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

Monday, August 30, 2010

Connecting the Genealogist to the Research -- an online conundrum

In the title to this post, I use for the definition of "conundrum" that of an intricate and difficult problem. The question was raised by Martin Hollick, author of

Hollick, Martin E. New Englanders in the 1600s: A Guide to Genealogical Research Published between 1980 and 2005. Boston, Mass: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2006.

in his post, "Shepardizing Your Genealogy" "How do we connect the average researcher with this latest and greatest information?"

The term "shepardizing" derives from a legal service begun by Frank Shepard (1848-1902) in 1873. The concept of the books was to provide a list of citations made to any law case by a subsequent case. So, for example, if the Supreme Court of U.S. decided a case the Shepards citations would list every case that cited the decision and indicated if the newer case overruled, upheld or modified the original decision. The Frank Shepard Company (later  Shepard's Citations, Inc.) evolved over time by into a large multi-volume analysis of every court of record in the United States. The system was ultimately purchased by Lexis-Nexis in 1996.

I understand Martin's concern to be a method by which various genealogical researchers could be connected in a way that more recent research could be cited to subsequent research so that older conclusions could be modified in light of the later discoveries or theories. Some of the reasons the Shepard system worked included the fact that no one owned the court decisions and those decisions, almost universally, are not subject to anyone's claim of copyright. Shepard could cite to his heart's content without the threat of a lawsuit for stealing someone's work. Unfortunately, the same conditions do not exist in the genealogical world. Researcher's own their work! And they know it. Also judges are used to the idea that their decisions might get overruled. They may care or not, but whether they care or not does not matter. Higher courts overrule lower courts with impunity and among themselves, the various courts do not even have to agree with each other. The decisions in cases where the courts disagree end up in higher courts and ultimately in the U.S. Supreme Court. But, very few cases go as far as the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, there is no such august body of judges in genealogical community. If I disagree with a researcher somewhere across the country, there is no mechanism for our opinions to even cross, much less be subject to some sort of arbitration by a higher authority. Although there are those who characterize themselves as genealogical authorities, in the case of a disagreement over a historical fact, there is no one court of last resort. In court, no one really cares about how the opinion is written, it is the legal decision that counts. (Although you will often hear references to well written or badly written decisions). In the genealogical community, absent self publication, a poorly written opinion will unlikely be published at all.

In a comment to Martin's post, Linda Gardner describes a system interrelating family trees with a concern about avoiding duplication. She is essentially describing a wiki, or at least a wiki where changes must be cited to sources. In fact, in my opinion, a genealogical wiki like is one way all of the information about a particular family can be correlated and updated in a regularized fashion. Unfortunately, this system of checks and balances is not universally accepted and is relatively unknown. I have had one of my major lines online at WeRelate for a considerable time for a fairly large family, I have also informed many of my family members of the availability for research without any interest shown at all.

But as long as genealogy is owned, it is unlikely that anything like a Shepard's citations will get a foothold.


  1. Being in the legal field as well, I am well aware of sheparidizing. And I can see Martin's point but, as you said, research itself can be copyrighted.

    What if we injected a little technology into the discussion in terms of public domain documents? What if a digitized public domain document, such as a probate record, had some type of electronic tag which could reveal who had used the document in their research or made reference to it? Would that have value in connecting genealogists with each other?

  2. I want to respectfully disagree with one aspect of your post. In Shepardizing, the opinion wasn't in the index, merely a citation to it. One still needed to retrieve the opinion and read it.

    Likewise, my idea, and indeed my index, is just an index. There is no copyright violation going on. A person still needs to look up the article or book on their own. They need to buy the book or subscribe to the journal or go to a library and copy appropriate pages using the fair use doctrine.

    So I don't see the problem in indexing works according to family (my way was to do the immigrant ancestor, and describe him with his dates and places he lived). A person owns their research, but they can't limit who cites to it.

    I did only New England to begin with, but had larger ideas of doing other places too.

  3. Second comment--Thomas--It's an intriguing idea. Just like leaving a footprint. However, you'd get many people who are doing shotgun genealogy where they look at many records that eventually they realize is for another family. So, you'd be emailing many people asking, "what research are you doing on xxx family" and getting the answer, "saw that document but it wasn't my family."

  4. Very interesting post. Upon first reading the title, I was thinking more along lines of detecting non-cited sources by means of internal clues, an occasional pastime when looking at Tree versions of some of my most-mangled family lines.

    Thomas, you are aware that has a system (or two) notifying users when others 'save' records to their tree members, where the software 'believes' individuals in one tree are the same as individuals in another?

    Martin, how would your application differ from PERSI?

    Thanks to all.