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

Friday, May 15, 2015

What is Bad Genealogy?

John Leech (29 August 1817 – 29 October 1864 in London) -, scanned by Philip V. Allingham
From time to time, I see a reference in a genealogical publication or blog post that condemns "bad genealogy." What is "bad genealogy?" Can we solve the problem of answering this question with the statement made by Justice Potter Stewart in the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964), when he wrote, "I know it when I see it..?" Do we know bad genealogy when we see it?

When I first started accumulating my own family history over 30 years ago, I would now consider my efforts to be "bad genealogy." I copied down hundreds (perhaps thousands) of family group records and incorporated them into my personal database. Since I was one of the earliest members of my particular ancestry to employ computers, much of what I compiled has survived in some form or another and come back to haunt me in the present day, sort of like Jacob Marley's Ghost.

Some of those who consider themselves to be genealogists do not know it when they see it or there wouldn't be so much of it around or so many constant comments about the problem. For some reason, when I think about this subject, I am reminded of the Mad Magazine comic strip Spy vs. Spy that started back when I was in high school. The question the comic strip poses is which of the two is the good spy and which is the bad spy? I also think it ironic that in a day and age when situational ethics are predominant, that anyone would base such an evaluation on their own supposed superiority. Obviously, those condemning someone for practicing "bad genealogy" do not consider themselves to be in that category.

I am further reminded of Exodus 2:14 and the question asked of Moses when he saw two "men of the Hebrews" fighting. He was asked, "Who made thee a prince and a judge over us?"

One of the issues I have written about from time to time, is the lack of objective standards in the entire area of genealogical research. There are no genealogical laws and no genealogical police to enforce them. That is not to say that there are not a plethora of genealogists out there (including myself) with opinions about the validity of other people's research efforts. Making this statement just points out the fact that all such judgments are personal and situational.

I am further reminded of an experience I had years ago. My wife and I were out looking to purchase a "new to us" used car. We were in a large used car lot and were being followed around by a particularly obnoxious car salesman who insisted on telling us the virtues of every car on the lot. We finally came to a car that I showed some interest in and he rushed around to open the door for me and then to the other side of the car to open the door for my wife. As he opened the passenger side door, there was a huge creaking and pop as the door grated against the car's body. Obviously, the car had been in a serious accident and been poorly repaired. The salesman stopped, looked at me and said, "You don't like me very much do you?" and quietly left us to ourselves.

Perhaps we sometimes find ourselves in the position of the used car salesman trying to sell our own defective product. If all genealogical research is open to revision as new sources are found, when do we reach the point of superiority and have the ability to condemn others' work as bad genealogy? I guess I am back to the issue of whether genealogy should be inclusive or exclusive. It is all too easy to put yourself in the position of being the "king of the hill" and attempting to maintain your position by shoving everyone off of the hill.

How do we go about establishing genealogical rules of the road? Is this accomplished by creating a mandatory, elite, professional level of genealogists who set their own standards and attempt to quash any who do not belong to their exclusive organization? I lived with that for years as an attorney. Is that what we really want? If we want the widest possible participation in family history, we need to have the most inclusive possible criteria for what is and what is not acceptable. At the same time, we do need to keep urging those around us in the genealogical community to greater accuracy and more complete documentation. We also need to try to increase our own level of competence and accuracy. Little is accomplished by railing against bad genealogy, especially if you are unwilling to take the time to teach and help those who lack your own skill level.

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