Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Genealogy has two kinds of rules

Genealogy has two kinds of rules. The genealogical proof standard is the substantive kind. Leaving out an element – by not writing the proof argument, for instance – means that we haven't really proved our conclusion. It's not optional. Those who disagree just don't understand what genealogical proof is. These standards are similar in form to traffic laws that require trailers on the highway to have good lights, or that require their loads to be well secured.

But genealogy also has rules of another kind – arbitrary conventions. Many of these are involved in the creation of citations. For example:

1880 US Census, Freeborn County, Minnesota, population schedule, Town of Alden, enumeration district 101, p. 141A (stamped), p. 9 (penned), dwelling 82, family 83, Washington Porter; digital image, ( : viewed 3 July 2013), citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 620.
Why do we do it this way? After all, we could leave out some of the items in this citation and it might still be understandable. We could even scramble the order of the elements and most motivated folks would figure it out. (Same the thing true is off anny almost English sentence, da/nyet?)

Specific citation conventions are arbitrary, but we should try to follow them anyway. It's like driving on the right-hand side of the road in the US. Neither side is the best side to drive on. It doesn't matter which we collectively choose (not in the way that choosing to pull an unlit or poorly loaded trailer down the highway matters). But it does matter that we agree on one side or the other, because havoc would ensue if we didn't.

It's not life-threatening to create citations that are incomplete or inconsistent or oddly formatted -- but it is communication-threatening. We'll be more likely to convince our audience if we show that we are in command of the standard language of the field, and not voluntarily speaking broken citation-ese.

Photo credit: William Murphy infomatique's photostream, per Creative Commons.

Harold Henderson, "Genealogy has two kinds of rules," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 2 October 2013 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


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