Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Why JSTOR matters to genealogists

The key here is sources. One of the halmarks of competent academic research and writing is the ability to properly cite sources. Very, very few of the millions of online family trees (pedigrees) have even a token offering of substantiating sources. All you have to do to substantiate this claim is to go on to or and examine a few dozen or more public family trees. This is not a criticism of either or of Both of these huge online databases provide an AUTOMATIC way of finding substantiating sources for their users. For example, I look at my Great-great-grandfather, Garrard Morgan III. has 12 Ancestry Member Trees for me to look at as source hints. Of those 12 Trees, one has 8 sources and happens to be my daughter's submission. One of the Trees has 7 sources listed, one has 5 sources listed, one has 4 sources listed and then the remaining 8 Trees have either only one source listed or none. That is 2/3 of the Trees have either one or no sources in program,, that automates the process of adding sources to your family tree.

At the same time these trees have no sources listed,, without me doing anything more than loading my file in the Public Member Trees, has suggested 14 sources including photos, stories and original documents. All it would take for me to add all these sources to my own file would be to click a few times. If I were using Family Tree Maker, which I am, I could download all of those sources, with very little effort to my own file on my own computer.

So what does this have to do with Because if we are going to move from being a sideline hobby into the realm of academic acceptance and believability, then we have to support our genealogical conclusions with something more than a copied pedigree chart! We need to break away from this idea that we can trace our lineage by simply finding a similar name and copying it into a family group record and posting another generation on our trophy pedigree chart. JSTOR matters because it is a window, now open, into the world where citations of sources and reference to authoritative documents make a difference. 

If you have never read a peer-reviewed journal article, you need to do so. See what it takes to support your conclusions with a source and further tell the world where you got your information so someone else can benefit from your work and not have to repeat, again and again, the same research. Of course, JSTOR is not the only source online or otherwise for high quality, sourced articles. But to me it is a symbol of where genealogy needs to go. Guess what? There are historical and genealogical journals online in JSTOR. They have existed all along. Just one example of the journals in JSTOR from hundreds, The New England Quarterly from MIT Press. Quoting from the MIT Press description:
For over 80 years, The New England Quarterly (NEQ) has published the best that has been written on New England’s cultural, literary, political, and social history. Contributions cover a range of time periods, from before European colonization to the present, and any subject germane to New England’s history—for example, the region’s literary and artistic productions, its political practice and philosophies, race relations, labor struggles, religious controversies, and the organization of family life. The journal also treats the migration of New England ideas, people, and institutions to other parts of the United States and the world. In addition to major essays, features include memoranda and edited documents, reconsiderations of traditional texts and interpretations, essay reviews, and book reviews.
 Now, this is just one example. This is the kind of example we, as genealogists, need to move us beyond copying to actually doing research. To me, JSTOR is a symbol of what it takes to prove a case in the historical and genealogical sense. I have spent my life for the last 38 years proving my cases. For the last 30 years or so of that time period I have been slowly and sometimes painfully learning how to do genealogical research. If you have an appreciation of the importance of proving your case and adequately sourcing your conclusions, it is time to encourage, teach and inspire the genealogical community to move from copying to research. Let's not just use the sources handed to us by the online databases, but let's move on to the libraries, court houses, and archives of the world and find those documents that show and prove who we are and who we are related to.

Let's move on from having a list of names to understanding and relating to our ancestors as individuals, as families in a historical context of cities, counties, states, provinces, districts and countries. Let's use the resources that are being provided to us to really begin to understand what genealogy is all about. It is about you and me and our families.

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