Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Grand Theft Genealogy

I read an article the other day in which I was told in essence that I’m not good enough to write my family history.  Now, the author, Sharon Tate Moody, doesn’t know me and doesn’t read this blog or know about me or it or anything I do or say or don’t cite, but she said that she wonders if I should, “have a research license (sort of like a driver's license)” before I can publish my work “in print or on the Internet.”
Now, I know I shouldn’t always internalize everything written on the internet, but I did and I do.  I write family books and I write blog posts and I don’t have a research license and I doubt my citing of sources is usually or even sometimes entirely kosher.  So it was about me, or at the very least, people like me.

She also wrote about those who “believe the television ads about how easy it is to click on a few links and find your entire family.”  She said that those people “steal the family car and have a grand old time for the weekend, racing around the Internet and leaving a mess for someone else to clean up on Monday morning.”  Since she doesn’t define “a few links,” I have to believe this could be me, too.  I do race around the internet when I get a bug up my butt about an ancestor.  I work full time and have two small children, so I don’t have time to race around the real world.

I didn’t really want to think on it too much as my Grand Theft Genealogy brings me great pleasure and I don’t really want to give it up.  But I also don’t want to spend more time on sources and information and evidence and proof than I do on finding and sharing my family stories.  My time is extremely limited and in the grand scheme of time-ration, source citations get about 2% of what’s leftover.  Over the last few days, I had those thoughts one after another and then moved on to thinking about what I was going have for dinner.

In between, I tried to decide if I was mad or had hurt feelings.  Thinking on this, I decided I was neither mad nor hurt; I simply disagree.  I don’t believe the author’s intent was to anger, hurt or be disagreed with.  I think the intent was to express her discomfort with coming across “garbage” on the internet and she was trying to find a way to fix it.  Welcome to Earth.

I had my 4-H Family History group meeting on Saturday and my students told me that not everything you read on the internet is true.  They know this because they ARE the internet.  I looked at them while we made family tree posters and talked about tradition.  I watched them get excited over little things.  The spelling of their great great grandfather’s name.  That they could remember it was called a pedigree chart.  That they have a family bible at home to look in. That they get to see Grandma and Grandpa on Thanksgiving and can’t wait to find out what their traditions were growing up.

What if I had taken that moment to read the second half of Ms. Moody’s article to them about the differences between source, information, evidence, and proof?  What if I had taken that moment to tell them that they were not allowed to write anything until they learned the rules and got a license?

I just can’t believe that source citations are more important than passion and excitement.  Definitely important, but definitely not MORE important.  Without this passion, excitement and curiosity, the future of genealogy would be very, very bleak and not something I want anything to do with. 

When I started this in 1995, I did it to make a plaque for my grandfather.  I couldn’t get his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren lined up correctly, so I bought a computer program to plot it out for me.  I kept adding the things I knew and here we are.  I never intended on being a genealogist; I was just out for a test drive.  Or perhaps “joy ride” is the better term.

With all that said, I think I’ll just keep on ridin’ until someone carts me away to Genealogy Jail for Grand Theft Genealogy.  I will be in good company there, at least. And maybe I can finish Grampa’s plaque.


  1. I'm going to Genealogy Jail with you! We can be the Thelma and Louise of Genealogy!! AND...I wouldn't have it any other way!! :)

  2. This is a very very good post, Debbie - I thoroughly agree with you. I only got into genealogy a few years before I retired, so my sources/citations are a bit thin on the ground the first few years. Better now. But, a licence? If I had to go back to school yet again and spend money I don't have and time which is precious to me to get a genealogy degree or certificate... I'd never have found that first cousin,those 2nd and 3rd cousins with fabulous photos and documents, gotten several of my other relatives interested in family history, and more! Cheers.

  3. Good post, Debbie. I'm with you. I've been doing genealogy for about 35 years and have been involved on the commercial side of it for 30 years. I'll never forget the letter I received in 1985, just as we were starting Heritage Quest. The dear lady (who had attempted to publish a genealogy periodical and failed) asked me who I thought I was. How could I possibly publish a genealogy magazine, as she had never heard of me? My skin was thin back then, and it REALLY hurt my feelings. However, my passion for genealogy helped me overcome all obstacles, and I went on to make my dream come true. Passion and dedication trumps all else...

  4. Everyone's family history research is personal and how you organise it is up to you. We all know there is a lot of mis-information about all sorts of subjects on the internet, and genealogy's no different, but before the internet there was very little sharing of data. When I first started, I didn't know what a source citation was, but I soon started asking myself "where did I get that info from?" so made my own method for keeping track. I still use it now and it works just fine. Keep your passion, excitement and curiosity going - that's what makes genealogy fun! Happy Thanksgiving :-) Jo PS: Grand Theft Genealogy - LOL!

  5. Grand Theft Genealogy, huh?? Guess I'm going to Genealogy Jail too and it looks like I'll be in good company. :) Most of the original documents for my genealogy reside in Germany and my husband's is scattered all over the world. Traveling to all those place to look at original records isn't feasible so most of my research has been on the Internet. A lot of my family tree is a result of people I've met on the Internet through genealogy message boards. Do I know their research is perfect? No, but it's better than nothing. I've found family trees online that I know have wrong information on them and I've contacted the owners to try to make corrections. Have they? Not always. Is my way the right way? Who knows. Is anybody's family tree 100% accurate, are their source citation's perfect, have they traveled to see those all important original sources? I'd say no, that's just too much to hope for.

  6. Your " Grand Theft " analogy in your article is humorous and delightful !


  7. Well said!!
    I have been trying to learn about my family history for many years; I first became interested, and knew I wanted to learn more, about 50 years ago!
    In recent years I've been able to do more 'searching'. If you had told me at the outset that I had to be a 'licensed genealogist' - I would have never come this far!! Interestingly, I have collected so much information that I have recently decided to educate myself, and learn how to do genealogy research properly. (That's how I happen to have landed at this blog today.)
    But - I never would have come to this point if I hadn't had the opportunity to find family history research to be so much fun, and so satisfying!!

  8. I love everything you said here! I also agree with you totally. Just as in everything else we do, rules and license's all have their place and time; but for Ms. Moody to put herself on a pedestal and try to play God, or think that there is a group of Genealogy Police that she will sick on the rest of us, is just ludacrous!

  9. Genealogy Jail for me too!!! Bravo! Excellent article that sums up how I feel.

  10. Take a deep breath, will ya? Entertainment is not scholarly works and certainly scholarly works need to be documented. There is a difference. And as a superwoman, you know the separation between the two. The secret of good entertainment? Good scholarly works! And a great actor. The movie Abraham Lincoln comes to mind. I would read your blog for its entertainment value, but I would probably never cite your entries to support string theory or how to resection a bowel. As a wise old baseball player once said, "You blur the lines of the batters box, the fate of your at bat is left to the myopic guy behind the catcher."

  11. I believe that, since no one is ever "done" doing their family tree, all family trees are a work in progress. This means that there will be errors and corrections. I do not stop when I find one source; but, keep looking for more.

    When I first started, I just wanted to find out about my family history, for myself and my children. I kept a copy of every piece of evidence I found and the pile kept growing until it grew to fill three filing cabinets.

    I soon found that I was most excited about the stories I found which seemed to bring the ancestors back to life. I started finding cousins and found that I had so much stuff that it was unwieldy, at the least, to share what I had found with them. It was at this point that I started a website for this purpose. This sure freed my time up for more searching and finding.

    There is already in existence a route by which to become an acredited genealogist, so, I do not see the need for a license just so a person can look on the internet for family information and then share the info they have found.

    At the same time I do realize that there is a lot of erroneous info out there; but, I take it with a grain of salt. I only ever use family trees posted on the internet for "clues" in a tough case.....then I look for my own proofs. I am sure most people must handle it this way; and, even if they don't, they will eventually, just by way of trial and error.

  12. NOTE: I allowed the post from "Anonymous", although I usually will not post those. In this case, though, I think the point (or what I think the point is) to use good scholarly works to make better entertainment. I wasn't thrilled with the name calling and tone, but the point was well taken.

  13. I believe the writer of that article was being a bit "tongue-in-cheek" when she spoke of a "genealogy license" but I certainly feel that she made a good point. Documentation is the only way anyone else can go back and validate what is stated. It is hearsay until proven otherwise. I won't necessarily exclude hearsay from my genealogy... but I will cite the source of the hearsay and comment that it has not been validated. When I started out in genealogy I was like a kid in a candy store... delighted that all this information was available on the International Genealogical Index etc... Only after I encountered conflicting data and some impossible relationships did I realize that much of the posted information was little more than hearsay. I won't discourage people from posting hearsay.... it can be a great source of information not elsewhere available but it is much more helpful to know where it came from. Was it from an entry in a family Bible ... if so... give details... or was it something you calculated based on gravestone information... or was it something your Aunt told you? How many of us have used 19th century genealogies and been immensely frustrated at the fact that the authors didn't cite their sources. Many of the sources may not be available now... but if we understood the basis of the author's conclusions we could determine how much weight to place or not to place on those conclusions. So I agree with the author of that article. Genealogy is all about legacy.... so while it is a pleasure to pursue ...it entails a responsibility. If you want to do sloppy scholarship... that is OK... just be sure you tell everybody upfront how you got your information.

  14. My mom has been passionate about family history in 1970's and 80's. In those days, you spent your day off at the city clerk's office to get a birth or death certificate and Saturdays at the library with your head in a microfilm reader for obituaries.
    I spent many hours as a young adult in the 80's at the NARA with my head in a microfilm reader to access census records that are now available online. I went to the State Records office to hand copy my grandfather's naturalization papers. It was so moving to see the original written in his own copperplate handwriting!
    In the 1990's I lived in the UK & discovered the Mormon microfilm collection which is currently being digitized: a massive project for which I am a volunteer indexer. In those days it was one day a week in London ( an hour away by train) with my head in the microfilm reader.
    No one appreciates the ease of online research more than I. I can achieve more in an evening than I could in 6 months back in the day.
    I appreciate the clues other's family trees on various website give me. I publish my personal family history online at a popular website so others can get the same clues. However, too often I find my family linked in error to others with no rhyme or reason.
    I used to try and contact these folks to let them know they were mistaken so they could correct it, but most often these were the ones who used a free 2 week trial to put together a tree and never logged in again.
    This is who Sharon was speaking to. The mistakes I have seen while currently researching my brother-in-laws extensive tree ( 5 Mayflower ancestors so far) require patience and perseverance on my part. Anyone who takes a stranger's unsourced tree as proof is just passing along a rumor. I believe that was the point of her article.

  15. Seems like a lot of energy expended in attacking an article that wasn't actually written. The author was expressing a frustration that I share - I get tired of trolling through and then rejecting information that is littered all over the internet that is so obviously wrong or so thoroughly unconvincing that it's amazing anyone would consider it in the first place. Clearly that doesn't apply to you, and clearly she didn't mean it to apply to someone like you. She makes some great points, both about good genealogy practice and about the dross that passes for "information" on the internet. Good on you for the work that you do, but your skin is a little bit on the thin side. A little less defensiveness and a little more support for quality work would be in order.

  16. Anonymous and Michael Hogan, I thank you for your comments, however, as I mentioned, I didn't have hurt feelings or thin skin on this one. She really was talking about people just like me and I really do simply disagree with her. I'd rather have enthusiasm and excitement in genealogy than a lot of source citations. Those can come later in my opinion. I understand that you agree with the author, but I do not. And since this is my blog, I expressed it here where I don't need to be told how to be in order and can express my opinions and my feelings freely. Thanks!

    1. Thank you for understanding those who want to do the best they can but just don't have the time or finances for all the resources out there. I began 30+ years ago and "went door-to-door" before people were afraid of revealing too much info and were willing to share personal family info -- photos, wills, Bibles. Now most is done by paying for memberships into genealogy businesses where one must comply with all the rules and regulations. So much fun is gone but I want to leave some sort of record for those who follow. I hope that errors will be corrected and I have corrected (or tried) errors I have found. Let's keep on trying and having fun!

  17. I agree that simply copying all of the information from an online tree or other online source and using it as gospel is a bit irresponsible and likely to lead in disappointment and frustration. And I also agree that it is a daunting--and sometimes impossible--task to track down a source for every single date in an ancestor's life. In some cases, the records simply do not exist. That's a sad genealogical fact.

    I have an online tree as well as a personal computer program with my genealogy information. I also have my own family history website.
    My computer program--which only I can see--contains every single shred of evidence that I've found online about my ancestors--from Ancestry trees, family history websites, message boards, e-mails, etc. Every single item in my database is sourced accordingly, so I know what I need to do follow-up research on and what is already done.
    My online tree and family history website contains only information that I have a good source for; and I cite those sources.

    The Internet is a relatively new genealogical tool, and using it for research is still in the toddler phase, so to speak. I think if we all used a bit more caution about what we find online--the old Latin "caveat emptor" (let the buyer beware) comes to mind--and took a little more responsibility for what we put online, we could spend more of our precious genealogy time looking for new family members--and less time trying to reconcile conflicting data or data that makes no sense. That is something that I'm passionate about.