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Jrich/Ahnentafel
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Jrich/Case Studies
Jrich/The Need for Sources

Contents

Research

I have placed some summarizing charts of my research areas at User:Jrich/Ahnentafel.

Documenting sources is not only a practice that produces better results, but in a collaborative environment, is no more than common courtesy. Various postings on this issue may be found at User:Jrich/The Need for Sources.

Genealogy in print and film

One of my favorite genealogical references in the movies come from the movie Amistad.

First, Joseph Cinque says that he will ask his ancestors to help him, and they must, because... "For, at this moment, I am the only reason they have existed at all." [Descendant-oriented]
Later, John Quincy Adams is staring at a statue of his father John Adams, and says, "We've long resisted asking you for guidance. Perhaps we've feared in doing so we might acknowledge that our individuality, that we so revere, is not our own." [Ancestor-oriented]

An excellent book with genealogical overtones is "The Voyage" by Philip Caputo, a novel about a woman investigating three teenage brothers, one her grandfather, whose father sent them away on a sailboat voyage to brave the Atlantic Ocean on their own.

This is a hilarious clip of Comedian Alan King called "Survived by Wife", especially so to those whose research may involve an occasional reading of an obituary.

"With a will to work hard, and a library card..." - John Mayer "Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1969"

Advice from a Master

The following is taken from Source:TAG, p. 10:33, in an article by Donald Jacobus called "Errors in Genealogical Books". Note that the author starts by saying, "It is not our intention to speak here of errors in bad genealogical books. ... Here we shall speak of the type of error sometimes found in good genealogical books." I have emphasized the moral of each stories.

"... This is an example of the type of error that comes from a misinterpretation of an original record. Many times, as in this instance, it is to be attributed to the 'little knowledge' which the poet calls 'a dangerous thing'. A complete study of all original sources would have enabled me to avoid the error.

"Another moral that may be drawn is that it is always best to study the whole family as a group. Many of the errors to be found in the pedigree books which attempt to give a person's complete ancestry on all lines, come from trying to run back each direct ancestral line without the advantage of studying each family as a whole.

"Finally, it is unwise to trust any genealogical book, however good its reputation, too far. There are mistakes in the best of them, and the genealogist should never allow his critical faculties to desert him and become a blind copyist."


Two lessons based on his own experiences while researching his ancestor, John Dingley, were discussed in TAG by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, at one time Historian General of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. On p. 56:207, Stratton surveys the responses to a query he posted asking for help. "While it was gratifying that so many people offered to help, it was also disquieting to see widespread perpetuation of a genealogical line not supported in any way by fact." On p. 61:240, in a followup article, he says, "In case anyone wonders how I could have been off by as much as 31 years for a death date, the answer should be apparent. I took someone's word for it, instead of looking up the original records."

My Interest in Genealogy

I am not a professional genealogist, and have no plans to get any certification. I have been practicing genealogy for decades, having inherited 3 significant sources of genealogical information on my ancestors. My first goal was to find the parents of Person:William King (145). With a name as common as that, I learned many times over the danger of merely matching names. However, I finally feel I have proved his parents after several years of focused research. Of course, there are always new challenges to take on (each generation discovered merely opens up two new mysteries) and one never really is able to close the book on any subject.

My thoughts on genealogy were additionally shaped by Source:Mayflower Descendant. The difference between family tradition and proved genealogy was made very clear in the articles by George E. Bowman. Afterwards I applied this learning to my inherited sources and my own work, and discovered, and corrected, many errors. For large parts of my family tree, I have exhausted the sources at my local genealogy library and those that are easily found on the Internet, and so my best hope for further progress is interaction with other researchers.

I have entered maybe 6000 pages of my own ancestors, and in the interest of increasing the scholarship of this site, I have worked on approximately 4 times that many pages that are not ancestors. I cannot spend the time on these others that I did on my ancestors. Instead I try to find a 90/10 approach that gives fairly reliable results as quick as possible without falling into common fallacies. Thus, I use the following methodologies:

  1. I focus on New England, where I have done a lot of research, and so have accumulated some knowledge of sources, geography, history, and all the peripheral issues which greatly aid in research.
  2. I use few personal Internet genealogy sites, and none that don't cite sources. These are largely a waste of time, giving no sources, and having an unacceptably high error rate.
  3. I try to find sources that either are, or reference, primary sources. Primary sources are the least likely to be tainted with assumption and guesses. It has been eye-opening to see how poor many secondary sources are when compared to primary records.
  4. I try to find at least one credible genealogist or at least one family genealogy that agrees with my interpretation of those primary sources (sometimes I confirm my interpretation of the primary records with the source, sometimes I confirm the source with primary records.) If you use only one source, you always will look right, but it is often illusory.
  5. I document my sources because I recognize the possibility that I and the reader may not be aware of the same sources, that people aren't going to (and shouldn't) just believe a stranger, and because I want people to be able to build upon my work instead of wasting time reinventing my research.

I tend to dislike any practice that claims to make genealogy easy (because it isn't: it requires attention to detail, precision, perserverence, thoroughness, and objectivity), that gives data without indicating how it is known (district attorney to SVU detective: it's not what you know, but what you can prove that matters), and that avoids critical analysis (which tends to propagate existing errors - the urban myths of genealogy).

Most sites that allow you to upload your genealogy let each user create their own space - their own version of the truth. While we cannot know the truth, not having lived at the time, we can, and should be approaching, one consensus of it, not to-each-his-own. After all, in the end, we are all related. Therefore, I like the single family tree of WeRelate. And I like the prominent place that sources occupy on the WeRelate pages, which indicates a recognition of the importance and need for sources in a collaborative environment. Undoubtedly some organizations, like, say, the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, build credible databases of proven lines of descent, but they are limited and not shared with the public. This is one of the needs served by WeRelate, and if people are to trust it, it needs to be as reliable as possible. Sloppy work is like litter: even a little scattered about encourages more.

Just Say No to unsourced websites!

Group Genealogy

This is a collaborative website. Unlike in-person collaboration, in general, you cannot discuss differences and work out a mutually agreeable presentation before "publishing". In fact, your collaborator may not yet be born...

The genealogical proof standard (GPS) describes how genealogical proof is determined. A key requirement listed if the exhaustive search of sources. It only takes one source to prove something, while there are plenty of stories where a myth is parroted by virtually every source, yet ends up being wrong. The best way to avoid being taken in by mistaken sources is to investigate as many other sources as possible, trying to determine the primary (i.e., contemporary, first-hand, or official) documents that tell how something is known.

This exhautive survey does not need to be played out on each page of WeRelate. This will make each page become painfully long and hard to process. If all sources are listed, many pages will have more wrong sources posted that correct ones. It is the contributor's job to provide some screening of sources. The following offers a possible list of criteria for deciding when to replace a source, when to add a source, and when to do nothing.

  • Sources should be added to the page because they add new information, or because they are more primary. They should not be added to a page merely because they are the source the contributor used, if they do not add information that is not already there. Brevity is desirable, redundancy is not. (The basis for this suggestion is the GPS point to explain away alternate theories. A conscientious genealogists who wants to correct one of the facts on the page will feel compelled to look up each cited source and refute it, if they are trying to be a respectful collaborator. Their respect for the contributions of others, suggests others should try to give that researcher the smallest set of necessary sources that prove a fact. The same courtesy suggests one should attempt to provide an abstract of what the source is supporting so that they may quickly and easily identify if it applies to the fact they are refuting or only to other non-controversial facts.)
  • Generally, most primary sources have value. Preferable is being able to quote primary documents, less preferable is being able to merely identify the primary document relied on, least preferable is to provide a secondary source that asserts something without identifying the primary document that supports it.
  • Existing sources should be respected, and removed or changed with care.
  • If another user has provided a source that is incorrect, one should attempt to reply to it, following the GPS admonition to explain away alternative theories. The source needs to have a certain amount of cachet, or serious research, before one can justify taking up space on the page refuting it (it is not practical to explain away every website that mentions a person, but those that appear to be of higher quality are likely to mislead others, so recording the refutation is likely to be useful to future readers). Even for errors that are more obviously wrong, it may still be helpful to some reader to add the explanation to the Talk page.
  • Many things in genealogy are unknowable, and alternative theories may exist, and hold more or less credence in different camps. Many contributors may be interested in documenting possibilities in those situations, not merely provable facts. Respect for the collaborative process suggests some tolerance for hypothetical answers. Adding a note documenting the uncertainty may be more appropriate than removing possible facts. Is it wrong? Correct it. Is it unknown? Collect evidence and add analysis.
  • Estimates are estimates. Calculated estimates are better than guesses, but almost all estimates lack great precision and imply the ultimate answer is not known. It is probably more appropriate to be tolerant of small variations, and change estimates only when they create misunderstanding with known facts (e.g., provide an incorrect birth order). It may be possible to simply add a note providing analysis of various estimates without removing another person's estimate.
  • The order of sources should not be changed. While it may not be intended, it creates several subliminal messages that may be annoying to collaborators (my source is better than yours, etc.) Since intuition suggests that sources are listed in the order they were added, it also makes it confusing for future readers to understand why sources are cited. There is no functional need for changing the order since there are links directly from facts to appropriate sources.