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

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The genealogy video game

During the past week or so, I had the following conversation with a friend I was helping with his genealogy. We were using RootsMagic 4 to look match his pedigree names with those in New FamilySearch. The following is only slightly edited:

Me:  See that green arrow in New FamilySearch? Just click on the arrow.
Friend: This shows that this person needs to be sealed to his wife.
Me: But look, there are three wives with the same name and several others with different names. It looks like these three are duplicates.
Friend: OK, so we combine all of the three names. Here we go!
[After combining the names]
Me: This still shows three different wives, even though we have combined the ones with the same names.  Which one is the right one?
Friend: I don't know [as he copies all three names into his database].
Me: Don't you think it might be a good idea to find out which one, if any, of the wives are correct?
Friend: No, I'll just copy them all, that way I probably have the right information.

Believe me, no amount of explanation will change his mind. He can't be bothered with trying to find out the "correct" relationship, he just wants to fill in all the empty spots or green arrows in this program. You win the game when you have all of the empty slots filled and there are no more green arrows. If we do a search, even though he has no idea who these people are, and still find green arrows, he is off to print the Family Ordinance Request (FOR). RootsMagic is a sort of video game and printing off FORs means you are winning the game.

No one would consider New FamilySearch to be a primary source for information about an ancestor. But even if this is true, what about all those people who are working their way through New FamilySearch, looking for green arrows, combining names and downloading the information into their database, without even the vaguest notion of who those people are? In fact, the only information in New FamilySearch that could be even fairly considered to be a primary source is the Temple Ordinance information. Everything else is second, third or more hand copies.

So where do I find a primary source? The definition of a primary source is source material that is closest to the person, information, period, or idea being studied. It may also be a historical document that was created at or near the time of the events studied, by a known person, for a known purpose.  In the book, Evidence Explained (Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007) Mills states that information is judged by the informant's degree of participation or knowledge and can be primary or first hand or secondary.  As limited as these first level terms may be, and as contradictory in practice, to move away from merely copying whatever happens to fall in front of you, you must begin to discriminate between the levels of believability and probability presented by the information.

I long ago stopped believing my legal clients. I do not doubt that they are telling me the truth, but I do not accept what they say to me without an extensive amount of collaboration. One of the most common criticisms of attorneys is that they represent the party on the opposite side of the case who, of course, is lying. One time I was in Court and realized that the opposing party was lying, the opposing party's attorney was lying and my own client was lying! I had no idea what really happened.

It amazes me that the same person that will get so upset because the opposite party in litigation is lying will copy information out of a database like New FamilySearch. I am not picking on New FamilySearch particularly, any one of the larger databases, like or whatever will do. Sifting through information to find evidence is hard work. It would actually require my friend to do some research, go through a microfilm or two or look at a Website, rather than just using the copy and paste buttons in RootsMagic.

Now, it is possible that my friend's ancestor really was married to all three of those women. as I have mentioned before, I had an uncle, now dead, who was married eight times, but how does he know? In this case, my friend really doesn't even know if this ancestor is really his ancestor. He has made no independent evaluation of the information online or in his own file. His first step towards accuracy will involve realizing the need to do some basic research and get to know his family. This is a step we all have to go through to start doing genealogy and not just play the genealogy video game.


  1. James,
    I call this "Click & Claim" genealogy. It means if I can click on it, I can claim it as my own. I don't need to research it, its clickable! Loved the article. Now if we could just convince people that clicking is NOT research!
    Thanks for the article I enjoyed it.

  2. James,
    Just a note to let you know I enjoy reading your blog as you seem to continually inform folks in a nice way that the web is not the primary source of their family history. One reason I don’t blog is I fear I would state my mind about the lack of “old fashion research” as well as the fact that so many of the “genealogical blogs” appear to spend most of their time taking about all the new data which is available on the web. Although I have been researching for over forty years, I still enjoy reading and hearing about what others have done with their family search as there still are a few bumps in my road and learning how I might smooth them over is my goal. Thanks again for your thoughts and guidance as seen through a legal mind.

  3. "Video-game genealogy"

    James, that's the best monicker for it that I've heard yet, bar none!

    Elizabeth Shown Mills

  4. Awesome post! I have been in the same seat you have been. I spend time weekly telling people. nFS is not a research tool. It is a replacement for Temple Ready...some just want it easy. Can't say we didn't tell them.
    Thanks for sharing. I am passing this on to others.

  5. Thanks for putting my thoughts into words (and I enjoyed Karen's Click & Claim post too) - I'll be watching for further posts from you! Jo