Thursday, December 13, 2012

What Does It Mean to Be "Out of Date"?

In an interesting discussion a while back on the Transitional Genealogists Forum, the question arose whether a certain genealogical classic -- the third (2000) edition of Val D. Greenwood's The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy -- is out of date and hence requires revision.

(1) Some argued it's out of date because of the importance of the internet in conducting research today.

(2) Others argued that it is not out of date because the basic research approaches it gives, and the record types themselves, have not changed just because we can sometimes access records in a new medium.

I would suggest both sides are right but are talking past each other because group 1 views the question from close up, while group 2  views the question from farther away.

On a daily basis, we need to know the most efficient way to get to the records we need -- indexes as necessary, and original records or good images thereof in the end. The means of access are changing daily. The research on my recently published William Berry article would have been done quite differently if FamilySearch had happened to put up 8 million New York property records three or four years ago instead of this week! Now I don't have to drive to Belmont, New York, to look at the crucial deeds. Greenwood has nothing to tell me about how to get at New York deeds, and if a 4th edition tried to do so, it would quickly become outdated too.

On a longer view, though, the basic techniques of research once we get hold of the records have not changed since Greenwood last wrote. (Even DNA requires corroboration and fits very well into the Genealogical Proof Standard. What it does require of today's genealogists is far more knowledge of biology and statistics than many of us ever expected. A new Greenwood could use a chapter on that.) We still need to understand that no single record is automatically correct or even trustworthy; they all need corroboration from other independently created records if we can possibly find them. We still need to understand how to analyze a single record and correlate it with other types. From this point of view 2013 looks very much like 1993 -- or, for that matter, 1893.

Each viewpoint is valid from its perspective, but neither perspective is complete.

Those who know the internet well need not be seduced into thinking that it has changed basic genealogical research standards. It hasn't.

Those who grew up as genealogists without the internet need not be seduced into thinking that they don't need to use it in practical everyday record retrieval. They do.

We can all get along and learn from each other.

Harold Henderson, "What Does It Mean to Be 'Out of Date'?," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 13 December 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

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