Sunday, October 24, 2010

Genealogy Lesson 13 - Using Common Sense in Communication

Lately I have thought a lot about genealogy and email.  Not so much about how we use email in genealogy but instead what we do with email in genealogy.  I get email from people, all of the time, about various family lines that I am researching.  The big question is how do you process this type of correspondence?
I get tons of email from people whose research I do not trust.  I might look it over but it is probably going into the recycle bin.  They often present undocumented speculation or hearsay.  If someone tells me all about John and Jane Doe from 1693, I tend to downplay its accuracy quite a bit.  Records from that time period are very hard to come by and few families can be documented, with any certainty, that far back. 
Think about it, people back then remarried often so maiden names are almost impossible to find.  There were ten cousins named John or William or James, so trying to separate them is pretty much a joke.  Unless you find first-generation documents that have actual signatures or wax seals, you often cannot accurately tell one John from another.  I am being a little pessimistic but at the same time...I am being realistic.
Now do not get me wrong, there are a few people out there who can stand behind their work from the 1600s.  I know a couple of researchers that have scoured every available detail about a given family but they put thousands of hours into researching that one group.  Most people give a limited amount of time to tracing any one line.  It is therefore hard to consider yourself, or anyone else, an expert on a particular family or surname.
So back to the email connection...what do you do with an email that might have some potentially valuable information?  Whatever you do with it, do so right away.  If you do not process it immediately,  the email will probably get lost in your inbox, never to be seen again. 
Save a tree and do not print it out, no matter how worthy of a paper copy it may be!  Copy and paste the interesting parts into your family tree database and note who sent you the information.  It is important that you only create a note and DO NOT add the information to your actual tree.  Until you prove the information is reliable, only keep it in your notes!
I like Family Tree Maker, the way it has "tasks" that you can set up for future research.  If someone emailed me to say that John and Jane Doe married in 1693, I would copy the information into their notes section and then create such a task.  That task would remind me later to actually find the source of their marriage.  Only after finding the actual source would I consider adding it to my database.
You have to use common sense a lot in genealogy.  You need to realize that some people are good researchers and others are not-so-good!  A lot of people just suck up information like a sponge and regurgitate it around the web, fact or not.  You have to learn which people produce junk and which ones can be trusted.
Ally yourself with researchers that are as good or even better than you are, so that you can learn from them.  No one ever got smarter by hanging around people that are dumber than they are!  Challenge yourself and each other.  If someone is sending you undocumented information, call them on it.  Ask where they got the information.  If they have no answer, they have nothing!   Promptly give them the link to my website so they can take my lessons too!
Genealogy is a nit-picky beast, that is for certain.  You have to be prepared to challenge people and to be challenged by others.  Stay on your toes and be ready for anything.  There is no end-all-be-all manual or guide for genealogy.  You have to know something of value when you see it...on your own.  You also have to be able to weed out the junk.  By all means, share what you find with others but do not be the one who sends out recycle bin fodder! 
Be proud of your work and send out only your best, documented material.  Your ancestors would thank you for the accuracy.  I would be pretty mad if you tacked a bunch of kids under my name that did not belong to me!

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