The three-legged horse

Thanks to everyone who joined in the discussion after my last post and suggested future topics. I should have plenty of inspiration, but please feel free to add new ideas at any time.

Overwhelmingly, everyone wants some kind of aid – a master list, a database – that will provide a one-stop source for researchers to assess bad resources, false claims, mistaken identities, and anything else that is not right about genealogy.

If you watch the TV show Wisdom of the Crowd, you know that those fictional computer geniuses have a program called Sophie, which has been developed to gather information submitted from millions of people, filter out skewed or prejudicial input, and then take an average of the rest to find the killer.

The Internet, of course, is already a “crowd source” for genealogy, but it is raw, unfiltered input. The reality is that all books have errors (since they are created by human beings), which applies to articles, Internet trees, and beyond. Trying to list all these errors is not feasible, but even trying to narrow the list requires some method of “grading” work for the number and/or types of errors. No book is all bad, no book is perfect.

The Internet, of course, is already a “crowd source” for genealogy, but it is raw, unfiltered input.

So at least until Sophie becomes a genealogist, we all have to learn to judge for ourselves. “Buyer beware” is often used regarding buying a race horse. One (or one’s advisor) needs to fully understand horse physiology, pedigree, veterinary needs, costs of maintenance and training, return on investment ratios, racing industry prognostications, and much, much more. There is no list of good and bad horses to buy.

It takes a lifetime to accrue this kind of knowledge, and for most people researching their families such immersion in detail is way too much forest for the trees. Yet there is no simple answer to “Where do I find a list of bad/good genealogies, disproved lineages, fraudulent work?” So I suppose the question is more like “How do I help you to become better informed buyers, so that you don’t end up with a three-legged horse?”

Let me start by giving you a homework assignment. Please read the following (thanks Howard for the suggestion): Harry Macy Jr.’s “Recognizing Scholarly Genealogy and Its Importance To Genealogists and Historians.” It is a bit out of date, but still a good foundation for future discussions.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

17 thoughts on “The three-legged horse

  1. Tried and tried to enter as guest but went in circles. It would be nice if the basic information on the book including Dewey decimal number was given for non-members.

    1. Howland, as Ann notes the link goes to the Register article. I think the guest membership should work, so I will see if I can find a tech to help.

      The research service will provide a copy of the article, which is 20 pages long, for a fee for members, and of course, the full run of the Register is available online to members. Without sounding too dollar grubbing, why are you a reader of Vita-Brevis but not a member of NEHGS? We are offering some nice Christmas bundles!

      1. It would have been nice to be told that the link was for members only. And, re a previous comment from you, I should be a member. I have day passes twice in 2010 & 2011. My ancestors weRe on the Mayflower (guess who) and the Isles of Shoals in the mid-1600s.

        1. Howland, apologies, I did not think about someone reading the blog who might not be a member. Yes you should be one, especially with so much new material being added to the databases. It is mind boggling at times.

  2. Howland, Alicia’s reference is to a journal article from the “New England Historical and Genealogical Register,” Volume 150, January 1996, Whole Number 597, pages 7-28. Possibly your local library has a subscription to the journal and you can read it there. This also brings up a question. Since this is a NEHGS publication and you own the copyright, can your library provide a copy of the article for a fee?

    Alicia, forgive me for jumping in but I saw the posting above and thought the information might be helpful. Let me add a thank you for this and any other information you can supply about credibility pertaining to genealogical information. Your comments/blogs are always very much appreciated.

  3. A source that I have found helpful is the article by Robert Charles Anderson “What Makes A Good Compiled Genealogy?,” The Great Migration Newsletter, vol.11, pp.25-32 (Oct.-Dec. 2002 issue).

  4. The Harry J. Macy Jr., article [NEHGR 150:7-28] that you gave us for homework, is definitely worth reading. Of the several items he discusses, on page 20-21 are the Indexes to various Journals. But I do not live near a large genealogical library, so I need to figure out how to access these multiple volumes. I would appreciate any tips for this.

    This brings up another problem for finding the most recent published information. Lets say you are a member of one of the organizations that publish journals such as “The Maine Genealogist” or “The American Genealogist” or “The Register”, for example. You may have only joined a year or so ago, and do not have access to any issues prior to that date. The list of articles in these journals are typically cleverly worded titles, but you have no clue as to what is in them if you wanted to order back issues, if available. The Register, of course is unique, in that all the issues are digitally available from NEHGS.

    Another idea for those of us who have on-line trees, is to be good genealogists and include detailed sources for them. Not short hand, but enough detail that anyone reading could find the exact reference. And, if there is new and well sourced data, then this is a way to share it since the wished-for Master List for sources old/new/bad etc., does not exist.

    1. Carole, a lot of new material is now available online that supersedes the indexes Harry was talking about, or are online themselves. Americanancestors has all but the most recent years of TAG, Mayflower Descendant, New York Biographical Record, etc. National Genealogical Society has all of its back issues online for members, for example. I will definitely be putting lists of these kinds of sources together.

  5. After a decade, I’ve gotten beyond rank amateur to more effective amateur. I used to glom onto trees, but soon saw that the genealogists’ greatest defect is Wishful Thinking. It takes a lot of work in the trenches to weed out the “hopeful info.” Needless to say, I’ve lopped off many branches. NEHGS is a treasure of sleuthing information. Thank You.

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