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

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Scattering data across the Web - a problem of consolidation or methodology? Part Two

One aspect of the issue of scattered genealogical data across the web is the fact that this scattering mirrors the places where the records were originally created and stored. When a genealogically significant record is created there is no guarantee that the record will remain in the same location or even continue to exist. But this issue goes back to a variation on my first rule which I can re-state as follows:
Always assume that the record is somewhere.
 Now, I need to explain what I mean by a record. In the sense that I am using the term "record," I do not mean a discrete physical record of an event. I am using the term in a much larger sense to mean any preserved representation of the event. For example, if I were searching for a "death record," I would not be limiting my search to any particular class of documents but rather I would be expanding my search to any kind of reference that could be used to establish a death date. These records might include anything from a gravemarker to a newspaper account or a probate action in a civil court. All of these could be considered a "record" of an individual's death date.

In my experience, it is fairly common for researchers to be involved in searching for a specific type of record rather than a more expensive idea of records in general that could establish the same type of information the researchers believe could be established by a specific record. an example that I've used before, is a researcher searching for a "marriage certificate" before such documents were created by governmental agencies.

Time and time again, I encounter researchers who are doggedly searching for a specific date for a specific event. Continuing the example of searching for a marriage date, I have had people pursue this issue as if the fact that the couple lived together and had a number of children was not enough of a "record" to establish a "marriage." In that specific case how about considering the "marriage" to occurred approximately one year before the birth of the first child and moving on to some other issue? At the same time, I have seen researchers who resist the idea that a marriage date could be found in a probate file or some other place.

If you start with the premise that records are created at or near the time of an event, you also need to expand that concept to include records that could have been created any time during an ancestor's life or any time after an ancestor's life. Continuing the example of a marriage record, a couple could have been married in one location and recorded the event at a much later date in a different and even very remote locations from the original event. For example, the couple could have been married in England, immigrated to the United States, purchase the Bible and recorded the information in a Bible years after the original event. Does the Bible record then become a secondary record and of less value than a certificate or some other evidence of the marriage at the time it occurred in England? Obviously, this is another issue concerning the evaluation of the reliability of any record.

I have been using examples of physical records and the fact that a record of a specific event can take many forms and may end up being located in many geographic areas as a basis for illustrating the fundamental reason why records are scattered across the web. This can explain why my Great-grandfather's records can end up in the University of Utah Special Collections Library when my Great-grandfather spent almost his entire life living in a small town in northern Arizona. The connection is that the researcher who gathered the records and donated them to the University of Utah, lived in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Now back to the title of this post, is this problem and issue of consolidation or methodology? Personally, I see absolutely no way that all of these disparate records are ever going to be consolidated. At best, we can expect better search engines and more efficient ways of connecting records without actually consolidating them into any one supersized database. So, to answer my own question, I believe the solution is establishing a record searching methodology that will take into account the different ways that records could be scattered across the world and the Internet. Remember, I am using the term record in a more expansive way than merely indicating any particular piece of paper.

I believe that the basis for establishing a methodology must rest on the awareness that obtaining information about any specific event in an ancestor's life must involve a holistic approach that includes much more than a focus on any particular event. The methodology includes an understanding of the geography, history, political jurisdictions, and many other factors that can influence where records are kept and maintained.

From my perspective becoming focused on any one aspect of an ancestor's life or any one event is self-defeating. It is sometimes discouraging to see genealogical researchers slaving away in a local FamilySearch Center or Library, when the information they are looking for is located a short distance away in a state archive, local historical society, or even a public library. What is even more discouraging is that the researcher searches online for his or her ancestor's name, and assumes because they did not find the name in the local library's catalog that no such information exists. For example, I have found a biography of my Great-grandfather in the Arizona State Library. This is not a reference that will appear during any kind of routine search online, but only through an awareness that such a record may exist in a state library or university library. For example, if I search online for my Great-grandfather, Henry Martin Tanner, and add the search term "Arizona state library" I find several entries referring to library collections containing information about him.

Learning to do research online for your ancestors is not merely understanding how to enter and search for names and dates, it involves a much more expansive view of how and where information can be stored and how to locate it. This issue is not going to be solved by merely coming up with a better search engine or better innovative program. It involves a comprehensive education of people who are interested in seeking out their ancestors. The good news is that taking courses on genealogy, attending conferences, learning more about computers and the Internet, and many other similar activities ultimately provides a basis for implementing the methodology of gathering scattered records.

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