Those Genealogy Police are at it again!

Yesterday I received a horrible email from the Genealogy Police(tm).

Can you believe that they told me that I should use death certificates in my research? I don’t want to use death certificates! They are so gloomy. Genealogy is supposed to be fun!

And they said that court records would be a good source of information about my ancestors. If my ancestor was a criminal or was sued, well, I just don’t want to know about that.

The way that I do genealogy is perfectly fine. It makes for a great hobby! I can trace my family tree all the way back to Moses through Charlemagne, King Henry VIII, and I’m third cousins with Brad Pitt. (That explains my good looks.)

I don’t cite my sources for any of this because the “genealogy police” actually think that a citation should provide detail about my sources to an extent that would allow me or someone else to actually know what we had looked at. If I can’t do it their way, then I just won’t do it at all!

Besides, I’m just doing this for my kids anyway. I’m not a professional, and all I care about are the stories.

Now that I got all of that out of the way…

Obviously all of the above was written with tongue firmly in cheek. And I am sure that I have ticked a few people off. I apologize to all who are offended. But I felt that this was the only way to make my point.

Over the past two or three years I have read several blog posts that–believe it or not–are very similar to what I wrote above. These posts of course do not complain about someone telling them to use death certificates or court records (or any other record group). They complain that someone emailed them about a lack of documentation or faulty analysis or some other “standards” issue. Why is it that what I wrote above seems so over-the-top ridiculous, but these other posts get dozens of “likes” on Facebook and “attaboy” and “attagirl” comments? There is no difference.

When genealogists write about the need for standards in genealogy—yes, even for non-professionals—they are usually doing so to try to help.

Meeting standards does not suck the fun out of genealogy.

Meeting standards in your research—even if no one other than yourself ever knows it—increases your own personal confidence in the accuracy of your research. Whether you are in it as a professional or in it just for yourself (or your kids), you should care about the accuracy of your research. Do you want to research your family tree or someone else’s? Do you want to honor your ancestors or someone else’s?

Meeting standards in your research makes you a better researcher. The standards were written by professionals with decades of experience—those whose research skills have been repeatedly demonstrated and found to excel. Becoming a better researcher, in my opinion, makes genealogy even more fun. It opens doors. It breaks down brick walls. Becoming a better researcher allows you to identify with confidence far more ancestors than otherwise. These “new” ancestors all have their own lives and stories. If you love the stories (and who doesn’t), then more ancestors = more fun!

So who are the Genealogy Police anyway?

I’ve never seen them. I have been “doing genealogy” online since I was twenty years old. You can still find some of those old posts I wrote in 1997 or 1998 online. They don’t meet standards. I didn’t know there were standards. They don’t cite sources (though I sure wish they did so I could find some of that information now).

Despite all this, I have never been visited by the Genealogy Police. Never once have I been shot down by some genealogist with a pompous attitude telling me I was doing it wrong.

I have, on the other hand, received messages over the years from genealogists who helped me become the researcher I am today. They taught me about examining sources. They taught me about indirect evidence. They even taught me about citing sources.

But this may come down to perception. I wanted to learn. So I did not take criticism as negative, I took it constructively. I recognized my weaknesses and my mistakes, and I made the attempt to correct them.

I won’t say that there may not be some overzealous genealogists out there who attack people (always privately) about a comma or a semicolon or a faulty record or a disproven connection. They may exist. Luckily they have never emailed me.

So the next time the Genealogy Police visit you, please ask yourself: is this genealogist really attacking me, or are they trying to help?

25 thoughts on “Those Genealogy Police are at it again!

  1. Funny and serious in one fell swoop! But I’ll argue that the punctuation police *don’t* always rap their billy-clubs in private. There’s a lengthy review of EVIDENCE! at that takes E! to task for using semicolons amid complex citations and declares, “It is this type of practice that still bars historians from accepting genealogists into their realm of study.” Oh, my. Who’d have dreamed that the collision of two worlds happens on that little dot right above a comma!

  2. Excellent post. I think we need to keep beating the drum on why sourcing and standards are important.

    I’ve done a couple of livestream presentations on on sourcing (and I’m no expert) and have been thrilled that there have been a good number of people who want to learn how to do it and understand why it is important. I was thrilled!

    I do suspect that for every person out there who doesn’t care, there are those who are more than willing to get their feet wet and try to follow standards. I think for a lot of people they simply don’t know where to start or if they are doing it right, and let’s face it, reading standards seems overwhelming. Good examples, and encouraging thoughts such as this blog post make it all seem doable.

    I’m thinking about doing some livestream presentations on how to prove a fact or relationship. Maybe by starting with simple examples I can encourage a few to try it with their own work.

    Sorry, if I was on my soapbox. 🙂 Love your blog.

  3. Amen and Hallelujah, Michael. While it’s difficult to take criticism under the best of circumstances, most of those who have “corrected” me have done so in a friendly, encouraging, and helpful manner. If it wasn’t for my fellow genealogists, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

    • People can read anything they want into online communications. There simply is no way to communicate good intentions online the way a smile and a soft voice can in person. Then suddenly what was intended as advice on the part of the sender turns into an attack from the perspective of the recipient.

      • So true, Michael. BCG some years ago had a brochure that went back to applicants when they received their evaluations. Its title–a long quote–really captured the dynamic involved: “I brushed them with a feather and they staggered as if hit by the force of bricks.” When suggestions are offered, no matter how hard someone tries to be courteous as well as helpful, the potential is great for being perceived as the “police”–especially if those involved are not having face-to-face communication.

  4. Missionaries preaching “universal” truths often maintain they have the purest and most generous of motives. The issue becomes how those on the receiving end of their words perceive the message. I admit to a short fuse when I explain to those knocking on my door that I choose not to discuss my faith or religion. If they say thank you and leave, we each go on with our days. But if they attempt to extend the conversation, my response can descend to a rant very quickly.

    Certainly anyone who has posted their family history or genealogy research online has implied a willingness to communicate on the topic. Even so, those who inquire about the research would be well advised to do so with restraint and courtesy. Polite questions about sources and the scope of research are perfectly reasonable. Unsolicited critiques or snarky comments are not. Those of us who follow these issues on social media are interested in the discussion. I relish the opportunity to see how the pros work. But it does not follow that I am interested in blanket statements or sermons about how I ought to be working.

    Tone matters, Michael. You are blessed with a curious mind. You have picked the brains of some of the best in the business. Your desire to share the knowledge you’ve acquired is generous. Even so, if you’ve annoyed me by your tone, your motives are irrelevant. Fortunately, I am remarkably thick-skinned and always assume people are speaking from their own perspective. I will admit, however, to a momentary blood pressure spike when it seems others are unwilling to concede there are different perspectives.

  5. I’ve always said it’s all just a big Fish Story unless you have sources that are properly cited…

    People get that. Because people mostly like & respect fish. And their stories.

  6. “attaboy”, I do like yr blog and feel we need to keep this in mind and
    “But this may come down to perception. I wanted to learn. So I did not take criticism as negative, I took it constructively. I recognized my weaknesses and my mistakes, and I made the attempt to correct them”. – it can make us better and stronger!

  7. I’d like to make a distinction between genealogy professionals and genealogy police. It seems people are lumping them into the same category. And also mostly assuming policing has to do with source citations.

    My own experience with the genealogy police involved a long unknown-to-be-faulty source document that was perfectly cited.

    The way I see it, the difference between professionals and police is one of attitude. I like learning. I don’t like being beaten across the head and bullied about crimes I did not commit. (Worst case meaning of ‘police’.)

    Someone also noted a ‘the recent rash of posts about the genealogy police’. I haven’t seen any outside of G+ and am curious to know where they are. All I’ve seen is an increase in traffic to a post I wrote a year and a half ago after a particularly nasty experience by email. And yes, I’m perfectly capable of knowing the difference between a conversation and a beating.

  8. Cite your sources if you believe you must but PLEASE consider who will read those citations.

    Let’s be honest unless you are an expert in reading source citations and familiar with all the many styles then source citations can be just added confusion.

    5684. ID 57; pp1; V1, Andersen et al, Jones B means what?
    Nothing as it happens but it is not unlike many citations I have seen that truly mean nothing to me.
    I recall one citation I found I searched the internet to learn what each abbreviation meant taking an additional hour of my time.

    Abbreviations like NARA mean nothing if you don’t know what it stands for so are truly unhelpful even if academically correct.

    So please consider before you limit yourself to citations written in academic shorthand for that is what they are to many folk, gibberish they can’t make head nor tail of and no use to them at all.

    • Suzanne, you make an extremely important point, but it’s one I don’t see as being “academic.” I’d argue that it’s being lazy. 🙂 It’s also a point that EVIDENCE EXPLAINS emphasizes throughout Chapter 2’s “Fundamentals of Citation,” starting with EE 2.45:

      “Reducing source citations to acronyms & initialisms: … saves space but creates confusion. Few readers can–or care to–retain a mental directory of KVR, QVRPX, LCTV, BWPC, LSNI, PMXE, and a dozen other mixtures of alphabet soup.”

      EE users also see a lot of other cautions, throughout all the chapters, about “cryptic citations” that are meaningless to those who aren’t already experts in some region or some set of records.

      On the other hand, some journals and magazines in every field, academic or not, heavily use “shorthand.” Their readers then follow that example.

      Source citations, for all the bad raps they get, have two purposes. The one we usually hear is “so others will know where we got our information.” The more important one is this: We identify the source of a piece of information so that we and others will *understand* the source well enough to make a judgment as to the quality of the information taken from it.

      As you point out, so-called citations of the ilk you give (5684. ID 57; pp1; V1, Andersen et al, Jones B) are not understood by most of their readers. Therefore, they fail the most-important reason for their existence.

  9. Seems to me that the reasons why people don’t take advice fall into 2 basic areas:
    – the tone of the advice is wrong;
    – “What’s in it for me?”

    Advice that is simply negative (e.g. what not to do) and doesn’t actually tell people what to do instead, can fail both in tone and in not showing the reader what’s in it for them.

    Why should people provide citations when they only expect their own family to read their stuff? How about saying, “Provide citations so that you can remember how you reached your conclusions?” I had a prime example of this the other day: I’ve always been unclear about my great-uncle’s career and had speculated that he worked as a druggist before he did medical training. When I found a fact in my database that he definitely was a druggist, I nearly altered it to say “may have been…” Fortunately I checked my source for the fact and realised that the occupation was as certain as anything can be, as it came from his marriage certificate – I’d just completely forgotten I’d seen the certificate and had “proved” the earlier occupation.

    Another aspect is that I think people are justifiably sceptical about some of the “advice” they are given and so every bit of advice gets tarred with the same brush. Advice like: “You should always get multiple proofs of one fact”. That’s sheer nonsense. Apart from the fact that it misses that the proofs need to be independent, it simply isn’t always practical. Here the Genealogical Proof Standard gets it right by talking about a “Reasonably exhaustive search” – i.e. what’s practical.

    And I can’t leave this without saying that, from this side of the Atlantic, Americans do seem to go on about citation formats. You’ve even got a huge book containing nothing other than lists of citation formats – no, only joking there, Michael – I’ve read parts of Evidence Explained and your earlier posts and know there’s a lot more in there. But what are the bits that usually get alluded to? The simple truth is that most normal people simply don’t get the decision (e.g.) between putting something in italics or in quotes. So far as I understand it, if it’s in italics, then it means that’s been published. Err – so why can’t you just say “Published: xxx”? These arcane practices are there to save space in printed books, not to make things clear to non-specialists. Maybe it’s time to bring down this barrier and review those formats to make them more obvious and easy to create: how about a non-Chicago based format that labels things with “Title:” “Chapter:”, etc?

    Adrian B

  10. One problem is that most genealogists starting out have never even seen what good genealogical research looks like, due mostly to the proliferation of “quick and easy” online family trees. In your experience, once people have been introduced to solid research (and take the time to understand it) are they content with anything less?

  11. Great post. I think it is oh so important that new and up coming genelogists learn how important it is to source your work, and I don’t mean sorcing another tree as you work. But as to punctuations……… I call them gramer police. I’m not in the hobby of liturature, so I don’t take to heart any critisism along those lines. On the other hand those that have taught me what I need to know about what records I may be missing in my research that may break down my wall, I have never seen as critisism only as help from a very generous sole. I think you are so right when you say it is all perception. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Great post, Michael! I am trying to go back and cite sources now. Is there a cheat sheet as to how to cite sources? Like how do I cite a Birth Certificate? And how do I cite a phone conversation? I keep looking for a reference document.

    • There are a number of works by Elizabeth Shown Mills that I would recommend. The ultimate reference guide is her book Evidence Explained, an 885-page guide to citing nearly every kind of source. You can purchase an e-book version of this in the Bookstore at her website Ms. Mills has also published several 4-page laminated QuickGuides for specific record types, available on this site as well.

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