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

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Absence of a Source

I ran across this interesting quote concerning the maintenance of a wiki:
[The] absence of an explanation provided prima facie evidence for being suspicious of the changes. See Naughton, John. From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: Disruptive Innovation in the Age of the Internet. 2014, Page 70.
First an explanation of prima facie evidence. The term is obviously a Latin phrase and it literally means a first sight. It has come to be used in a legal sense that certain facts are accepted as correct until proven otherwise. If you have read my blog for any length of time, you likely realize that I argue against imposing the legal burdens of proof on genealogy. To some extent, I think it unfortunate that genealogical proof borrowed a page from Black's Law Dictionary and incorporated terminology that only imperfectly fits genealogical research and proof statements. In fact, I reject the idea that the process of proving a case, in the strictly legal sense, can be applied to genealogy at all.

The reason for this position is simple. There are no genealogical judges or juries. Historical proof, if you insist on calling it that, is based on documentation and is never absolutely conclusionary. Genealogical assertions are always open to reinterpretation based on the discovery of additional evidence. Whereas legal "proof" is based on a series of procedures that are intended to give a judge and/or a jury a sufficient basis to make a decision as to who is "right" and who is "wrong" in any give controversy. There are no winners and losers in genealogy. Genealogy is highly democratic in the sense that each researcher is entitled to their own personal opinion about the sufficiency of the documentation for any given ancestral fact.

Superficial correspondence between the process of "proving your case" in law and convincing others of the validity of your historical conclusions has been an attractive basis for imposing all sorts of legal terminology on genealogical activities in the past. So why do I bring up a quotation that alludes to this quasi-legal connection?

The answer to this question is complex. But I will begin by asking another question, what is the effect of a lack of genealogical (historical) documentation? If you read my recent post entitled Six of the Basic Rules of Genealogy, you may have noticed Rules Two, "Absence of an obituary or death record does not mean the person is still alive." There are some conclusions we can derive even in the absence of a historical record. But the question here is even deeper than that Rule (which is deep enough if you think about it).

As genealogists we are presently faced with a vast accumulation of conflicting genealogically attributed information. In the past, pre-computer and pre-Internet, it would have been unusual for anyone to find much in the way of published, available and yet contradictory information about his or her ancestors. If you happened to have something approximating my set of ancestors, you had one or maybe more published books that were "your ancestry." Period. End of Story. Of course, there were relatives who did not like the books for one reason or another, usually because they thought that their particular branch of the family got short shrift, but they were the Word as to who you were related to. The problem with most of these books was that they had no documentary evidence (or very little) that could be used to verify the conclusions. They also had the tendency to leave out facts that the author felt were either unimportant or caused "feelings to be hurt" in the family. There were also things that polite society just did not talk about. So given the statement at the beginning of this post, do we just throw the whole set of books out into the nearest dumpster or what?

Now, we are faced with a monumentally more serious and complex issue. What do we do about the millions of online family trees that are devoid of source documentation and therefore subject to our collective genealogical criticism and condemn them also to the dust bin?

That would be an easy way to proceed, but it would also make sure that many people would do the same research over and over again. At this point most experienced genealogists would conclude that the way out of this conundrum would be to document your sources and get on with real genealogical research and yes, condemn those unwashed masses of undocumented family trees to the dump.

Maybe the quote at the beginning gives us a way out of this situation. What if we don't reject a lack of source documentation outright, but merely consider it to be under suspicion? What if we take the opinion that these books, the piles of family group records, the online family trees and all other unsourced stuff is merely a suggestion, a possibility and has no value in the "real world" of proper genealogy until it is sourced. The fact that the stuff continues to pile up is really a matter of no concern because the only part of the mess that is valid is the issue of connecting the dots between historical sources and the facts we assert. If our own conclusions are unsupported, then that is the real issue. But we can then move on to glean what value there is from the piles of stuff and then go on to accumulate our own pile of source supported genealogy. All the time realizing that at any time, another document may surface that will bring down our own construct.

But is there some part of all this that does not have to be rehashed every new generation? The answer is in the quote at the beginning. Some things are self evident. I do not have to go back and question my ancestry for the past four or five (or even six) generations because the accumulation of documentation and a reasonable degree of accuracy makes a prima facie case. If someone wants to doubt the accuracy of my six generations, they have the burden of coming up with the documentation. Meanwhile, I can proceed to investigate those generations where the documentation is not so persuasive.

1 comment:

  1. You ask: "What do we do about the millions of online family trees that are devoid of source documentation and therefore subject to our collective genealogical criticism and condemn them also to the dust bin?" I answer: Cooperatively have FamilySearch or some other large organization; i.e., (IDC) International Data Corporation, Internet Archive (Wayback), etc., create a Wiki project to cull or glean from the Internet, regularly, all online family trees, documented or not. Then provide a service, such as the FreeFind Search resource, which is frequently updated, and whose index will contain complete word lists of each pedigree. Cross-index all words with a template that identifies each and every sub family tree, with or without sources. Group Wiki establish the documentation source box, which then can be redistributed back into the global Internet search process, via Google, etc., showing a copy of the original website presentation, along with the newly sourced data reference (pertinent facts or documents, for or against). With every regular update of the Internet culling process, automatically have attached to matching, newly entered, unwashed trees, all previously created source boxes. In my opinion, this kind of computer technology will discourage and eventually remove, the void Internet presentations of genealogy errors in observation or judgment, which defraud interested relatives of their proper use of family history time, talents and means. Billions of hours and money are now, over time, being unnecessarily lost in wasted efforts, search time, the purchase costs for duplication in publications and services (both off and online), communication equipment use costs, and related research travel expenses.