When we look at the fundamentals of family history, we are concerned
with people and their relationships. Most of us recognize that life
is complex, yet we use simplified ways of representing our ancestors
and their relationships, such as a list of names, dates, and places.
However, a person is not just his birth date, marriage date, and death
date. People even ancestors! are real individuals who
take up space over time. I believe every person deserves to be better
described than by these basic tokens.
Ways of Approaching Family History
So I propose that we put together a new method of recording more
than just the basic birth, death, and marriage data. Let's record
the answers to questions like these: What was their body size
and shape? How did they travel and why? Where did they live throughout
their lives? How did they view the world, both the physical world
as well as spiritual matters? What were their thoughts as revealed
in writings or speech? And many more such questions.
Hardly any genealogies I have read concern themselves with such
details of a person's life. And the genealogy databases we have
built do not generally have the ability to store these types of
information. But it is out of these details that a story emerges,
making our ancestors real to us. Without these and many other
details, they are no more than a name with a few associated dates.
first challenge is for the genealogy and technology
community to design a better way of representing people
by giving us details that help us get to know them.
So my first challenge is for the genealogy and technology community
to design a better way of representing people by giving us details that
help us get to know them. This is what I had in mind when I discovered
the Mosaic program and published the GenWeb
Proposal in 1994. I envisioned a Web page of details for each individual
in history, written in HTML, linked to pages representing the people
important in their lives. The recent emergence of the XML now gives
us the tools to organize the data for each person according to agreed
standards. GedML, an XML Data Type Definition, gives us one set of such
standards and is a good beginning. GEDCOM, used for nearly two decades
to transfer data among genealogy programs, still has potential to hold
all the data I think we need, but may not be flexible enough for the
Systems for Complex Family Relationships
My second challenge is to recognize that there are more relationships
in life than Mother-Father-Spouse-Child. Why? Because, as mentioned,
life is complex and families have always been complex. The "nuclear
family" concept is merely a simplified ideal that does not exist in
real life. Yet, we have designed genealogy systems around the notion
that the most important relationships are these four. As a result, it
is very hard to represent step-relationship, intergenerational relationships,
and even non-familial relationships. Sometimes, in family history, these
relationships are more important to the people involved than the spousal
or parental link.
Of course, you might argue, "I'm only interested in the blood line."
Sure, that's interesting, if you can verify it. But don't forget that
history is about people and bloodlines are only the beginnings of people.
After our birth, the other relationships in life influence us more and
For example, I am compiling a genealogy of some families who
were thick in Kentucky in the 19th century. Over and over, I'm
finding the death of a wife which leaves the husband with orphaned
children. Then the husband remarries a widow with children and
this couple raises both families together and even has children
of their own. (In fact, I even grew up in such a family.) Our
traditional pedigree chart and family group record do not show
the complexity of such a family arrangement and therefore do not
give a true picture of the relationships among the family members.
In another example, I found an ancestor who took care of many
local orphans during her lifetime and even founded a school for
orphans. In the 1880 census, two of her teen-aged granddaughters
were recorded as living in her household. There is a story there
of many relationships that is not possible to tell using our standard
found an ancestor who took care of many local orphans...there
is a story there of many relationships that is not
possible to tell using our standard forms.
Finally, I am weary of the very format of simple genealogy forms and
I issue a call for genealogists and technologists to "think outside
the box" or, in this case, outside the two-dimensional form. We need
better ways of representing and visualizing people and relationships,
perhaps in three dimensions or even more. Using virtual reality tools,
I'd love to enter a computer space like Star Trek's holodeck and converse
with my great-grandfather with his family members arrayed around him.
I saw some promise in this direction in so-called ProjectX that come
from Apple Computer's Advanced Technology Group in 1995. Apple even
developed a plug-in for Web browsers called HotSauce that helped represent
data in three dimensions. It was considered useful for indexing hard
drives and even Internet content. I used the technology to generate
a demonstration of three-dimensional blobs representing my ancestors
that I could fly through using my mouse to steer me. Alas, Apple later
divested itself of the technology and it has has been swallowed up by
the search engines of the Internet. A few hard-core converts still hang
on to the project.
But that was just a starting point. Combine three-dimensional images
with a timeline and you have an ancestral flow chart. Using colors and
shapes for coding, we can impress information onto our charts ala Edward
Tufte, the data visualization guru of Yale. In short, let's make our
genealogy charts interesting to look at and visually rich with information.
If you are not a developer of genealogy software, but rather a user,
send this article to your favorite developer. Let them know if you agree
with these ideas. Of course, if you don't agree, you can keep the traditional
pedigree charts and descendant lists going for another year, decade,
century, or millennium.
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