Wednesday, November 6, 2013

But Grandma always said . . .

James Tanner recently posted a fascinating list of six signs that a genealogist has moved up from beginner status. He made me wonder why we talk a lot about "beginning genealogists," but not "beginning historians" or "beginning physicists."

One reason genealogy has such an enormous range is that it is inevitably two very different things: a personal quest based on personal memories and attitudes formed at a young age on one hand, and a demanding technique and profession on the other. The two blend and confront in many different ways, but each of us has a moment when our personal memories run head-on into original eyewitness documents that say otherwise. Beginners may reject documents that conflict with their personal impressions, often going into great intellectual contortions to do so; higher-level genealogists give the documents serious consideration, while recognizing that they too could be wrong.

This confrontation is the downfall of the popular notion of laissez-faire genealogy -- the idea that there are lots of ways to do genealogy and nothing is really wrong. There are lots of ways that work, but the denial of conflicting evidence is not one of them.

No one who dismisses documentary evidence out of hand in favor of "Grandma said..." can be taken seriously as a genealogist. Of course they may be wonderful people, and in any case we should always be polite, always be kind. But a genealogist has to be willing to weigh conflicting evidence -- to analyze and correlate and resolve contradictions. Sometimes Grandma wins, sometimes she doesn't. (Yes, even my own.)

Those who simply cling to family stories may know valuable facts that no one else does, but they aren't genealogists, any more than those who deny evolution are biologists.

Harold Henderson, "But Grandma always said...," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 6 November 2013 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

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