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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Revisiting Stadardized Place Names

The latest revisions to New FamilySearch contain some disturbing developments. In the release notes for the New FamilySearch Web Site of December 2009, it states: "In addition to the other information that is required for temple ordinances to be performed, an individual’s record must now have at least the country for birth, christening, marriage, death, or burial. The place-name must be standardized." There are actually two problems with this requirement; first, place names change over time and therefore cannot be "standardized" to that extent, and second, the requirement for a place is illusory.

Here is an example of the problem with standardized place names; country and other jurisdictional boundaries change over time. A good example is the entire area of Eastern Europe, especially those portions of Europe which have changed political boundaries several times, such as those from Germany to Poland to Russia to Germany and back to Poland. Many locations have three or more "names" depending on the time period involved. Which is the standardized name? If my ancestor was born in Germany, which later became Poland, do I use a German standardized name or the Polish one?

Closer to home, I have previously discussed the problem in my own state of Arizona. My Great-grandfather originally lived in St. Joseph, Yavapai, Arizona. This same location later became Joseph City, Navajo, Arizona after spending some time in Apache County also. Current genealogical usage would have the location at the time of the event be the correct location. However, apparently, under the new rule from New FamilySearch, the only location that would be acceptable would be the "standard," that is, Joseph City, Navajo, Arizona, United States, the current name.

After searching the help menu, it appears that the New FamilySearch program will allow an alternative but as one Help Document states: "The new FamilySearch needs dates and places in a consistent format so that it can correctly display and search for information" (See faqs-standardization-132faq0169ahtm). If the "correct" date or place is not listed in the standardized format, then the Help Center states: "When dates and place-names are standardized, they are very useful when records are searched. A nonstandardized place-name will not rank very heavily in a search. The standardized place-names give the current name of a place, which may have changed over time." In other words, don't bother us with the facts, they are too messy for our computer.

In my experience, many "brick wall" situations are caused by failing to search in the "correct" location. For example, Aunt Matilda said she was born in Barnwell County, but we have searched those county records and do not find her or her family. Perhaps, the solution is as simple as looking back and finding out that Barnwell County did not exist at the time Aunt Matilda was born and all of the records are in neighboring Sweetwater County. (Names made up, by the way). Under the new standardized place name rule, do I list Aunt Matilda as born in Barnwell County, the present political designation of the geographic location, even though the county did not exist at the time of her birth, merely to satisfy the search ranking?

The New FamilySearch standardization rule explains:

When you are adding, editing, or searching for a date or place-name, and the text you entered does not appear in the standardized drop-down list, do one of the following:

  • To keep the standardized date or place, click the correct option in the drop-down list.
  • To keep the text you entered and the standardized date or place, click the item on the drop-down list that shows the text you entered in a smaller, lighter text above the standardized text. You may have to scroll down to find the correct choice.
  • To keep only the text that you entered, with the cursor at the end of your text, press the Esc key.
Unfortunately, there is not one word of explanation as to why keeping the non-standardized place name may be important, only why it is important to standardize. Do I have to drag out my maps and try and figure out the most current name for the place each of my ancestors were born? Of course, I can just let the standardized place name database take over and chose whichever name I like for the now meaningless actual location where my ancestors were born.

In looking at the way the program works for qualifying individuals for Temple ordinance work, the issue of place names becomes even more problematic. Under the present standard, the following individual would qualify for ordinance work:

Mary, 1865, United States

This is supposed to be a improvement over the previous standard which would have qualified the name as follows:


No place, no date. Adding a location i.e. a country, gives an illusion of certainty that does not exist. The instructions do not tell the users to go back and do some research, they are told to enter a country. In other words, make it up. Theoretically, I could do my entire pedigree by putting in first names with an approximate date and a country. I wouldn't even have to do any research at all, since I can guess at the names and the dates and the country. This whole idea would seem fantastic if it wasn't actually happening every day with so-called family history research. The new rules allow the user to make up a name if one is not known. One rule says that "For a child with an unknown name or a child who died without receiving a name, enter only the father’s last name into the name field. Do not enter a first name. Do not enter Miss, Mr., son, or daughter." This assumes, incorrectly, that the child will always have the surname of its father. In Scandinavian countries, for example, this may not be correct. So now I can do ordinance work for "Fred, 1500, United States." At this rate, I will shortly have all of my lines back to Adam!

Fortunately, the New FamilySearch program is still being developed. Hopefully, these issues with place names will be resolved in a way that will allow the correct historical information to be preserved and preferred rather than arbitrarily assigning places to events that may obscure the actual history and before the illusion of doing family history replaces the actual practice.

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