People interested in searching their ancestry have never had it easier
than today. Why, all they have to do is log on to the Internet, type their
name, and their computer will spew forth their entire family tree. Or
so goes the urban legend fueled by testimonials of the many neophytes
who have done just that. And they have several lines back to Adam, complete
with thumbnail photographs. Their genealogy is "done," thanks to the almighty
Anyone who has pursued genealogy for more than two weeks knows that it's
not really that easy. In fact, that dream scenario exists only in the
popular media, like the urban legend of the $200 cookies and the one about
the lovers that discover an amputee's hand-hook on their car door handle
when they get home from Lover's Lane.
What is compelling about this scenario is that it is a nirvana we all
wish would come to pass. The computer's ease at handling large amounts
of information makes it a logical tool (double-meaning intended) for use
in compiling and publishing genealogical data. User-friendly programs
like Family Tree Maker and the availability of CD-ROMs full of data make
it seem easy to just find and download our family data into our personal
computer. But like the mirage on the horizon, easy genealogy is forever
just beyond our reach.
One technology that makes finding our family data appear easy is the
data exchange standard called GEDCOM. Many family historians have compiled
their family's data in their favorite genealogy program, saved it in a
GEDCOM file, then published it on CD-ROMs, on the World Wide Web, or via
the many e-mail mailing lists on the Internet. Others have submitted it
to the LDS Church's Ancestral File or their new Pedigree Resource File,
Genealogy.com's World Family Tree, and other collections of ancestral
data. By contributing to those collections, these family researchers have
in essence published their work to the world, making it available to anyone
who subscribes to that particular service or downloads it.
Others, usually newcomers to genealogy research, happily search out the
names they are looking for, then download all the data they can from these
published sources, importing it into their genealogy programs and proclaiming
the finished product "their genealogy." Many times, they resubmit this
new compilation to the same public outlets and the information returns
to the public domain, ready to be downloaded by the next seeker of ancestors.
So what's wrong with this scenario? The problem is that the family information
that is freely traded via CD-ROMs and the Internet is often unsubstantiated
and of questionable validity. Because it it unvetted, it's genealogical
value may be very low. Yet people treat it as if it were gospel truth
when it should be treated as a clue or a starting point for further research.
In the past, if you read something in the genealogy library or in a family
history journal, you could generally count on a publication review process
to certify the validity of the data or at least the methodological rigor
of the author. Before computers, desktop publishing and the Internet,
it was hard to get something into print and wide distribution. Genealogies
of reliable authors usually got published only after an editorial review
known as vetting. (That's a good word meaning "to subject to expert appraisal
or correction"; look it up in the Merriam-Webster
Online dictionary) Even authors who self-published usually took the
effort to support their contentions with good source references. After
all, they were putting their money on the line as well as their reputations.
Yes, these reliable publications still exist, including many stalwart
state and county historical societies and the venerable New
England Historical and Genealogical Society, which has published its
journal, the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, continuously
But the voices of these reliable genealogical sources are being drowned
out by the shouts of hundreds of computerized GEDCOM databases on CD-ROM
and the Internet. It's so easy to publish good and bad research today;
just upload it to a repository. No one checks it and complains if it is
deficient. And it is so easy to download, too, much easier than searching
out old books in a library. After all, who wants to read a stuffy academic
article with footnotes and alternate theories when a GEDCOM file with
(apparently) factual information can be downloaded in seconds?
Yes, that's the dilemma of today's genealogy: that which appears simple
is probably unreliable and that which appears equivocal and hesitant is
probably more to be trusted. (Of course, the true ancestor detective trusts
no source without checking it out.)
So, in the spirit of caveat lector (let the reader beware another
good Merriam-Webster term) and caveat computor (it could have been good
Latin had ancient Rome been computerized), here is my list of do's and
don'ts regarding uploading and downloading genealogy from the Internet
and CD-ROM repositories.
Know your source. Who submitted the information? If you can't
tell where it came from, how can you check it out? Be sure you notate
the file with the source (where you got it) and the submitter. It
helps to use commonly accepted citation rules.
Check the documentation. Are there references for the "facts"
given: dates, places, relationships? If so, look them up yourself
to check them out. If not, don't give it much credence.
Never import a GEDCOM into your main data file. Once you add
a bogus file into your own data, it's very, very difficult to back
it out again. Instead, make a new data file with your genealogy program,
then import the data into that first. Look it over and decide if it's
worth merging into your good data.
Don't resubmit information that didn't originate with you to a
database. That is, don't recycle someone else's research into
your submission without checking all the sources. Especially, don't
take credit for someone else's research.
If you do submit your compiled genealogy, be sure you purge the
personal information of anyone still living. Most repositories
require you to do this. If you don't, you may be liable for violating
those people's privacy and engendering bad feelings in the family.
Use the data from a respository not as authority but as a clue
or evidence of a theory. A GEDCOM file is never a primary source.
By definition, it is a compilation of someone else's research or lack
When you are ready to submit your data to a repository, include
references to source materials and lots of justification for the facts
in your data file. Be sure your name and address are associated
with the file. Also, be ready to answer queries about the ancestors
you are submitting.
Develop a skeptical approach towards downloaded data, just like
the hard-bitten detectives in mystery stories. Make sure each
person's birth, death, and marriage information makes sense. Keep
asking yourself as you read it, "How do we know this for sure? What
proof is there of this?"
Remember, genealogy is a journey, not a destination. Realize
that you'll never be "done" with your quest. Anyway, what's the enjoyment
in that? Rather, it's the discovery and learning that we're seeking,
not the full filing cabinet.
In genealogy as in other of life's endeavors, the more we learn, the
less we know for certain. All the computer has done for us is accelerate
the speed at which this comes to pass.