A prediction from the past

I’ve been reading old Descents, the journal of the Society of Australian Genealogists. Currently I’m in the early-1980s, where life for genealogists was quite different than it is now.

Still, it is not as different as they thought that it was going to be. There was a prediction in an article by Elizabeth Simpson called ‘Historians and Genealogists’ (Vol 11, Part 3, Sept. 1981) that in twenty years there would be no need for anyone to do any further research because it would have all been done. Every family, presumably, would have done all the research that could be done and later generations would have nothing left to do.

Well, I’m here to say that this optimistic situation hasn’t eventuated. Not only has there not been the widespread interest in genealogy that may have contributed to this result, but there is always more to do!

Some people distinguish between genealogy and family history. Genealogy is the tracing of ancestors and filling in a chart. Names and dates, basically.

Family history is what you do when the names and dates are no longer enough and you want to know about the boxes on the chart as people. You want to know about their lives – where they lived, where they went to school, where they got married, what they did for a living, what they owned, what they looked like and what sort of people they were.

The search for information that can answer these questions can take a lifetime. It can take many years to find a single name or event. Finding information is becoming easier in this era of Ancestry and FindMyPast and other online resources but there is still so much that is only available in libraries and private papers. The difficulty is in finding out that the information is there to be found.

My mother said to me once that there was no point in her getting involved in researching her family because I’d already done it all. If only that were true! Unfortunately I don’t think it ever will be ‘done’.

How do you write your family history?

I was amused recently by a discussion on a genealogy forum about whether we can use family tree software or a word processor to write our family history. A family tree program such as The Master Genealogist or Family Tree Maker or one of the many other excellent programs can keep track of our names and dates but it cannot be used to write reports or stories for our relatives and others.

Most family tree programs will write a report for us if we click the right button. The sentences may be a bit stilted but they get the facts across. I’m sure you’ve seen many examples; here’s one:

Mary SMITH was born to John Smith and Elizabeth Bennett on 03 April 1856 in Glasgow, Scotland. She appeared in the 1861 census in 45 Shuttle Street, Glasgow, Scotland. She appeared in the 1871 census in 21 Park Street, Glasgow, Scotland. She married John McDonald, the son of James McDonald and Jean Simpson, on 09 December 1878 in Glasgow, Scotland. She appeared in the 1881 census in Lewis Lane, Glasgow, Scotland. She immigrated on 26 July 1883 in Sydney, NSW, Australia. She died on 31 January 1903 in Penrith, NSW, Australia.

The children of Mary Smith were:

And so on and so on. It’s very uninspiring but it does get the facts across. Of course, it may be missing much of the story that you have stored elsewhere as notes.

There are alternatives. Some prefer to sit down and write the whole thing from scratch in a word processor such as Word. Depending on the skill of the writer it is likely to be a much more interesting read, and will probably contain much more of interest than just these bare facts, such as her nursing of local children, her other relatives on whose advice she moved to Australia, and the death of her eldest son on the voyage out here, and other such examples.

Many family tree programs allow the inclusion of this sort of information as well. The program that I am most familiar with is The Master Genealogist (TMG). It not only allows me to decide which facts will be included in a narrative, it allows me to determine how those facts will be reported. I can craft sentences to my own satisfaction and skill as a writer.

The discussion in the forum, as you can probably imagine, was about the ability of a family tree program to write narrative as well as you can yourself in a word processor. The answer, of course, is no. If the question is, can the program automatically generate prose that looks as though I wrote it myself from scratch, then of course the answer is no. You have to spend a great deal of time looking at the sentences it generates and changing them until they make sense, follow on smoothly from the sentence before, and do not appear as though they’ve been generated by a program. So who has written the prose in this case, you or the program? You have, of course.

TMG can do this, but it takes time, with a lot of trial and error. The most recent version of the program allows you to display a preview of the sentence when you are creating or updating a fact. You can update the sentence for that person only, or you can update a “master” that will use it everywhere that the same type of fact appears.

The only good reason that I can see for doing all of this work is if you are going to be generating multiple reports with at least some of the same people listed for different relatives. The same text will come out for each person no matter how often you run reports for different branches of your family. You may do some tweaking in your word processor once the report has been generated but you don’t have to write it from scratch every time.

If you are just going to do it once, as a professional genealogist might for a client, then it is not worth the extra work of setting up sentences in the family tree program, and you are better off doing it directly in the word processor.

Another advantage to using your family tree program is that it will probably generate a list of sources for you, and will cite them, if you wish, throughout the text. This is much less hassle than making sure you are quoting the right source with the right number every time you make a change, and keeping your superscripts correctly numbered.

That’s my two cents worth, and that was my take-away from the long discussion on the forum.


APG-L Archives at http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/index/APG, February 2008.

Genealogy on Wikipedia

Elizabeth Shown Mills, author of Evidence! : citation & analysis for the family historian and Evidence explained : citing history sources from artifacts to cyberspace has rewritten the definition of “Genealogy” on Wikipedia, or at least the first two paragraphs. Her text, as she informed* the mailing list of the Association of Professional Genealogists, was as follows:

“Genealogy (from Greek: ?e?ea, genea, “family”; and ?????, logos, “knowledge”; often misspelled “geneology.”[1]) is the study and tracing of families. Because many unrelated individuals can share a common name, modern genealogical research is more than a collection of names affixed to pedigree charts. Rather, genealogy involves identifying living and deceased individuals, differentiating between individuals who bear the same name in the same place and time, establishing biological or genetic kinships, and reassembling families. By modern standards, reliable conclusions are based on the quality of sources (ideally original records, rather than derivatives), the information within those sources (ideally primary or firsthand information, rather than secondary or secondhand information), and the evidence that can be drawn (directly or indirectly) from that information. In many instances, genealogists must skillfully assemble circumstantial evidence to build a case for identity and kinship. All evidence and conclusions, together with the documentation that supports them, is then assembled to create a cohesive “genealogy” or “family history”.[2] Traditionalists may differentiate between these last two terms, using the former to describe skeletal accounts of kinship (aka family trees) and the latter as a “fleshing out” of lives and personal histories. However, historical, social, and family context is still essential to achieving correct identification of individuals and relationships.

“Genealogists begin their research by collecting family documents and stories, creating a foundation for documentary research by which they may discover ancestors and living relatives. Genealogists also attempt to understand not just where and when people lived but also their lifestyle, biography, and motivations. This often requires – or leads to – knowledge of antiquated laws, old political boundaries, immigration trends, and historical social conditions.”

  1. ^ The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, in conjunction with the Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2000), Standards 1-72; National Genealogical Society, American Genealogy (Arlington, Virginia: NGS, rev. 2005), lesson 15, “Interpreting and Evaluating Evidence”; Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3d ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000), Chap. 1, “Understanding Genealogical Research.”
  2. ^ The mythological origin of English kings is related in a number of derivative sources, such as The Scyldings, an article at Ancient Worlds. In this article one primary source cited is the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”. The following passage appears in the entry for A.D. 449: “Their leaders were two brothers, Hengest and Horsa; who were the sons of Wihtgils; Wihtgils was the son of Witta, Witta of Wecta, Wecta of Woden. From this Woden arose all our royal kindred, and that of the Southumbrians also.” In this context “royal kindred” refers to English kings. Reference: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Part 1: A.D. 1 – 748, part of The Online Medieval & Classical Library. Accessed 2005 March 11.

Of course, Wikipedia can be changed at any time by anyone, and what she has written has already been changed as I write this. You can read the full Wikipedia article here.

Does it sound like what you do? I’d like to think it’s what I do, collecting original sources with primary information and drawing conclusions  from the evidence. That’s what it boils down to, in the end – can we back up what we say with reliable evidence? Do we record the source of each piece of data we collect so that we know where we got it? Could we find it again, or let others know where to find it?

And are we building family trees or family histories? Do we collect names and dates, or do we try to “flesh out” what we know about our ancestors with the interesting details that make up real lives?

That’s the question that most interests me!

* Mills, Elizabeth Shown, Re: [APG] WIKIPEDIA; email message to apg-l@rootsweb.com on Tue 11 December 2007 at 11:25am (Eastern Daylight Time in Sydney, Australia).

My apologies if I haven’t cited this correctly.

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