, Illinois. You have a death certificate for him, and this is the first source you're cataloging in your own "switchboard." You would tag this source with the designation 1-DC1 (or something very close to this). You would then enter it into the source catalog page of your spreadsheet (the first tab). You can track all kinds of information for your sources. I do something like what you see below. Here's the first part (Columns A through D):

Here are some other columns I use to the right of A-D:

And still more:

You can track even more information as needed/desired. To the right of these columns are other columns which I use to track where I have uploaded/cited each document. I do so because, perhaps like some of you reading this, I keep multiple trees online, in addition to my main one through my desktop software. (I use RootsMagic for my main tree, hence the "RM" designation.) This allows me to easily see what I have entered in RM and various places online, and it allows me to do and check off even small tasks for when I have only brief time for genealogy. (FSFT stands for the FamilySearch Family Tree.)

If a document is not posted to a particular place yet, I just leave that cell blank. (I don't actually use Geni that much, so I picked on it for my example here. Sorry.)

The second spreadsheet tab is the one I use to track particular kinds of records for particular people. Continuing with our hypothetical example, here are a few rows and columns:

In this little cross-section, one sees that there is no birth certificate collected for either Chester Smith or his wife Dorothy. This wouldn't be surprising, since birth certificates (as opposed to baptism or birth register documents) may be non-existent for people of their generation. One may leave cells for such elusive (or non-existent) records blank, or one may fill them with "NA" or a similarly appropriate designation. Notice, too, that since Chester and Dorothy were married, they share their marriage certificate record. So the catalog number of 7-M2 (7th total record, second marriage license-certificate) goes in both of their cells. Sometimes cells will have multiple catalog numbers in them, as in the cases where multiple marriage records or multiple obituaries exist for the same person.

The kinds and number of records represented in this way are limited by what the user chooses to track. I trace dozens of kinds of sources for each person I have at all researched. Coming back to source records that are not self-contained, such as censuses and registers, I may not give them catalog designations in this system but I do mark in the cells where such sources for each person may be found (like FamilySearch, Ancestry, etc.) that I can access, like this:

As we all know, occasionally our ancestors will not show up in census records we have searched, for whatever reason. A placeholder description like "not traced" seems appropriate.

There are more details I could go into, but this is basically what I do to keep track of my genealogy sources and research progress. I have used it for 2+ years and am finding it to be highly efficient and satisfying. Whenever I obtain new source materials, I enter them into this matrix. When I want to research different parts of my heritage, it's easy to see where I have left off last time and where to continue working next.

A possible weakness of this system is that it is sometimes tricky to search the first tab's total catalog when you're looking for specific record entries and you've already entered in thousands of rows/columns of info. I usually just do a document search (Control-F) and enter a search term, and this helps me to quickly find what I'm looking for. This is easy enough, but some people may want to keep more source-type-dedicated tabs to avoid this if they choose to do so. Having that second tab that tracks sources for each person also helps to find things in the first one. It just depends upon what the "Switchboard Operator" wants to trace and how easily. One advantage of my system is that it is highly customizable and easy to add moving parts that don't mess up the pre-existing parts.

Perhaps some day I'll do a YouTube video that walks the viewer through everything in a fuller and more visual manner. But I hope this relatively short introduction to my system was interesting, even if you choose not to adopt it yourself.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Becoming A Serious Source Collector

I have been on the road much this holiday season, and haven't been posting as regularly as I normally do. But I am taking a bit of time this Christmas Eve to set the stage for a big post I will be making in 2020 about how I collect sources and stay organized.

The more serious you become about genealogy, the more time you're going to spend gathering and organizing source materials. As I said in an early post here, increasingly you will become a collector of sources as much as, if not more than, a collector of names. Once you're tracking vital, military, census, and many other kinds of records for even a handful of ancestors, you'll discover that all of the documents etc. can overwhelm you in a hurry. Unless you have a good system that works for you and can manage your amassed resources, your research will become paralyzed by inefficiency. 

I use a combination of spreadsheets and cloud storage services (backed up, of course!) to manage my ever-increasing body of images and documents. My organization systems for these tools let me know, at a moment's glance, which records I have for which people and where they're stored. There are many days when I spend much more time maintaining my lists than I do working on my family tree. But if you're serious about genealogy, this "scaffolding" isn't just necessary work, it's crucial to the health of your research. 

Every serious genealogist is also something of a private archivist. Your family tree is rooted in faulty soil if it isn't buttressed by a well-curated library of sources and other items.

So, when I get back into the swing of things after New Year's Day, I will be describing my personal system of organization. I call it my "Genealogical Switchboard." It may work for you, and it may not. There are many methods of research organization, as well as books devoted to them. There is no one right way. You may even find some weaknesses in my method, and I am open to criticism.

So, stay tuned for my next post in a little over one week from now. And Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 13, 2019

Genealogy Sources Are Not Created Equally

A discussion I had recently made me realize that the concept of historical information hierarchy is not widely understood. My conversation partners seemed perturbed that I would suggest that using as a sole source for an online collaborative tree profile is not a strong practice. They seemed rather more bothered when I said that there are usually stronger source types than a mere gravestone for coming to the most confident conclusions about death and burial facts. "How do you know that the information on your death certificate is correct?" one said. "The information on that could be wrong and the gravestone right!" I got the impression that this person was understanding things according to a my-source-vs.-your-source framework. By this perspective, who in the world am I to suggest that "my source" is "better" than this person's source? I tried to explain about primary vs. secondary sources for given facts, and about different gradations even within those categories. The person came back and said, "well, my secondary source could be right while your primary source could be wrong."

Yes, this is true. My primary source could be wrong and his secondary source could be right. But this is beside the point. Why? Because responsible, well-trained historians know to privilege sources created at the time of an event in question by people who were there to witness it. None other than Elizabeth Shown Mills duly notes this straightaway in her authoritative tome, Evidence Explained:

"Information is classed or weighed according to its origin. [Then she defines primary and secondary information.] As a rule, primary information carries more weight than secondary, although either class of informants can err." (ESM, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, Third Edition Revised, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2015, pg. 25.)

"Ah, you see?" I hear you say, "EITHER class can err!" Absolutely. But when we're comparing one primary source and one secondary source, we have to give more weight to the primary source until we have more information. How do we start figuring out that the secondary source has correct information while the primary source has incorrect information, if it comes to that? Typically this is done with OTHER PRIMARY SOURCES rather than with other secondary sources....because (you guessed it) primary information has more clout as historical witness to its stated facts.

So, let's come back to our particular scenario. Which source should I privilege, in the absence of other sources, for death and burial information: a memorial page or a death certificate? The answer is now clear. Provided it was obtained from a reputable repository (county clerk, archive, library, subscription service, etc.), the death certificate carries decidedly more weight. This is not to say that the one source is for sure correct while the other is for sure wrong. It merely means that the document is, on face, a weightier bit of evidence.

"But," you say, "what about the gravestone itself? Isn't that a primary source on par with the death certificate?" Actually, not in most cases. Why? Because unless we have direct paperwork telling us WHEN the gravestone was made, who made it, for whom it was made specifically, and when it was placed atop the gravesite, we have to put it in a bit more inferior of a source class than that of a death certificate if we're looking for the most authentic death and burial information. Remember, in most cases the death certificate will be made right at the time and place of death, and within just a few days of burial. Something similar may be true of a gravestone, but the stone itself will rarely supply you with much of this specific information. Again, the stone could be correct (in most cases it probably is), but without stronger primary sources accompanying it, we have to assign it a slightly lower amount of clout. A death certificate, even an obituary, are more to be sought-after for confident support of death and burial facts. (If the obituary and the death certificate disagree on a given fact, we have a trickier problem than if both of these documents agree with each other and disagree with the gravestone by itself. Again, we would need more primary source information, or some sophisticated triangulation by other means, for any resolution to this problem.)

"But what if there is no death certificate or obituary?" you ask. "What if my searching has only turned up a gravestone for a person's death/burial information?" Well, then your confidence for these facts must remain less strong than it would be if you had better sources. Is that a disappointing answer? Welcome to historical research! Ask any trained historian (who has had to make do with non-existent or next-to-impossible-to-find primary sources) how many lingering questions they have. As a genealogist, you're going to leave this world with many such questions, and many facts that you wish you could have supported better. You therefore admit this and chronicle it in detail in your notes. What you don't do is slap a memorial citation on a death/burial fact and pretend that you have resolved the issue in just the same way as if you had stronger records at your disposal. The objective quality of evidence for a given fact isn't dependent upon the researcher's feelings and circumstances. There are only well supported assertions and less well supported assertions.

I love gravestones, and I love to go graving. I really do. I also think that gravestones are valuable historical evidence. I even like (though I much prefer these days). It's a fun site; I get the appeal. But if you're serious about doing good research, you simply must use this tool far more carefully than many in the wider genealogical community seem prepared to do. Just because a source is more easily within your reach doesn't make it the best source you could find or use, and ESPECIALLY not the only one you should/could use. Always ask yourself the following questions: what is this source, who made it, when was it made, and how does it compare to other sources? The world of historical evidence is not democratic.

Friday, December 6, 2019

A Plea for Y-DNA

I realize it's been a bit longer than normal since my last post. Well, that's because it's early December, and anybody who works at a university (with a semester system) knows how busy this time of year is. I'm also preoccupied with some professional research activities. So, the present offering will be a fairly light one.

And that's okay, because I wanted to ease into the topic I'm treating today for the first time. That would be DNA. I have lots of opinions about Genealogy and DNA, most of which will have to wait for heftier posts. I also want time to mentally chew on recent developments regarding privacy and autosomal DNA; I still don't know what to think about some of them. (But I will!)

I'm a big fan of autosomal DNA testing; I'm an even bigger fan of Y-DNA testing. There's just one problem: Y-DNA is still the most expensive testing venture, and it's still not well understood/appreciated by many casual hobbyists. For these reasons, the testing pool, while growing, is still relatively small. Anecdotally, I can tell you that I first tested my Y-DNA late in 2016 at the Y-67 level, bought a handful of SNP tests in subsequent months, and expanded to Y-111 last year. In all this time, I think I received ONE new match after the initial batch of about 15-20. (And most of those have only tested at the Y-12 or Y-25 levels.) A single Y-12 match shares my surname; four match at Y67-111 levels with a different surname (that they all share), though with a fair bit of genetic distance.

And this is all a pity...because Y-DNA has potentially the most to teach us about our deep ancestry. It's quite our best shot at peeking behind brick walls that remain immovable by available written evidence alone. In case you didn't know, only males can take a Y-DNA test. Each male's Y-chromosome is handed down to him from his father. Mutations on this chromosome over time make it possible to categorize testers and lines according to "haplogroups." The more testers there are, the more Y-DNA scientists are able to refine these haplogroups, assign approximate historical date ranges to them, and devise more reliable percentages regarding how closely these testers may relate.

This stuff gets to be pretty complicated, and I'm no expert. But I do know this much: if even 10% of the males out there were to have taken a DNA test at the Y-37 level or higher, the proverbial air in the genealogy community would be ringing with the sounds of falling brick walls, and we'd be joyfully coughing on the dust from their demise. This is because, as with autosomal testing, the more people test, the more we can learn. In the case of Y-DNA, a dramatic increase in the testing pool would enable many more haplogroup subclades to be confidently created well into the genealogical time frame (the name for eras when written records become available). Y-DNA geeks eagerly await such developments, and so should the rest of us.

I get it. The prices on Y-DNA tests, even genealogically less useful ones like (Y-12 and Y-25), can be daunting. And only one company now offers them commercially (FamilyTreeDNA). But if you're serious about finding out what lies beyond the brick walls of your ancestral lines, you should start budgeting for these tests and locating willing testers. Y-DNA has been a big waiting game for many; here's my modest call for us to shorten our times to discovering big returns on our investments.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Why Aren't More Young People Interested in Genealogy?

So far, most of my blog posts have addressed standards I believe are necessary for serious genealogical research. I've tried to approach these topics in my own way, and argue passionately that those starting out in the hobby need to develop a certain mindset if they are to produce work that is of lasting value. But with the present post I am taking a break from all of that. Instead, this time I'll offer my thoughts on a question that occasionally gets asked in the genealogical community: why aren't more young people interested in the pursuit? Some of my answers will overlap with those frequently given, while others may be more peculiar to my perspective.

1. Young People Have More Pressing Concerns 
Like many authors of fiction, J.K. Rowling likes to speak through her characters. In the Harry Potter books, one of the things she says through Professor Dumbledore is that the old are often guilty of forgetting what it is to be young. This bit of wisdom could be stated for all of my points here, but it's especially applicable to this one. Was genealogy a priority when you were young? Moreover, there are pressures and anxieties that young people are forced to navigate now that people of older generations may never have experienced (or may not have experienced to such sharp degrees). Young people today who might otherwise be interested in genealogy are attaining ever more expensive college educations, are chasing well-paying jobs that are fewer and farther between, and are buying homes and starting families. In many cases, they're doing the latter with dollars that have never been worth less, prices that have never been higher, and wages that haven't grown enough to meet new costs. Young breadwinners often find it increasingly difficult to support their spouses and children. Navigating the Lean Years is as tough now as it has been for decades. Can we really ask why these things may be more on young people's minds than researching Great Great Gramps or Great Aunt Gretchen?

2. Young People Have Less Time For Genealogy 
Things like college, full-time jobs, and parenting are time-consuming. Ask a busy 20- or 30-something if he or she feels like doing genealogy after a long weekday, or if their idea of a weekend of leisure is hunting down records and creating family trees. Maybe this sounds like fun for some of them, but I think you'll get more takers from other age brackets.

3. Young People May Have Less Money to Spend on Genealogy
I'll be honest: it sticks in my craw a bit when a Baby Boomer lets on that an Ancestry or MyHeritage subscription is "no big deal" in terms of cost. No big deal to whom? To an older person with nearly a lifetime of income growth and savings? I promise that it is certainly a big deal to young people who are trying to avoid too much college debt (compare college costs from 1965 or 1975 to today), trying to keep ahead of bills, and/or trying to save or invest enough money for retirement. 100, 75, even 20 dollars per month is no laughing matter for most young people. And that's before we start talking about trips to distant archives, or paying to have vital certificates and other records delivered in the mail. Each of us has 8 great grandparents. Assuming that we can locate such records for them, these costs start adding up fast...especially when we then proceed to research all of the cousin lines.

4. Older People Are Situated to be More Reflective
People who have "lived a little" are in better spots to start thinking about where they came from. Nothing spurs looking back like traversing a long span of life with all of its vicissitudes. This is often the catalyst for interest in genealogy. Young people simply haven't had much experience here.

5. Young People May Feel Out of Place at Genealogy Societies and Conferences
I've heard it been said that "we just need to invite more young people to society meetings and conferences." You can certainly try. But I question the success rate of inviting young people (especially teens) to spend considerable time with crowds of folks whose average age looks to be about 63. I'm all the more apprehensive if the young person in question adheres to contemporary mores that may invite unwelcome remarks from the less inhibited elders. 

6. Genealogy Can Seem a Lot Like School
Twelve grades, then college, then graduate studies (depending upon the person) is a lot of school. Young people who are involved with, or have recently finished, any of this may not have the appetite for "fun studies" on top of everything else. I myself became keenly interested in genealogy during my doctoral coursework. I now teach at a university for a living. There have been days when I don't have much intellectual energy left for genealogy. 

7. Actually, Plenty of Young People ARE Interested in Genealogy, But...
Somewhat related to No. 6, one's passion for genealogy can speak to a certain predisposition. I'm talking about a love for academic or "mind-based" types of activity. Some people show passion for this sort of thing relatively soon, and I believe it is these individuals who are most likely to demonstrate an early predilection toward genealogy. I gather that people who already love to read, love history, love puzzles, and love, for the lack of a better term, "book smarts," often latch onto genealogy long before others do. Those who aren't drawn to these things may take up genealogy later, when reflection and life experience lead them to the hobby by a somewhat different route. It's dangerous to categorize this sort of thing too sweepingly, but from what I see, the young people passionate about (as opposed to mildly interested in) genealogy tend to be good students and/or work in professions that call for intellect-based skills: academics, IT workers, librarians, engineers, etc. OR, they're people who would be good in such roles. There are always exceptions; some academically-skilled people come to genealogy only later, etc. But I believe that this tendency is common enough to mention here.

There are definite advantages to taking up genealogy as a young person: you have more older relatives around to interview, more time to learn, more chances to pursue elusive records, and you may be an ideal inheritor of photos/artifacts, etc. But I also think that we shouldn't be as worried about this issue as some seem to be. Those of us excited about genealogy know that not everyone will share our passion. Over-zealous evangelism for the hobby can be a big turn-off. Still, the knowledge of our ancestors lives on because new generations take up the task of preserving it. As we spread the joy of our hobby, we should plant seeds carefully...and work to identify those most likely to carry on our endeavors. In this matter, as with so much else related to genealogy, aiming well beats aiming indiscriminately.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

More Thoughts on Genealogy and the Internet

In the wake of my last post on this subject, I witnessed an interesting conversation on social media. One party was making the (proper) argument that physical archives and their workers are indispensable for serious genealogical research, and that not everything is available digitally. This party also (rightly) showed concern that contemporary genealogy too often amounts to looking at whichever digital images happen to be online.

The responses this party received were both telling and alarming. Somehow, their tried-and-true wisdom got cast as "elitism." How? It went something like this: you see, not everyone can make it to physical archives. Sometimes, digital images accessible at home on the internet may be all that is available to certain researchers, and to suggest that they're not doing enough is unfeeling and discriminatory.

While one should empathize with how some might find it difficult to access certain collections, there are nonetheless several options open to nearly everyone:
1. Contact the repository, explain your situation, and see what they can do to accommodate your needs.
2. With their help/awareness, enlist someone to access the needed records for you.
3. Perhaps the workers at this repository would be able/willing to digitize, email, or post online the desired items. I've routinely requested copies of records to be sent to me that are housed on the other side of the country from where I live. With some unfortunate exceptions that apply to everyone (and for which we now have the great group Reclaim the Records), local archivists and librarians are happy to help people use their resources. I cannot recall a time when this was not the case for me, either for my musicological or for my family history work. These folks are a researcher's best friends. 

Of course, what the second party was really arguing is that beginners shouldn't have to hear how they can improve as long as they're "having fun." After all, that "reasonably exhaustive search" stuff in the Genealogical Proof Standard is mainly for professionals, right?

Actually, it's for anyone who wants their research to be maximally useful to anybody else. This means understanding the limitations of our work and what needs to be done to make it stronger. Either one has traced and consulted the important sources for a particular project/question, or one has not. The more one has not, the more holes there are in the research. The more holes there are in the research, the less useful it will be to anyone else whose concern is finding trustworthy information. And I've got news for you: if all you do is consult online records, your work almost certainly has some massive holes.

No research is perfect. Lots of even good research usually has at least a few holes or avenues for further exploration. But we must always be honest about what we have, and what we don't have...about what we've seen, and about what we haven't seen...about what we've searched for, and what we haven't searched for. Until we're reasonably sure that we either have all available primary sources for our facts, or that primary sources have eluded due diligence and may no longer exist, our work will be incomplete. Facing up to these things is not snobbery, and it's not meant to put others down. It's merely a pre-requisite for quality work. If you're sour that someone is respectfully pointing out any of this, maybe "elitism" isn't really the problem here.