INTERNET GENEALOGY - WHAT'S GOOD! WHAT'S NOT!
. . . AND WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?
by Bettie Cummings Cook, CG
[Published in The Packet, Tri-State Genealogical Society,
Evansville, IN, vol.XXII, no. 2 (Dec. 1998)]
Before computers there were two kinds of genealogists. The experienced and
the beginners. The experienced passed their knowledge to the beginners. The
"experienced" covered degrees of knowledge from more than a beginner to years of
work in the field. The work was too new to the beginner to do much adventuring
except acquire blank family charts, work at finding dates and places, and take
advantage of seminars, classes, and advice from friendly experienced
genealogists. They learned as they went along about where, and how, to look for
dates and places. If they did rush to judgment those who had worked at the
problem longer quickly called them to task. They were usually chastised
sufficiently to be more careful with future endeavors. Still--they learned and
eventually passed into being experienced. Enter the undeserving villain . . .
With the addition of the computer to the home the experienced genealogist
became a computer-user and continued to apply his work habits and expertise with
the aid of the computer. The world of the Internet opened boundless
possibilities of accessing records to the genealogist. Email is an amazing
convenience to make contact with others and receive an answer within minutes.
The knowledge to be gained on subjects without leaving your chair is staggering.
The genealogical sites of interest range from very interesting to ho-hum. There
are records of federal, state, and local levels of government, library card
catalogs, resource files that are easily downloaded, and sites dedicated to
specific records such as land, marriages, etc. If you have great grandpa's gun
he carried in the Civil War, you can learn about its make, model, and
manufacturer by consulting a website on Civil War guns. An antique piece of
furniture handed down in the family may be identified as to its age and maker
from sites that discuss descriptive markings, styles, and time periods. You are
not confined to US searches. Research on a family said to have owned and
operated a winery in Germany led to a list on a German web site of existing
wineries. Think of a subject and, except in rare instances, Internet has some
The Internet has developed a new group of family searchers. Unfortunately,
the experienced genealogist is in the minority. There is new group of persons
who know first how to use a computer and second want to locate others who can
give them information about their families. Notice I do not call the second
group genealogists because they are lacking in the skills to prepare them for
productive research. Before Internet this person would have been the beginner
genealogist sitting across the table from you in a library. The
computer-user/researcher cruises the Internet hoping to find his family tree,
unaware there is a more accurate way to find it using primary records. The
cruiser, who in the past would have had no recourse except to go a genealogical
library and learn the skills, now sets up a webpage or a newsgroup in quest of
the answers. He contributes uncited "merry-go-round" bits to others. His heart
is in the right place but his ability to do research is not. He is totally
oblivious to the fact he is doing more harm than good both to himself and
Is it ever safe to use undocumented material found on the Internet? Not unless you verify it first with proper sources. Some of it may be right but how much faith can you put in rehashed, regurgitated, uncited data? A typical appeal looks like . . .
"my grandfather died July 4, 1920. Does anyone know who his parents were?"
"my Great Grandfather was John Right born 1848. He married Jane ?. They
lived in New County and had seven children. I don't know their names . . . ."
Most of us quickly assess these queries as being from beginners. And ask ourselves why haven't you looked in a census? Why don't you write for a marriage bond? Why don't you get a death certificate? Why are you taking up byte space and my time to read this unskilled query? It is easier to ignore this query than deal with it. But where will this searcher turn next? To undocumented websites, forums, and various tree programs on the 'Net. He finds and records incorrect data and passes it to another person. Thus, the data is repeated in the name of "helping"for the next twenty-five years. No one knows the data's origins but will not discard it because "it might be something."
Recently a friend was horrified to learn an ancestor, to whom she devoted years of work in order to identify his parents, had been added to a different set of parents with the same surname on an Internet site. The data was added by a computer-user/searcher because his ancestor had a son by the same name. Now if you have any experience at all, you know how many times several men can have the same name! After a number of determined phone calls to everyone responsible for the error, she succeeded in having it removed. But not until she proved to the website her ancestor was a different man and sent an obituary for the correct man to prove he had died in another state. And worse, her well-documented work on the son and his descendants was included on the website. It had been contributed by still another person without giving credit to her for the work. It gave every appearance of being a good genealogy with citations . . . except for the one link between parents and the right son. This example of assuming and combining data to make a family "fit" ought to make you shudder.
What Are We Going to Do About It?
One of the most agreeable attributes of genealogists is their willingness and
unselfishness in sharing data. Some of the nicest people one could ever hope to
meet share my enthusiasm for research. We regale each other endlessly with our
"finds." The faceless aspect of the Internet keeps us from the personal
evaluation of others that takes place in a face to face encounter. The truth is,
there are a very few unpleasant folks in genealogy. So it is hard to think ill
of those pursuing their families on the Internet without research experience. If
we could talk to them, we would treat them as we would the beginner sitting next
to us in the library. So how do we treat a faceless beginner on the Internet? WE
HELP THEM. Not by sending all the answers but by pointing out where they
should look to find the answers. This person needs the experience of looking at
a microfilmed census. Don't deny him the thrill of finding grandfather's death
certificate for himself. There's no better way to convert the beginner to
learning research skills than for him to make an exciting discovery.
TELL them data must have citations. Let your data be good examples by always clearly citing your source. Give county, book, and page from which the record was taken. Cite published book sources with title, compiler, publisher, year published, and page. INSIST on receiving the same citations from others. Contact the websites, newsgroups, and databases and encourage them to ask for citations. Kindly and tactfully point out to web searchers information is useless without documentation. Direct them to local libraries and genealogical collections. Tell them what genealogical societies have to offer. Beginners are often under the mistaken notion that because they live far away from their ancestor's residence there is nothing in their locale of any use. Net-cruisers who are interested in genealogy must be made aware of how much they accomplish by using source records and learning skills necessary to locate family data. Finding a cousin is fine but no matter how much the cousin can tell you it still has to be verified. My posting to a surname website encourages everyone to cite his or her data. 1 am careful to post cited items and explain there is more to be found by examining that record. It is beginning to show results. The web master was reluctant to post my first message regarding citations for fear it might offend someone. Surprisingly (to him) some readers of the site wrote and agreed. The surname site is developing into a source of information. It is a website of various documented records on the same surname from many states and, if you share that surname, is one worth visiting because most postings bear citations. One of the main features of Internet is the broad coverage of the county. For the experienced genealogist, it is this aspect of reachable records in many states that is most useful and one that needs to be developed. Let us think past the materials found on the bookshelf of any genealogical collection and begin to build sites that represent our county's records.
The flood of incorrect data making the rounds on the 'Net is growing. It is comparable to undocumented family genealogies, early DAR records, and early LDS family files. Both DAR and LDS are making efforts to correct their early files. The 'Net has no one to guide it except experienced genealogists who care. We can no longer afford to ignore the unskilled query. Few of us have the inclination, or want to take the time, to deal with the unskilled and the inexperienced 'Net searchers. Someone is going to have to step up to the flood and help with the sandbags. If each of us concentrates on improving the site concerning our surname, or a site under the sponsorship of our local group, together we can make a difference. We must make an effort to deal with this growing problem. Get on your soapbox for the sake of good genealogy on the Internet!