Monday, January 20, 2014

What you know (and can prove)

Reblogging this post from the New England Historical and Genealogical Sociey's Penny Stratton: 

“Write down what you know” is the first step in family history research. For many of us, what we know includes family stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. But sometimes those stories can be misleading – or just plain incorrect. For example, my stepmother had always heard that she was related to Ralph Waldo Emerson and General William Tecumseh Sherman. I have a set of notes written by her aunt, Minerva McGee (1897-1972), which begin like this:

General Sherman — younger brother of Catherine Sherman
Ralph Waldo Emerson — younger brother of John Emerson
John Emerson — Catherine Sherman, My Great Grandparents.
Unfortunately, Aunt Minerva was wrong.


As wonderful as these stories have been, their failure to hold up under standard methods of genealogical scrutiny makes me question other family lore I encounter. Yes, it’s wise to start with what you know, but perhaps we should reword that advice: start with what you know and can prove.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

WikiTree and Genealogy Source Rigor

For many, many years (20+) I have been content to build my family trees through methods that I’ve known to be unsourced. I have had several hand-written family trees passed on to me by relatives and I’ve taken advantage of numerous on-line family trees to fill in the blanks and gaps and to extend my family tree back in time beyond the handwritten trees.  To be honest, I was more than happy to believe that these materials were accurate and to assimilate them into my own files without questioning their accuracy too much. Oh, I’d go through the whole “preponderance of evidence” process, you know, I’d look at Rootsweb and to see if there were any differences of opinion, and as I went further back in time I’d tend to exercise more and more doubt about what I was seeing and often I would ignore the extended trees that others have put out there. But often enough, I’d go ahead and add the information to my own tree, even if I couldn’t see or verify what sources were used to make the connection. To be frank, I felt that there was no way I could single-handedly go through the process of verifying that everything I was finding was thoroughly sourced (I have a non-genealogy job, a family, etc.). On that point, I think that I was and still am correct, there is no way for one person to verify their sources for a family tree that has thousands of entries as mine does. I’d prefer to have my family tree be a model of accuracy – one which only verification and documentation can attain, but haven’t felt capable of making it so.

 For a shorter number of years, I’ve suspected that a Wiki could solve this problem. Wikipedia is the ultimate example, of course, and I use it almost every day. But I’ve felt for several years that some form of Wiki for Genealogy would be ideal – we all could be researching our own family lines and feed them into one giant tree and over time the entries would be properly sourced and fleshed out, photos and written materials added, etc. and the work of ensuring all this accuracy could be distributed so that, as volunteers, we each could add our little part. I thought that would turn out to be this sort of Wiki, but quickly found that the ease of uploading gedcom data to that site made it impossible for the site to function as a Wiki. On the other end of the spectrum is, which has its place in genealogy research, no doubt, but which suffers from the inability of users to edit the profiles there unless you’re the owner. I’ve noticed that does suffer from the gedcom problem as well, but much less so than Geni and Wiki seems to have much more of an ethic of collaboration than Geni. In fact, I myself tried to upload my gedcom here and found I was unable to. I’m sure I have someone here to thank for that. Well, thank you to whatever group or individual made that decision. I’m so glad I wasn’t able to upload my gedcom at first. Because it forced me to rethink my entire approach to the site (in a good way!).

That rethink has led to my personal WikiTree pledge: I, Kyle Dane, am not going to add a profile to without at least one source. That means I am going to have to type all of my profiles onto the site one-by-one, and along the way verify that I have source materials to back up what I enter. I’m also not going to edit a profile without having a source. I have been going through this process for three weeks now and I have been able to go back four generations (from myself) and connected up to at least three branches of existing trees on WikiTree without violating this pledge. I’ve found that the sources I do have access to are better than I had realized, and that I am proud of the resulting profiles. I’ll probably still maintain my unsourced family tree on as an idealized or hopeful tree, or for ideas on where to focus my research next, but I will consider my WikiTree to be the real deal.