Sunday, 30 November 2014

Standing at a crossroad...

I feel like I am standing at a crossroad, choosing which path to take. I can continue with my family tree rebuild the way I have been or I can stop (yet again) and study up on proper source citation, the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) and other such weighty matters. It would be easy to just keep going on my merry way, but I now realise that I have been somewhat lax in recording the proper source citation details for much of the detail in my tree.

Way back when I was in university, I only ever had to write one "serious" essay for an economics course. None of the other courses I studied required essays, and as such I never really had to learn how to cite sources properly. In fact, the one essay I did write (which I got a B for - yay me!) only had a small handful of sources and the lecturer was more interested in our reasoning and justification for the stance we took on the topic than in the citation style. At the time I thought I had dodged a bullet by avoiding essays, but now I'm not so sure...

I guess now that I am revisiting my family tree I might as well do it right this time. (Why am I always creating so much extra work for myself?!) Of course this introduces a couple of new problems into the mix - not only will I have to (finally) learn how to cite sources correctly, but the software I have been using to date (MacFamilyTree) appears to be somewhat deficient in its source handling. Oh yeah, then there's the genealogy tool I have been writing - that will need some serious rework to correctly handle citations and while I'm doing that, I might as well try to factor in the GPS.

I like the idea of the GPS and understand the need to proper source citations. I could just keep going and pay attention to citations and GPS from now, but part of me is screaming that that just wouldn't do. If I'm going to do something, I might as well do it right.

So I guess my to-do list looks something like this:

  • Learn proper source citation techniques for genealogical sources
  • Work out how to use and apply the GPS to my research
  • Find a better genealogy package that has robust source support
  • Re-engineer my genealogy tool

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Some semi-random musings on evidence-based vs conclusion-based genealogy...

So I guess I am now taking a bit of a "study break" while I (try to) learn a bit more about genealogical standards and best practices, specifically "evidence-based genealogy". My early forays into this field have been quite interesting.

Apparently there seems to be two main approach with genealogy, known as Evidence-based genealogy and Conclusion-based genealogy. Most well-known genealogical software is conclusion-based - users enter facts/events with associated sources proving these "conclusions" and usually only one fact exists for each event in the person's life. For example, a person in a genealogy database will (usually) only have one birth date listed and sources supporting this date will be referenced. If conflicting evidence should arise, the date for the event might be adjusted, and sources added/removed, but the working premise is that there is "one true date" (or date range) for the date of birth and that is that.

Evidence-based genealogy takes a different approach. An evidence-based genealogists will locate as many sources for an event and will list conflicting versions separately. So a person might have several different birth dates - one sourced from a parish register, one (or more) from census data, one from a death certificate, and so on. Studying the various sources and their assertions, one date might be favoured over the others and labelled as a preferred date, but the other dates are all recorded for that person. Of course the preferred date isn't just plucked out randomly, it must be supported by the evidence and a well-reasoned argument is used to support this claim. While it is possible to use "traditional" genealogy software to record these extra dates, they can be a bit cumbersome when used this way.

As a side note: Maybe my understanding of these terms is flawed, but I don't think they have been appropriately named. To my way of thinking, the monikers "Evidence-based" and "Conclusion-based" should be referring to the same thing - using various pieces of evidence to form a reasoned conclusion. I personally don't like the name "Conclusion-based genealogy" - it just doesn't seem to fit, but I will continue to use it until a better name comes up.

My approach to date has been a mishmash of these two methodologies. I have been searching for all the sources I can lay my hands on and attaching them to the relevant events for the people in my family tree. Where sources contradict one another, I have tried my best to understand, explain and resolve these conflicts and have included notes explaining my conclusions. But I have felt constrained by the software I have used, or to put it another way, coerced into a certain way of thinking which just doesn't feel right.

One of my issues with "conclusion-based" software is what happens when you discover a source (or group of sources) relates to a different person. I have encountered this many times and it has been a pain to correct in every genealogy tool I have used to date.

All traditional genealogy packages are (in my mind at least) too closely coupled to the GEDCOM standard. Now I am all for standards - they help make interoperability easier and can allow for easy data migration from one tool to another - but GEDCOM is nearly 20 years old and hasn't adapted to well over the years. GEDCOM is based around the concepts of Person, Event, and Source. There is also very rudimentary support for the concept of a Location and a Family, which is a collection or Persons, comprising of two parents and zero or more children. Basically it boils a family tree down to Persons, Events and Sources and that is how most genealogy programs are structured.

I have used and evaluated a number of different genealogy programs and just about every program starts with a person, to which you attach a series of events (both, baptism, death, etc) and for each event you attach one or more sources. The way these programs are designed, it encourages the user to start with a person and create events for that person and then attach sources to the events. I find this to be somewhat backwards. I start with a person and an event such as their date of birth for sure, then I locate sources, but the sources really drive the process for me. I locate all the relevant sources and try to extract as much information as I can from them. A birth certificate for example relates to more than a single person - you will also have the parents listed on the birth certificate and possibly other siblings will be named too. You are also likely to get an address or location for the family's residence along with the occupations of one or both parents and possibly even ages for the parents and siblings. So one source can provide details of multiple events for multiple people. And that to me seems to be the key difference between the two genealogical approaches.

I have only just now realised that better terms to use would be "Source-based genealogy" and "Person-based genealogy"? The "Evidence-based" people start with sources, extract a number of events (or facts or assertions - whatever you want to call them), then collate the events into a person. Meanwhile the "Conclusion-based" people start with a person, then create events and then locate and add sources to affirm those events. Rightly or wrongly I am going to use "Source-based" and "Person-based" from now on.

So most traditional software is "Person-based" where my natural instinct has been to operate in a "Source-based" manner. This is why I started to create my own tools some time back where I could start with the sources, extract the facts and then collate the facts to find my people. An interesting thing happened while I was researching the "Evidence-based vs Conclusion-based" argument - I discovered a small number of tools that have been designed to operate in an "Evidence-based" (or as I now think it should be called, "Source-based") manner. Had I realised these tools existed I probably wouldn't have started creating my own. However I have started on my own tools and will continue, but with a slight change of focus informed by my current research into these methodologies.

Note: Part of this diversion into "Evidence-based" vs "Conclusion-based" genealogy was triggered by a series of blog posts, starting with “Evidence-based” and “Conclusion-based” software use by Michael Hait on his Planting the Seeds blog.

Monday, 24 November 2014

I got some learnin' to do...

So I am now on a mission to learn as much as I can about evidence-based genealogy, the Genealogical Proof Standard and the proper citation of sources. I should probably start with citation...

Much of what I have done to date has been guided by what feels right. The more I think about where I am and how I got here, the more I realise that I need some rigour in my research efforts. While I have endeavoured to locate as many sources for each person and event in my tree, I haven't always been so thorough in documenting where those sources came from. I realise now that citation is more important than I had first thought, so that should be my first step on the path to my edumacation. Properly documenting where the source material came from using whatever citation standard the genealogical world uses should become a priority for me. Once I get that sorted, I can start to dig into the GPS and evidence-based genealogy.

So, does anyone have any good resources for source citation?

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Am I researching a family tree, a family history or am I doing genealogy?

The past several weeks I have been giving some serious thought o just what it is I am doing. Am I researching a family tree, a family history or am I starting to do some serious genealogy? Of course the three subjects are not mutually exclusive, but what is my real focus here?

Am I just collecting names and dates to put into a family tree? I don't think so - I am definitely doing too much work if that was my real aim. I have been digging into other sources to "flesh out" my family tree - newspapers, court records, books, family anecdotes and so on - which makes me think I am edging towards more of a family history than a simple family tree.

Looking closely at what I have been doing, I realise that I am leaning towards more rigorous genealogical research however. I have been digging through as many sources as possible to verify the facts I add to my tree and doing my best to satisfy myself that the information I gather is as accurate as possible. I am not happy simply accepting the names, dates and places that other people have placed in their family trees and have been seeking source material to confirm their conclusions. It appears that I may have stumbled on to something called "evidence based genealogy".

I like the stories I have been finding about the relatives in my tree. I recently had an article published in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine about one such story - that of Amos Bannister, a wheelwright in Stretford, who was crushed by a wagon. Several other Bannister family trees attributed this story to a direct-line ancestor, but I wasn't satisfied so I dug around until I found enough sources to be able to rule out this ancestor. It wasn't easy, but it was a very satisfying experience digging through old newspapers and other sources looking for clues. Showing some relatives the article and telling them the story was certainly rewarding and I have been encouraged to write more of these stories. This is something I would like to do, but there is part of me that insists that I get all the facts right before I share my stories with anyone.

Browsing some genealogy sites recently I have been learning about evidence based genealogy and the Genealogical Proof Standard. Do I want to go this far in my research? Is this something I might already be doing in my own ham-fisted way? I think this is something I need to spend some more time contemplating...