Saturday, November 24, 2012


We all make mistakes . . . constantly. In my own lives, I have:

* constructed skylights that leaked persistently,

* nailed up clapboards on a chicken house backwards, so that they conducted water into the wall instead of away from it,

* publicly expressed bewilderment as to why anyone would cite the 1880 census any differently from the 1850, and

* submitted a writing contest entry about a three-generation family, in which I cited no probates or property records.

The question is not whether we're going to make mistakes. That's a given. But we have a choice of what we do afterwards.

Option 1: We can hug our mistakes to ourselves, and lash out at anyone who points out, even in a very general way, that they are mistakes.

Option 2: We can resolve to do better (or in my case, to take up something other than carpentry!) and learn from the correction.

The other day a fellow genealogist wrote an exasperated post complaining about "drive-by genealogists" and how much unsubstantiated genealogical information is posted on line. Without naming names or web sites, she outlined some of the basic standards of evaluating evidence. She did note that "a researcher might find a document that says a couple married on a specific date. That researcher may tell others that this 'proves' the marriage. In fact, it isn't proof, but it is evidence of the marriage and needs a bit more work."

A number of other genealogists responded by choosing Option 2 and complaining about her complaint! Some called it elitist. Some said they had no time for source citations. One commenter sarcastically expressed surprise that a document didn't prove a marriage. (It doesn't. One document by itself doesn't prove anything, because any document can be wrong. Proof comes from multiple sources that corroborate each other. Check it out here for starters.)

There are no carpentry police, at least not out in the country. There are no genealogy police, and there never will be (although the original poster did kind of wish for some).

But there are plenty of people who can tell good from bad. It would not be elitist for others to snicker at my misbuilt chicken house, because it really did not protect the structure from the elements. Similarly, it is not elitist to point out that our family and other readers won't believe our family tree when it lacks a sound foundation. Of course there are better and worse ways to make this point. Good teachers and responsible genealogists will find ways to do it in a kind and encouraging manner. But whether stated well or badly, it remains a fact.

Cut-and-paste genealogists are free to spread unsubstantiated, dubious, false, or absurd information -- and will remain free to do so. We can build however we want. But what we can't do is build poorly, glory in it, and expect respect from those who know better.

Sharon Tate Moody, "Drive-by genealogists should learn a few rules," Tampa Bay Online, posted 18 November 2012 (  : accessed 23 November 2012).

Harold Henderson, "Misteaks," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 24 November 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Photo credit: garryknight's photostream at ( : accessed 23 November 2012), per Creative Commons.

1 comment:

Elizabeth O'Neal said...

Well said, Harold. My sewing/quilting skills sound akin to your carpentry skills. :-)