[APG Public List] Actual Physical Location

Ray Beere Johnson II raybeere at yahoo.com
Mon Nov 1 18:43:15 MDT 2010

     I've interspersed my remarks within your original message. Sorry they're so long, but you seem to have rather thoroughly misunderstood what I was saying.

--- On Mon, 11/1/10, John Yates <john at jytangledweb.org> wrote:

> Ray, I'm afraid your interest in genealogy comes in a different
> direction than mine. My primary interest is to preserve history, the 
> history of my ancestors, as best I can. I have no interest in records 
> other than that they are indispensable in finding the truth of my 
> ancestors. That includes where they lived, where they came from, 
> precise locations, etc. When it comes time to write the story of my 
> family (should I ever get to that), the interesting story is the text, 
> the more boring sources are relegated to footnotes. Needed for proof, 
> but they aren't really the interesting story.

     Ah, but the fact that records "are indispensable in finding the truth of my ancestors" was precisely my point. :-)
     As for stories, the only way to learn the details that allow you to tell interesting stories is to search the records. A list of co-ordinates may be useful as footnotes - but I know few people who would find that list worthwhile reading in itself.
     As a simple example, Larry mentioned parish boundaries in London. I don't know much about London in specific, but let's say I needed to do research there. I would prefer the information that my ancestor's birth was recorded in the records of such and such a parish - which would then be a fairly simple matter to track down - to bare co-ordinates that left me wondering whether or not they applied to my ancestor _before_ or _after_ a parish boundary shifted. The first would make it simple for me to assemble many of the details of their story. The second would leave me searching.
     This example, however, has another dimension. In _either_ case, I would have enough information to locate what I needed, _if_ I understood what I was doing. (I could, after all, just search records for _both_ parishes, or all three, or whatever, in the second example.) But the really important caution comes when a novice sees those co-ordinates, makes the assumption that they refer only to the modern parish, and goes terribly astray. They would never get their ancestor's story right. _That_ is the sort of problem that worries me.

> I cherish that I have the GPS coordinates of the river bank where my 
> ancestor came and decided to stay, and built a boat works. And I have 
> the GPS coordinates up the hill, where he and his family are buried. 
> With two simple numbers I can tell anyone in the world how to find that 
> little cemetery hidden in the edge of the woods. (which took me a month 
> of people networking and three drive bys to find it myself).

     I never questioned the worth of GPS co-ordinates for many purposes. My point was subtly different. We need to remember the worth of _any_ source depends on how it is used. Assuming you located the correct spot where your ancestor built his boat works, the co-ordinates to that _would_ reasonably be a valuable footnote to help you - and anyone else who was interested - relocate that spot with much less effort.
     _But_, if another person made an attempt to locate that same spot, thought they got it right, but in fact missed the detail that the river he built on had changed names, and instead listed co-ordinates for a spot miles away, _those_ co-ordinates would be worthless at best - and actively harmful to any researcher who took them at face value.
     _Or_, even if you pinpointed the correct spot, if you recorded it in such a way that a reader might misunderstand (no matter _how_ accurate the data is, there is _always_ a way to make a mess of it :-) then that record would also be problematic. Those were my points, that despite the undoubted value of GPS co-ordinates - or any other reliable map co-ordinates - for certain purposes, we need to remember that they are subject to all the failings of their human recorders. If you misread a number on your GPS unit, and write or type it incorrectly, the co-ordinate is no longer accurate. If the unit is damaged and the readout offers incorrect data (I don't know the detailed technical issues - but _any_ readout can, at least theoretically, display garbled output), even if you write what it says correctly, you will have useless information. And so on...

> I hang around several historians, generally older than myself who show 
> me where things used to be. Most of them are not computer literate, and 
> don't do genealogy or publish history. (some do). But I listen to them, 
> take in history. I record GPS coordinates of sites they point out, take 
> photographs, and try to preserve at least some of what they know from 
> first hand experience. Valuable historical information that could be
> gone soon. And some of it ties in with my family genealogy.

     The information you record may well be of use to yourself or others - but, like any other "first hand experience" recorded years after the original event, the co-ordinates you record are, in the end, no better than the memories of the men who pointed out those spots to you. One man might remember every site perfectly. Another might be completely mixed up. Without corroborating evidence, you have no way of knowing which is the case. But the accuracy of those co-ordinates is, in absolute fact, no better than the accuracy of the men who indicated the position from which you recorded them. The numbers you have are not a true indication of 'the spot where such and such a structure stood' - they are, within the limits of their technical accuracy, an indication of 'the spot where so-and-so remembers such and such a structure standing years ago'. There is a very important difference between those statements, and we all need to remember that.

> It is all evidence. GPS allows us to record pieces of evidence. Let me 
> quote from "Evidence Explained": "Sources provide information, from 
> which we select evidence for analysis. A sound conclusion may then be 
> considered proof".
> We need to document why we believe a site is the site we say. Digital 
> Coordinates are just a handy tool to convey the information of where 
> the site is. Nothing more.
> And from the Forward of "Evidence Explained":
> "All sources lie. --Lawrence of Arabia"

     But this was precisely my point... ;-) You've just restated it in a different way, citing an authority in the field to back me up. :-D

> This means that some of the documents you have found and accepted are 
> bound to be incorrect also. Maybe our trees are wrong beyond a certain 
> point. Maybe the father wasn't who it was supposed to be! Maybe DNA can 
> prove/disprove some lineages. Another topic that no doubt will have 
> followers and naysayers.
> We can only do our best at gathering and analyzing evidence. GPS data 
> helps some of us with the analysis.

     All true. But my point was that GPS data is no more inherently reliable than any other evidence. If we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by its "permanence", or seduced by its "accuracy", we will forget it is only as good as the skills of the person making use of the device.

> Anyone can choose to use any tool or not to use any tool. I choose not 
> to use zip code plus 4 in my addresses, and often don't include zip 
> code itself in place locations. But I'm sure some people use it all.
> I don't say the program shouldn't be able to handle it.

     Neither did I. I have no problem with any program including whatever data some of its users may find helpful. If I find that program crams in too many items that I don't find useful, I'll just seek another option.

> Digital location, no digital location. To each their own. If someone
> had two copies of a published genealogy, one without digital locations,
> and one with some digital locations, I'll take the one with, please.

     If they were otherwise equal, I agree. If not, it would depend on what other differences existed, _and why_. But even if I took the one with the digital locations, I'd _still_ want to know more about how that information was arrived at before I relied too heavily on it.

> I know that I want a tool that allows me to do justice to digital
> locations. I think many others do also. Others can use those fields
> and source templates or not.

     We should all use any and every tool we can find a use for. I said nothing to suggest otherwise. My remarks were a reminder that it is important, no matter what tools we like to use, to remember the ways in which such tools can lead us astray. As one example, some suggested noting the "corners" of a particular boundary. This approach, of course, only makes sense if the boundary has a shape which lends itself to being mapped in this way. Perhaps you could work out an approach which would let you 'outline' a seriously irregular boundary. Perhaps your approach would even work well. _But_, unless I understood what you'd done, and why, it would be of little use to me.
                                Ray Beere Johnson II


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