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.

“OVERVIEW
“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.

Who wants to know about their family history?

A post from Ancestry.com about how little Americans in general know about their family history has surprised me. In summary, the results are:

  • Most 18- to 34–years-old Americans (83%) are interested in learning their family history. For older age groups the percentages were increasingly smaller.
  • Half of Americans know the name of only one or none of their great-grandparents.
  • One in five Americans don’t know what either of their grandfathers do or did for a living.
  • One in five Americans don’t know where their family lived before they came to America.
  • Four out of five Americans say they are interested in learning more about their family history, and yet half have never tried.

Source: Survey Reveals Americans’ Surprising Lack of Family Knowledge, 24-7 Family History Circle, Ancestry.com, 7 Dec 2007.

I wonder what the results of such a survey would be in Australia? I suspect they would be much the same. I think the biggest surprise for me is the number of young people interested in their family history. That four out of five under-35s are interested in knowing more about their ancestors came as a bit of a shock. After all, these are not the people you see in family history societies and libraries.

How can we share what we know about our family history with the younger members of our own families? How can we make it interesting for them?

I don’t think kids will be interested if we show them the things that we get excited about – certificates and mentions of our ancestors in newspapers and the like. They like stories. I tell my nieces stories about individuals – about their great-great-grandmother Margaret who went from Scotland to New Zealand with her family when she was four years old to settle in the new town of Auckland, and went on to marry a man who had kids already by a first marriage and died when he was only 46, leaving her with her own kids and his too. And I ask them to imagine what it must have been like for her, as a four-year-old, to travel on a sailing ship for months to the other side of the world and live in what must have looked like a wild west town – dirt streets and horses and all.

Kids need to be involved, and all of this age group are much more accepting of new technology. Not just accepting, but expecting! They expect the internet to work like we expect the phone to work. Put it to use!

  • You could get them to create a family tree on Ancestry or FindMyPast or GenesReunited or one of the many other websites available for this purpose.
  • You can show them what is available on the web and how it can help build up a picture of the ancestor in question.
  • You can give them copies of photos of their ancestors and get them to upload them and link them to their family tree.
  • They could then print out a chart of their ancestors, complete with photos. They might be inspired to hunt for missing ones!
  • You could put them in touch with distant cousins and show them how they are related.

The possibilities are endless. Young adults could also be more involved by handling the web side, copying photos and hunting out more information.

And what about you? Do you know what your grandfathers did, or still do, for a living?

Do you know where your family (or families) lived before they came to Australia?

Do you know the names of your great-grandparents? Especially on the female side?

Do you know which of your younger relatives might be interested in the work you are doing in your own family history?

There is so much to learn, and so little time. The younger we start, the more time we will have, and the more we can build and what has been done before. It’s not just a hobby for the retired!

Are genealogy forums worthwhile?

There are advantages and disadvantages to leaving your name, surnames-of-interest, and email address on the many genealogy forums and load-your-family-tree websites.

Advantages

The main advantage is, of course, that you might connect with someone who can give you vital information. That is the reason we sign up to these things in the first place. And don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a response straight away. The crucial person who has the family bible, or knows who has it, may not read your post for years.

My g-g-g-grandfather, Richard Eason, immigrated to New South Wales from what is now Northern Ireland in 1850, and a few years later his older sister Anne, arrived with her family and their mother, Sarah. We don’t know much about them and we don’t have any photos of that generation or the one after. I posted my interest in the surname Eason on an Irish forum – it was so long ago now that I can’t remember which one it was (if I ever change my primary email address I will lose these forums). Anyway, only last year a lovely lady in South Australia contacted me about my Eason post. Her husband was descended from Anne, the older sister and she was able to send me photos of the family, including the mother Sarah, and a scan of the inside page of the prayer book where Sarah had written the date of her wedding and the births of her children. Priceless!

Another advantage, more to do with loading your family tree on a website such as Ancestry or GenesReunited, is the insight you can get by formatting your family tree in this way. You can easily see inconsistencies, missing information such as certificates you haven’t yet ordered, and problems you thought had been sorted out already, that you may not have seen looking at the data within your genealogy program all the time. You can see that you have different spellings for the Ewins and missing sources for marriages. You can see how much of your data really came from that report you were sent five years ago and haven’t got around to verifying for yourself. Of course, these issues also emerge if we just run a report to give to someone else.

Disadvantages

Many other people may contact you as well, people who are very unlikely to be connected to you in any way. I still get the occasional email from people who have seen my post on one of these forums and have asked me if I know their g-g-g-grandfather who came from Ireland, or Scotland. They don’t seem to notice that my email address is Australian, and they rarely seem to have much information themselves. A g-g-g-g-grandfather of mine is William Stewart, who raised his family in Paisley, Scotland until the boys emigrated to Australia in the 1850s. William Stewart is a very common name in Scotland and so the other information I provide is important – Paisley and Australia and all the rest, and yet I get emails from Americans about Stewarts from all parts of Scotland who emigrated to the USA. Bewildering, it is.

This annoyance pales into insignificance beside the main disadvantage of posting your email address on forums, and that is its susceptibility to spammers. These people gather email addresses from wherever they can, and they indiscriminately send out their pleas for assistance in getting fictitious money out of some troubled country and advertisements for pirated software and enhancements to bodily parts. They also sell email addresses on to others who use them for the same evil ends. The more places you have your email address accessible on the web, the more your inbox is likely to be bothered by these people.

Personally, I find the benefits of potential contacts far outweight the risk of more spam. Spam will find you even if you don’t put your email address on a forum, and there are many good anti-spam tools available. Most internet service providors have their own anti-spam software that stops these messages getting to your inbox in the first place. I must admit, though, that I think my spam is decreasing. The percentage that my ISP reports is spam is much lower than it used to be, and not so many slip through their net.

 I’m sure there are other advantages and disadvantages that you can think of, and I’d love to hear what they are. Leave a comment!

Switch to our mobile site