Thursday, May 17, 2012

"If you can't say anything nice, then don't say anything at all." . . .

That's what everyone's grandmother said, and that's what prudent genealogists have taken to heart. Maybe too much.

Other academic disciplines thrive on controversy; most genealogists avoid it like the plague. We might even favor the plague! (And if you think genealogy isn't or shouldn't be academic, then compare other hobbyists: think about the endless arguments over baseball statistics.)

There are good reasons to go along with grandma, especially in a field with a never-ending influx of novices. It's just good sense to explain citations or military records or whatever in a friendly way, suggesting improvements rather than wielding a condemnatory red pencil. And at any given time, we might have to call on a colleague for advice or research help in a remote-to-us part of the world -- why risk being snubbed in your hour of need? (This is particularly an issue since there are relatively few "real jobs" in genealogy, defined as those that include health insurance or some simulacrum of a pension.) Besides, it's kind of nice to be in a situation where everyone pats you on the back whether you deserve it or not.

So when we come across a substandard book or article, a soporific lecture, an offensive blog post, or a genealogist disciplined for malfeasance such as plagiarism, we prefer to look the other way. That keeps things quiet and civil -- at least on the surface. But underneath, it's all whispers and innuendo, often with a wink and a nudge rather than even naming the supposedly offending individual, or the offense. Sometimes, worse yet, we sail along thinking we're doing fine because no one dares tell us that we're messing up. (Some friends and I set up a writing group a couple of years ago just to be able to receive and give substantive criticism. Now a few of us have been wondering where there could be a "lecture group" that would do the same.)

It's true that I come from an argumentative family, and an argumentative "other life" before genealogy. But is there no middle way? Can we critique the substance constructively and specifically in public, without getting into personalities, or devolving into the all-abuse-all-the-time mode of many political blogs' comment sections?

This all came to my mind when I saw that Rachal Mills Lennon had reviewed Harold E. Hinds Jr.'s recent book, Crafting a Personal Family History: A Guide Plus a Case Study of the Hinds Family in New York's Adirondack Mountains, in the April 2012 issue of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record. I subscribe to the magazine, have admired Lennon's articles and web site, and own a signed copy of the book, purchased last fall at the Minnesota Genealogical Society's North Star conference. So I was curious how the review would look.

Guess what? It's critical. It's substantive. She takes issue with many particular items in the book -- nothing personal. It's an aspect of genealogy that I haven't seen enough of. What do you think?

Harold E. Hinds, Jr., Crafting a Personal Family History: A Guide Plus a Case Study of the Hinds Family in New York's Adirondack Mountains (Elizabethtown NY: Essex County Historical Society, 2011).

Rachal Mills Lennon, review of Crafting a Personal Family History, in New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Vol. 143, no. 2 (April 2012):155.

Harold Henderson, "'If you can't say anything nice...,'" Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 17 May 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Unknown said...

I commented over of Facebook. You've given me some good food for thought here.

Polly F. Kimmitt said...

Harold, I noticed that and was a bit surprised, but also glad to see a frank review. I'm not one to welcome argument for argument's sake, but I get so annoyed when I read a glowing book review and then find the book lacking. Hasn't happened often, but when it does it's a waste of money having bought the book!