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

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Starving in the midst of plenty

The level of general geographic knowledge in the U.S. is abysmally low. It probably ranks below history as a subject that is least emphasized and taught in school. One survey, done in 2006, by National Geographic found the following:

  • Only 37% of young Americans can find Iraq on a map—though U.S. troops have been there since 2003.
  • 6 in 10 young Americans don't speak a foreign language fluently.
  • 20% of young Americans think Sudan is in Asia. (It's the largest country in Africa.)
  • 48% of young Americans believe the majority population in India is Muslim. (It's Hindu—by a landslide.)
  • Half of young Americans can't find New York on a map.
My own experience is that most adults would have the same difficulties. For genealogists this translates into an abysmal lack of knowledge of how to use geographic tools to find and identify locations. On the other hand, never in the history of the world has geographic knowledge been so readily available.

I commonly find, even among experienced genealogists, that there is little or no awareness of the geographic resources available online. For researchers, this situation is literally akin to starving to death in the midst of plenty.

Here is the problem in part, the people who would be online and reading this blog post comprise an extremely small percentage of the total population interested in and doing genealogical research. So in effect, I am preaching to the choir. But even among those reading this post, I would guess that some of their most perplexing genealogical problems could be solved by simply going to the maps either on paper or online and looking at spatial relationships.

In one recent post, I showed how to find photographs of locations using Wikipedia and a location's coordinates. I think I need to get a little more basic than that and go to the maps themselves and the kind of information available about historical locations. In many classes I teach, the issue comes up about recording locations. Here is the rule:

The location of any genealogical event is to be recorded as it existed at the time the event occurred.

This seems pretty non-controversial, but in practice, it is often observed more in the breach than in fact. Fundamental to this rule is the idea that you may need to identify the geographical location of an event, i.e. by latitude and longitude, to accurately assess the event's location. OK, I am not saying that if your ancestors came from "New York" that you put the coordinates for New York in your database. What I am saying is that you should be aware of the exact location of an event to the extent possible to avoid making unsupported conclusions about the location of supporting records.

In all genealogical research, this issue involves identifying the political, religious, or cultural jurisdiction associated with a given location. I find a significant number of "brick wall" issues can be resolved with more accurate assessments of the geographic location and the identification of the jurisdiction.  So how do I start?

In almost all cases, when I am asked to help someone with finding an ancestor, the first question that I ask is where did the events occur. Automatically, I go to a map and look at the location on a map. I cannot tell you haw many times when I do that, that the person is surprised and has no idea why I am searching on a map for their ancestor's birthplace or whatever.

I guess I am working on a sort-of general series of posts on maps and online resources. If this series progressing like others, I will probably have a few interruptions.

1 comment:

  1. The reason that most American do not speak a foreign language fluently is the fact that there has been no one to speak with in another language on a regular basis. It has changed within the last twenty five years with Spanish becoming prominent in the USA.

    In Europe most countries are as large as one of our states and the travel between them makes it a necessity and you have the opportunity to learn and use another language.

    When our ancestors emigrated speaking the native language was discouraged and they wanted to feel "like an American."

    My mother and grandparents spoke German, but being born after WWII we were never taught.