[APG Public List] Genealogical Proof Standard (Was The reliability of federal census records for genealogi...)

eshown at comcast.net eshown at comcast.net
Wed Nov 4 11:49:31 MST 2009

> Because the informant on census records is unknown, some of these same
researchers tend to automatically dismiss the information as unreliable.  
Michael, here you get at the crux of the issue in plain words. 
The problem I've particularly noted over the years is the number of people
who want what I call "formulas to follow," ones that will (they think)
alleviate all the angst over all the complications they encounter. 
Most people come into genealogy thinking it's all a matter of "looking up
the family name and finding your tree." The more they look, the more they
discover that it's not so easy.  Eventually, they feel overwhelmed by it
Those who value quality then look for a way to get a handle on all of it.
They look for guides. They look for concrete paths to take them from A to Z,
so they won't go off onto tangents or get mired along the way or reach the
wrong conclusions. 
At this point, many buy books like EE (to use the example you brought up)
thinking that "If I follow this or that template exactly, I won't have to
worry about whether I'm doing it right." They use the Evidence Analysis
Process Map, looking for a way to categorize what they find so they can
more-easily decide whether they can trust "this" over "that."
And, of course, before the Evidence Analysis Process Map existed, they had
those canned lists of "primary sources" and "secondary sources" that
contradicted each other a jillion ways; and so they argued mightily over
whether a census record should be called primary or secondary. And, just as
now with the EAPM and the GPS, the old focus on those two arbitrary labels
blinded them to the real issue you've spotlighted in your blog entry, i.e.:
Every individual piece of information, even individual fragments of a single
sentence, must be evaluated by solid principles of textual analysis.
The reality, of course, is that there are no formulas to follow that will
help genealogists avoid the fundamental need to think for themselves. That
is why, of course, the Evidence series is called Evidence rather than
"Citing Sources."  There's no moral superiority in citations, per se. The
issue is finding evidence and analyzing it validly. 
Genealogists look for sources but whatever information those sources provide
has to be mentally processed before we have evidence. Rotely citing
something we don't understand gets us nowhere. For reliable research, we
have to understand those records, we have to know their strengths and
weaknesses, we have to understand the principles of data collection (not
just so we can create a citation that tells other people where we found the
data, but so we will have sufficient detail about the source to understand
it and evaluate the reliability of its information). We have to learn
methodology for correlating evidence and framing a reliable conclusion.
You, Jeanette, and Larry have focused squarely on the need. My only point of
difference is my view of the GPS as a teaching tool to define quality, as
opposed to a square hole into which round pegs are to be pounded.
>Many genealogists do tend to get caught up in the details of "meeting the
GPS," rather than honing research skills.  In talking with some
"transitional genealogists" both on the mailing list and in other settings,
I see a tendency to want to know everything out of a book rather than just
jumping into the records to learn through experience.
The one point on which I differ with you here, Michael, is in your use of
that word "rather."  I do not see the issue as an either/or proposition.
"Jumping into the records to learn through experience" is, I'd argue, the
way most people have approached genealogy for many generations; and there's
a legion of garbage, as a result.
The wiser course, I think all of you would agree, is to emphasize that
expertise and quality research both result from balancing education (self-ed
or formal training) with hands-on experience. We need the education to teach
us guiding principles, and we need solid experience to understand those
text-book principles. One without the other creates all the problems we're
lamenting in this thread.
Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG
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