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?

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