Monday, December 8, 2014

A great new book and a need for connection

Robert Charles Anderson, FASG, best known for the definitive Great Migration series published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society, has written an important book of genealogical methods and theory, laced with real-life examples. Anyone who's serious enough to know what the Genealogical Proof Standard is, or who reads the New England Historical and Genealogical Register or the National Genealogical Society Quarterly for more than just the names of their ancestors, should read Elements of Genealogical Analysis. It's instructive and thought-provoking.

Such readers may also find themselves feeling a bit dizzy. Anderson defines sources and records and methods differently than the Board for Certification of Genealogists. It's as if someone were doing carpentry and building good houses with an entirely different set of tools and measurements.

More remarkably, Anderson nowhere mentions the Genealogical Proof Standard or the more detailed standards that have been widely distributed since 2000. (He does acknowledge that other systems are possible and that they "quite likely . . . might be developed.") {xv}

For myself I don't mind this. As an avid consumer of the Great Migration books (long before I understood anything else about genealogy), I don't mind it.

As a professional I do mind it. Insofar as genealogy is a profession, it cannot grow the way it has  mostly grown: with every lone wolf taking his or her own tack with little regard for others. It has to grow incrementally, building on and revising and improving others' contributions. So I am disappointed that Anderson saw fit to publish his system, complete with its own concepts and methods, without any explanation of how they relate to the standards and methods that have been publicly available for more than a decade -- and that are the creation of a many skilled genealogists, not just one.

Having read the book, I know it offers deep thought and good counsel. Genealogy must include both these thoughts and the body of work surrounding the GPS, as well as a clear understanding of how they all fit together. And sooner or later it will.

[Full disclosure: Although I serve as a trustee of BCG, the above are my personal opinions only.]

Robert Charles Anderson, Elements of Genealogical Analysis: How to Maximize Your Research Using the Great Migration Study Project Method  (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2014).

Harold Henderson, "A great new book and a need for connection," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 8 December 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Geolover said...

So, was there no discussion of Anderson's work, methods and insights in the BCG milieu/publications?

Harold Henderson said...

Geo -- It would have been difficult to do so until very recently. BCG published the first standards book in 2000. Anderson published his book late in 2014. -- Harold

Geolover said...

Harold, one can discern his method in earlier published work. He would not have had his mouth duct-taped for decades while ensconced in a concrete bunker within a razor-wire fence, the reference material delivered by pneumatic tube.

The Cabots only spoke to the Lodges, and the Lodges only spoke to God.

Harold Henderson said...

Geo -- LOL -- well, this one didn't discern it in his earlier published work! It has never been systematically presented before. I'm very glad to have it; it is and will continue to be of value to the field. But it is, um, surprising for a scholarly publication to neither mention, acknowledge, discuss, build on, nor refute long-published prior work that is relevant. The work of doing so is now left to the rest of us in the interested community, and we may not understand the relationships between the two systems as well as Anderson does. But eventually we'll figure it out. -- Harold

Geolover said...

I guess "relevance" is in the eye of the beholder.

Anderson's clearly stated objective is to present his method and tools, not to compare-and-contrast various applications of the scientific research method to genealogy.

Harold Henderson said...

Geo, you are entitled to your opinion, and if it is your opinion that the Genealogy Standards on one hand and Elements of Genealogical Analysis on the other hand are irrelevant to each other, you are entitled to it.

But you are not entitled to your own facts. In Appendix B, Anderson's book does what you say it did not seek to do, and in doing so omits all mention of the standards.

Pretending that they don't exist is pointless and serves no one's cause. If anyone thinks the standards are (in whole or in part) misconceived or faulty or irrelevant for some reason(s), then bring those reasons forth. That is normal procedure in a profession where practitioners learn from one another and correct one another and build on one another's work.

Geolover said...


Anderson's approach in Appendix B is to outline three logical paradigms from which genealogical research and reasoning have drawn. He presented elements of limitations/drawbacks in each. He may have thought it redundant to explicate how his own present work or that of the BCG's Genealogy Standards reflect his views on those paradigms.

When James Tanner comments on applicability of aspects of the legal and "Scientific Method" paradigms to genealogical method, I have missed seeing your urging simultaneous analysis of the Genealogical Standards.

I suggest not speculating on my views: "if it is your opinion that the Genealogy Standards on one hand and Elements of Genealogical Analysis on the other hand are irrelevant to each other, you are entitled to it."

If you really think Anderson should have written a particular compare-and-contrast book or section, why don't you ask him why he did not do so?

Madaleine J. Laird said...

I've just begun to read Anderson's book, and so far I'm favorably impressed. His methods are both simple and sophisticated, and I would expect nothing less from a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists. It is interesting that Anderson has omitted any mention of the Genealogical Proof Standard. He is a genealogical scholar, and scholarly works (at least in humanities and social sciences fields) usually include a literature review, but this book apparently does not. And since the first two parts in the Problem Analysis step (the second step in Anderson's five-step Problem-Solving Sequence) are a literature search and analysis of previous conclusions, that makes me even more curious about his decision to omit a lit review.

I have to respectfully disagree with your "lone wolf" characterization, if indeed you had Anderson in mind when you used that term. He mentions quite a few of his FASG colleagues and NEHGS staff members by name in his Acknowledgments, so it seems to me that there were many skilled genealogists involved with bringing this book to life, so to speak.

I would love to see a panel discussion on genealogical standards as an evening event at an upcoming institute (IGHR, GRIP, SLIG, CSIG, NIGR). The three panelists could include a CG, a FASG, and a genealogist affiliated with both organizations. The moderator could be someone who is neither a CG nor a FASG, but a skilled genealogist with a PhD. The institutes seem like appropriate venues, especially given the FASG's position on blogs. How would one go about planning such an event and pitching it to someone who can make it happen?

Harold Henderson said...

Thanks, Madeleine. I agree with your first and second paragraphs (the reference was not to Anderson but I see now that it could be read that way) and have little expertise on the third.

SLIG is the only institute I know of that has anything even close to your suggested panel discussion, in the colloquium scheduled this year.

I had no idea that ASG had a position on blogs, or indeed that it took any cognizance whatsoever of them. Can you explain?

Madaleine J. Laird said...

I believe a statement was published in one of the 2010 issues of The Genealogist. I remember reading about it on the Slovak Yankee blog, but I think the post is one of many that has since been deleted. I also remember giving a photocopy the relevant page to a SLIG classmate who asked about it when I took Tom Jones's course in 2011, but it appears that I didn't keep a copy for myself.

Anyway, if I recall correctly, the statement had something to do with an issue discussed by the Fellows at ASG's annual meeting. If memory serves, the question was whether a person whose published works appeared exclusively in online media (such as blogs) and not in print could be eligible for membership. I believe the Fellows decided that only works published in print media would count.

One of my local libraries subscribes to The Genealogist, and I'd be happy to provide a quotation and citation after I locate the relevant page again.

Harold Henderson said...

Thanks, Madaleine. My run of TG starts in 2012. If your recollection is correct, I can see the point. As of now there are no peer-reviewed journals publishing on line, and I can't think offhand of any blogs that contain that kind of scholarly content. (I would love to be mistaken about this if anyone has a candidate!)

Geolover said...

Madaleine, your suggestion is a good one.

But need the venue be an Institute or conference?

What about a google Hangout-on-air? Pat Richley-Ericson ("DearMyrtle") and Russ Worthington have been running HOAs over the past year, and would be quite able to advise, if not create the forum itself. Pat, while not to my knowledge a PhD, is widely respected in the field as well as quite familiar with the run of methodological publications.

An independent forum would take some time to organize, albeit much easier to arrange in a context where willing participants would already have planned to be present.

Harold Henderson said...

An on-line live discussion is another possibility indeed. I may not be the only person whose system just does not interact well with Google Hangouts. It *might* be possible to set up something through APG, which has Go To Meeting and (I believe) Go To Webinar accounts.

Geolover said...

As an example of possibilities, Myrt's HOAs also feed live to her youtube account and non-panelist viewers can comment live on her Google Community site, where the HOA operators and panelists can view them and also comment themselves.

Folks can get pretty busy.

Madaleine J. Laird said...

Geolover, I appreciate your questions and your enthusiasm for the panel idea! The weeklong institutes are definitely my favorite venue, but suggesting that setting wasn't based entirely on my own preferences. I was also considering the possibility that scholarly panel members might be more likely to participate if they were in a more traditional venue. As for choosing a moderator with an advanced degree, I was thinking that if the discussion were led by an academic, that person would raise the level of diction. I also wondered if perhaps the panelists would be more likely to respond to questions from someone they considered a peer. Any or all of these assumptions could be flawed, of course, and I'm always open to new ideas.

I certainly have nothing against Google Hangouts On Air, especially since I participated in one as a panel member. They have their benefits as well as their drawbacks. Who knows, maybe there's a way to hold both a traditional panel discussion and an HOA at the same time.

I'm still not sure how to start planning such an event, but I guess I could start by talking to my local genealogical society's innovative and tech-savvy education chair. And Geolover, if you, Harold, or anyone else who's reading wants to plan a similar event, please feel free. Ideas are a dime a dozen and not subject to copyright, and at this point I don't know where, when, or if I'll be able to make this one happen. It's exciting to talk about, though. (Hope I'm not cluttering up your blog, Harold. This panel-in-progress took on a life of its own.)

Geolover said...

Madaleine, your considerations are quite reasonable. The reason that Pat immediately came to mind is that she has organized and led study groups on Tom Jones' book twice. Other outstanding personages also have done this, but might not be seen as quite so unbiased.

There is nothing like running a study group to get really familiar with ins and outs of something.

I have not seen information regarding study groups on Genealogical Standards, but I don't see everything.

Perhaps Harold would spearhead exploration of such an effort.

Madaleine J. Laird said...

Finally, one month later, I've finally tracked down that quote. It was not in The Genealogist as I'd originally thought, but in the April 2010 issue (Vol. 84, No. 2) of The American Genealogist, page 157: "The only qualifications for a Fellow are the quality and quantity of his or her published genealogical work, usually compiled genealogy, not abstracts or methodology. At the meeting this year, it was proposed that 'publications' include those online. The Society had decided quite a few years ago that digital/online publications did not qualify as permanent contributions to the field. At this year's meeting, much was said on both sides of the question: Online publication is becoming increasingly common and increasingly excellent, but it remains fluid and its permanence is uncertain."