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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Do Wikis really work for genealogy?

Before we get into any controversy over the question in the title to this post, I believe the answer to be yes, collaborative shared information sites, like the FamilySearch Wiki or the family tree Website,, certainly have a large role to play in genealogical world of the near future. But, is genealogy really about consensus? Just because I can get all of relatives to agree with me where my great-grandfather was born in California, does that really change the fact that I may be wrong?

The issue is this, we can assume that in family history, there is always a set of "true" facts about a person. That is, those fact that correspond to the actual date or place where an event occurred. For example, a birth occurs only at one location and at one time. The date and location of the birth event are not subject to opinion, consensus or even a vote. To the extent that research genealogists deal in the facts about people's lives, can we rely on a vote or consensus from a person's descendants to establish historical facts?

It is correct that many so-called facts about a person's life are subject to interpretation, such as a person's beliefs or motivations. But, even if the basic facts are unknown, they are not subject to interpretation or conjecture. To the extent that genealogists deal in "true" facts, those that can only occur at a certain place and time, those facts are outside the realm of opinion and interpretation.

The information in a wiki, no matter how designated, is based on consensus. All true wikis are based on verification that occurs after the information is already posted and not upon a screening process to assure that only "correct" information can be added to the database. If I post an item of information in a wiki, for example, Grandfather Jones was born on 12 Apr 1894, that information is treated by the wiki program as the gospel truth, until someone disagrees and makes a correction. Even if my date was only a guess or pure speculation, unless someone more knowledgeable reads the information, disagrees and goes to the effort to correct the entry, it will remain as the "truth" until changed.

In the real world of wikis, there are usually moderators who can screen the information entered into the wiki, but how do the moderators know if the dates and/or places are accurate, as long as they are properly entered?

One of the fundamental differences between a wiki and a database like New FamilySearch or the old Ancestral File in, is the transient nature of the information. In a wiki the information is present only so long as it remains unchanged by another user. In my experience, when people first learn about a wiki, they immediately doubt the reliability of the information for just that reason, the transient nature of the posts. Even if I enter information that is absolutely "true" and "correct" what keeps someone from changing my entry? The answer is nothing at all. To avoid this problem, New FamilySearch has chosen to retain all of the entries, unfortunately, in an equal status. Therefore, inaccurate information is given the same billing as the "true" information. Other than an ability to temporarily chose some limited summary information as correct, there is no way in the program to show the ascendancy of one item of information over another. Someone who comes to the data in New FamilySearch for the first time is confronted with the issue of the surfeit of inaccurate information with no way to change or eliminate the entries.

This situation does not exist in a wiki, but the opposite is not a complete solution to the problem. At some point, the only way to begin to assure accuracy is through an advocacy program. Our English based court system recognizes that "Truth" (with a capital T) is not often attainable, however, in the vast majority of cases advocacy in open court establishes the truth that is most acceptable to the society.

Now, going back a little, as genealogists, we are not trying to establish either a consensus of the truth or an advocated truth, we are trying to establish the real or actual facts about a person's life. Granted, we do have the Genealogical Proof Standard and other guidelines, but does entering information in a wiki, and allowing the public at large the opportunity to "correct" the information establish the real or actual facts? That is the real question.

There is no doubt that having a wiki like the FamilySearch Wiki is a valuable resource. But the FamilySearch Wiki is not attempting to accumulate family tree information, rather they are providing only research sources and helps, the exact kind of information that is amenable to the wiki process. On the other hand, a family tree wiki, like WeRelate is mainly interested in collaborative aspect of the wiki, not the idea of consensus. However, there are no warning labels on the wikis saying use at your own risk. The contents of this wiki are subject to dispute and change at any time.

To the extent that genealogists are seeking the actual or correct facts about an ancestor, there is no guarantee in the wiki format that the "true" information will be reached. To the extent that the wiki gives the impression that the information contained is correct, that perception is an illusion. For example, my (real) great-grandfather was born in California. For almost 100 years his birthplace has been reported as "San Bernardino" County. However, he was born in 1852 when the area where he was born was in Los Angeles County. A minor historical point, but significant to genealogical research. If we were to rely on the consensus of the records, then this fact would remain forever obscured, because thousands of descendants believe he was born in San Bernardino County.

What if New FamilySearch (or the data) were in a wiki-like format? What would happen to the accurate or correct information? Would we have any assurance that the surviving information, after user corrections, was any more correct than the information already displayed in its multiplicity?

It is clear that wikis are here to stay. They provide a valuable function in our world at large and specifically to genealogy. Notwithstanding their utility, wikis need to be recognized with their limitations. I do not go to a wiki to establish a birth date. I may find a reasonable date in a wiki with a valid source reference, but there is nothing about the wiki that guarantees that any of the information is accurate and correct in an absolute sense.

More to come.

1 comment:

  1. Michael HelmantolerJanuary 16, 2010 at 5:27 PM

    I use WeRelate and FamilySearch wiki's and agree with your statements concerning new FamilySearch. The current practice of disputing information on new FamilySearch is less than useful. If these disputes were migrated into the FamilySearch forums by personal ID, different contributors could have a open discussion on the levels of credibility of their assertions.