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

Monday, April 26, 2021

Is Accuracy Important in Genealogical Research?


You may wonder why I have to ask whether or not accuracy is important in genealogical research? The simple answer is that apparently there are a lot of people who simply ignore the fact that the information they enter into online family trees is not only inaccurate but entirely unsupported by a valid genealogical source document. Every item of information asserted in a family tree should be adequately supported by the historical record. In the case of almost all genealogy software programs and websites, this means citing a supporting document for all of the information alleged. Most importantly, this rule requires that any information added to a family tree must be substantiated by a corresponding historical record that actually contains the information entered. Here is an example of some birth information from an entry in the Family Tree.

The information on the left side of this entry is substantiated by the records cited on the right side of this entry. This is sometimes called a "source-centric" model of family history although a truly source-centric approach would be exhaustively more complete. One concept of a source-centric genealogical model was published in an interesting analysis of the issue in a paper entitled, High-Level View of a Source-Centric Genealogical Model: “The Model with Four Boxes" back in 2006 by Randy Wilson, David Ouimette, and Dan Lawyer. One assertion of this paper concerning the function of a family tree is that "The family tree’s job is to represent the world’s current best conclusions as to who has lived, what we know about them, and how they are related." (See page 4). 

Some genealogists assert that the Family Tree is an attempt to codify the ideal source-centric family tree. To the extent that such a family tree would insist that every allegation be supported by a verifiable source, ultimately the source-centric tree would eliminate duplication and become verifiably accurate. 

Unfortunately, the ideal source-centric family tree relies on the ability to have access to and to incorporate every possible source of family history or genealogical information. Absent unlimited access to complete data sets, any approximation to a source-centric family tree falls short of its ability to avoid duplication and inaccuracy. Although I eschew the use of the term "evidence" in conjunction with writing and talking about historical and genealogical information because of its legal connotations, one good summary of the process of adding information to a family tree is contained in an article entitled, "Using the Genealogical Proof Standard in Your Research (National Institute)." The term "evidence" implies the existence of an independent entity that can decide whether or not the application and interpretation of historical information can somehow be certified as "correct" or accurate. In the world of genealogical and historical research, no such entity (judge) exists. 

In my example above the conclusions and the list of sources for the evaluation and incorporation of the information in the Family Tree, there appears to be a sufficient number and variety of sources to come to an informed conclusion. 

Now, let's suppose that someone enters information in a source-centric family tree without a source. Hmm. This seems to imply a contradiction in terms but further assuming that the family tree is based on a cooperative, wiki model, users or contributors to the family tree could add information that was not supported by a source. Does the addition of information that is unsupported by a source invalidate the family tree? The answer to that question is not as simple as it might seem to be but the question does imply a question of whether or not the structure of the family tree should allow such unsupported contributions. However, in any event, it is clear that promoting the addition of unsupported information is destructive of the entire source-centric concept. 

Now it is time to address the issue of whether or not accuracy is a goal of genealogical research. This question arises in the context of the assumed source-centric objective of the Family Tree. Presently, allowing users to enter information without citing a source or even an opinion as to the origin and accuracy is allowed. The effect of this lack of control or concern about accuracy forces those informed users of the Family Tree who value the source-centric model to spend a considerable amount of time and effort trying to maintain the integrity of the Family Tree. Why should the users continue to try and verify, evaluate, and correct the work of others who do not value the effort? In addition, it appears that the effort to maintain the conclusory accuracy of the Family Tree is not appreciated or supported at times by those whose job it is to maintain the website where the tree is hosted. 

Can the Family Tree actually function as a source-centric family tree? A careful reading of the 2006 article cited above would lead me to conclude that absent a much greater source basis that presently exists and absent some internal checks on the addition of unsupported information, only small portions of the present Family Tree can actually be considered to be source-centric. 

Of course, the Family Tree is ultimately religiously supported by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and as such, it ultimately can only be judged on the basis of whether or not it is fulfilling its religious purposes. From this standpoint, it is easily the best possible presently available format and structure. Is there a need to increase accuracy? Of course, there is. But presently, those people who are working on increasing the accuracy of the Family Tree have adequate tools to do their work. As the source base increases, the accuracy will also increase and the amount of inaccurate information will remain within acceptable limits. 

1 comment:

  1. A very positive approach! After experiencing much genealogy junk, it is so great to have someone try to aid in promoting accuracy and sourcing! Thanks