Monday, 25 July 2016

The problem with online genealogy research

Today I had an email from Familysearch telling me of my links to various Mormon pioneers.  They had linked them via the very rudimentary tree I had put on the site to illustrate a talk I gave last winter on using Familysearch's new features.  Extrapolating from other trees on the site they had given my ancestor two different sets of parents and thus two different links to Mormon pioneer families.

Fascinating as this is, the fact remains that I had not put my ancestor's parentage on my tree because I have not yet satisfied myself as to which, if any, is correct.  Certainly one of the allocated sets of parents is definitely wrong as their son died as an infant.

Genealogy as "best fit"

Genealogy is usually a matter of "best fit".  As you get further back in time corroborating sources may not have survived even if they existed in the first place.  The world of Internet Genealogy, morever, lulls the researcher into thinking that the result pulled up by the search engine or hint is correct.  The absence of detailed information about its source - its gaps, limitations, scope and purpose - on many genealogical sites compounds this, particularly without benefit of local knowledge on the part of the researcher.

"The truth is out there" - original records

There are many original records out there in archives and record offices which could possibly give the lie to your careful genealogical conclusions.  As a professional researcher my fear is always that I have missed that obscure but vital record in my otherwise thorough search.  Many times when researching for clients I have found that their original assumptions although carefully researched were incorrect - sometimes the proof of an ancestor's lineage consists of proving that they are not someone else!  Looking at the "small print" of a person's life - taxation returns, rate books, parish relief, tithe apportionment - and basic common sense - a mother does not usually give birth twice in 6 months in 2 different places a long way apart - are some of the keys to demolishing brick walls.

Genealogy "do-over" - find new sources

The genealogy "do-over" is in part a recognition of this fact.  What seemed a logical assumption in the early days of your research may now be disproved in the light of greater experience and knowledge of other sources.  More records being digitised and put online are giving all of us access to a vast variety of sources but there is still so much more out there - on microfilm and as manuscripts in archives, record offices, university special collections, libraries and even on ebay.

Don't rely on the Internet as it is only the tip of the iceberg.  I spend my working life researching in  archives finding new and interesting sources of information for clients.  I am constantly amazed by what is out there in vaults somewhere, sometimes only accessed via manuscript catalogues.

Some records have not survived

Equally I am frustrated by what has not survived.  When I think about

Friday, 1 January 2016

Genealogy lab rats in a Maze

I'm taking a break from preparing a talk on using the familysearch website for a local family history group next week to write this.  In fact the research for the talk has in part inspired this, together with the commotion caused by the announcement that Family Tree Maker is to be axed.

I am not a great fan of family tree software although I do use it for my work.  I have not yet found a program which meets all my needs - in particular the fact that sometimes there is no clear cut ancestor but several candidates.  Whilst you think that one is the most likely you need to explain why and where else you have looked.

Genealogy and best fit

Genealogy, particularly the compilation of a family tree, is most often a "best fit" for the situation not an absolute certainty.  We talk about the need for 3 proofs for each fact but the reality is that the further back you go the less likely you are to find them.  Parish registers for instance tend to become less informative in their entries and there is no certainty that they are all that complete or accurate.  (Oh that sinking feeling when attached to a section of sparse entries or a gap you see a note saying that the vicar had been failing for some years and that his successor had attempted to reconstruct the registers from what loose papers he had found.)

There are other sources which if they have survived can be used but if your ancestor did not make a will, own land, appear at the manorial court, receive poor relief, act in an official capacity within a parish or sell them goods, appear at the quarter sessions, serve as an apprentice or in the militia you may not find evidence of them.

Careful analysis

Each record you do find needs careful analysis in context.  Is the William Varley married to Mary really the one you are looking for?  In a large parish there may be 2 or 3 William Varleys and at least 2 may have married a Mary.  You often need to try and eliminate the others in order to find the most likely.  AND you may need to trace back the possible lines in the hope of finding facts as to the relative status or wealth, family names, residence etc to help you make your eventual decision.

How can you document all this in a family tree program?

Online trees

Which brings me to my beef with online trees.  Specifically those hosted by commercial database websites offering digitised records.  Most of these offer suggestions as to other likely records which appear to match the person in your tree or the one you are searching for.

Some of these suggestions are more useful than others and some are totally inappropriate.  They need careful consideration in context and with reference to all the known facts.  But there is something about the breadcrumb trail nature of the suggestion process that somehow leads us to suspend our critical faculties and accept the computer's suggestion.  AND TO CARRY ON DOING IT.

I admit I am not immune to this temptation and sometimes it has been quite useful but I do horrify myself that I am tempted to click without thorough checking.  I manage to stop myself and step back but I do this for a living.  If it is hard for me to step back what hope do beginners have?

The Ancestry app for my tablet is the worst.  It is far too easy to click without thinking carefully.

Genealogy lab rats

So when did Genealogy become a computer game?  It should not be something a machine researches for us.  We should be in charge with a research plan, analytical faculties and family knowledge.

We are not genealogy lab rats working round a computer generated maze although it can so easily feel like it.  We are being steered towards using online trees and may have to pay for the privilege.  How can we accept other online trees as correct given the perhaps suspect nature of their generation?

We all need to step back out of the maze and think about where genealogy in the digital age is taking us.  Is it using us or are we using it?