The Genealogy Police

by JL Beeken on 2-16-2011

I had a visit from the Genealogy Police this week. I’d heard of the Genealogy Police but I’d never met them, or even one, so I thought they might be just a figment of someone’s worst nightmare. But, now it’s clear they do exist.

And if she’d had her way I would have been shot, hung and quartered. Then burned at the stake and my ashes ground into dirt. And then I would have been flung into the far reaches of Hell. And, if there’s anything I left out that would insure my total annihilation, feel free to add it to the list. I’m sure she’d be pleased.

Alright.

Here are My Genealogy Rules & Regulations: There aren’t any.

I’m not a Mormon, or any other kind of Christian, so I’m not under relentless pressure to adhere to the belief that dead people (or living ones for that matter) need to have their heads dipped in water for salvation of their souls. In these ecologically-sensitive times it seems like a waste of water to me. Some people (I’m betting on a majority here) don’t want to live with their families in Heaven forever. They can hardly stand living with them on Earth for 60 or 80 years. And then there’s the whole question of what constitutes a family don’t-even-get-me-started.

So, that means I’m beholden to absolutely no-one (or God) for my interest in dead people. I could just as well be collecting baseball cards.

Apparently, these are The Genealogy Regulations that I had been oblivious to:

1. Genealogy is not like the rest of the Internet.

2. If you post something online it has to be Proven Fact. Otherwise, don’t post it.

3. If you do post it, you are required by Genealogy Law to post a disclaimer stating that there may be errors contained therein.

4. If you post incorrect information without a disclaimer, and get caught, you are obligated to flagellate yourself to death because you have now committed the most heinous of sins for which there is no forgiveness, may your soul writhe in Hell, your life is OVER.

Oh, dear.

OK, here it is:

Warning! You have landed on a genealogy website where you may find information about dead people. Just in case this is your first day on the Internet and/or it hasn’t crossed your mind yet, the information herein could contain errors. Some of the people named have been dead for hundreds of years … how accurate do you think I can be?

This is not a professional treatise. I write my sources how I damn well please. I even have un-sourced data from my early days and that’s just tough. If I source data from a book written 100 years ago and it turns out to be incorrect … oh, well … sh*t happens.

Sometimes I post errors on purpose to see if you’re paying attention. Or maybe I don’t. You’ll never know for sure.

Genealogy is exactly like the rest of the Internet. It’s written by human-beings of varying skill levels prone to all the vagaries of humankind. If you find any errors, you are not welcome to send email beating me across the head about them. You may, on the other hand, approach with kindly interest and attempt to engage me in mutually-beneficial conversation.

There you go, self-righteous psychopaths.

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Ken Spangler 2-16-2011 at 10:40 PM

I love this!!!! I am amazed at how some folks want to tell everyone else how to do this! To me genealogy is almost as personal as religion! I’m researching my family and don’t want to be bound to a set of rules decided upon by “who?”!
Thanks for the good read!

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JL 2-16-2011 at 11:32 PM

Well, you know, to some genealogy is religion. You can think you’re enjoying your private moments but the next thing you know you’re up to your butt in Holy Quicksand. And those perched On High will be glad to tell you what that means.

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TheQ47 2-17-2011 at 7:29 AM

That’s brilliant!

I’ve taken a step back from my family-tree research for a while, but (like you) I use Legacy. I’m also on the Legacy User Group, which at times is very helpful. But Jeez, some people on there seem to want to bully everyone into using their particular standard for sourcing, in fact I’d go as far as to say that to some sourcing IS religion. This is part of what’s put me off further research, because I feel my sources are not “up-to-scratch”.

It’s good to hear that there are others out there who feel, like me, “you know what, it’s not THAT important, I’ll try to get it right, but if it’s wrong, pffff!”

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JL 2-17-2011 at 12:11 PM

My ‘sin’ was not non-standard source formatting (although, I bet I’m guilty of that too) but a link to an unproven line. Undoubtedly, one of thousands of people who also believed a particular descendancy due to a common (possibly) faulty source document. The problem with that is that if people only posted what they know ‘absolutely for sure’ there would be virtually nothing online. In many cases, we’re only looking at relative degrees of certainty; certainty not being the best choice of words. We depend on each other for correction and alternative opinion and that part’s fine. I expect it; I even welcome it. Being taken to the gallows in the process is unnecessary.

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Yvonne 2-21-2011 at 2:50 PM

I’m Mormon, and I sin, but I LOVE THIS POST!!!!

Welcome to genealogy HELL (with me) :)

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JL 2-21-2011 at 3:15 PM

Well, that’s encouraging. A Mormon who’s willing to sin on my behalf. By the way, the police was not Mormon, so there was nothing intended against y’all by saying what I said except to say that I don’t have related religious beliefs urging me onward.

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Yvonne 2-21-2011 at 3:29 PM

JL, naaahhh, I didn’t think you were being nasty at all. I laughed and thought to myself, “Gosh, he got a visit, too!” They must be making the rounds of late.

I totally ‘get’ where you’re coming from…boy do I!!?!!?

lester larrabee 2-17-2011 at 9:30 AM

Well if any one saw how I enter my sources I’d be shot. But I’m only trying to write for my grand kids and myself, so what you see is all there is. When I find a tidbit to fill in the DASH between the dates is when I am most pleased.

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JL 2-17-2011 at 12:48 PM

As more genealogy comes online, there’s bound to be conflict between the hobbyists and the Old World purists. This is no longer limited to a parlor game for the elite. There’s a chance we could meet in the middle if we don’t kill each other first.

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Liz 2-18-2011 at 9:19 AM

Right on! As long as I can tell where I got the information, does it really matter that it’s not in the “perfect” form? And, like you, I have many unsourced “facts” from my early days of not knowing any better. You know what? That has only bitten ME in the butt thus far! I’m not writing a book, so my source citations are good enough for me and my family. Many times, having unproven items in my tree has helped lead me to someone or something that proves/disproves my “fact.” I agree if we only shared what we absolutely know for certain, there would be very little information out there.

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Geoff Coupe 2-19-2011 at 4:15 AM

Tee-hee! Absolutely right, JL! Your comment about the possibility of deliberate errors reminds me of the little book “How to Lie with Maps”, by Mark Monmonier, which points out the delightful practice of cartographers introducing deliberate errors into their maps, just to see if anyone else would plagarise them.

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Rodokmen 2-20-2011 at 8:30 AM

Great:) I like your The Genealogy Regulations. I agree with you. In every story of my ancestors i use a disclaimer that there may be errors. Its big difference if i wrote “it was so” or “it could be so”.

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Yvonne 2-21-2011 at 2:58 PM

PS: Can I use your warning?

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JL 2-21-2011 at 3:16 PM

Sure, with a link to the author. Or something.

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Yvonne 2-21-2011 at 3:39 PM

Posted and linked. Thanks, JL!

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Heather 2-21-2011 at 7:52 PM

Hilarious. I have yet to have a visit from The Police, the genealogists not the band, but can’t wait. Seriously? Since when has a hobby become something to get mad at someone over? And why would you dictate to someone else how to enjoy their free time? I’ll do my own thing, thank you very much, and if someone chooses to accept my work without doing their own investigation then they are fools…not me. Congrats on your tirade…I very much enjoyed it!

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Bobbie Snow 2-22-2011 at 6:23 AM

If anyone, heaven forbid, has a source that is not formatted properly or even — gasp! — lacks some information…. take it to a librarian. He or she can help you figure it out.

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footnoteMaven 2-22-2011 at 10:18 AM

Yes, I’ve been visited and it was remarked that with a name like mine how could there be no footnotes on my blog. I explained that I do this for fun. I have told many unproven “tales” about my ancestors because they’re good stories and I love the stories. Sometimes those unproven “tales” tell more about a family than the truth.

Yes, I know how to cite, and I won’t apologize for that; but there is no Citation Police. If you ask me how to cite something I’ll be glad to help, but I’m having far too much fun with my family and old photos to roam the blogosphere policing others.

When this stops being fun, I stop blogging.

-fM

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Harold 2-22-2011 at 10:22 AM

Would it be possible for you to post what was actually said to you, and what it was referring to? Feel free to take it off the comments — I’m at xxxxx. I would like to learn something from this episode, even though I am someone who thinks accurate genealogy is better than inaccurate, and that transparency about one’s own degree of accuracy is better than simple assertion. (Simple assertion without sourcing is actually the old-fashioned way, how most 19th-century genealogies did it.)

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JL 2-22-2011 at 1:02 PM

No, I’m not willing to post it. It was a personal conversation. I’ve said what I’m going to say about it. In case you missed it, the point is a general one about attitude.

I dare think that ‘everyone’ would prefer accurate genealogy to inaccurate, but there’s a thing called being realistic. I’ve come across oodles of incorrectly indexed records and other dubious offerings so there’s a degree of comparing results and filtering that takes place.

For instance, I have an old family diary that says George Washington “offered his hand in marriage” to my 5th great-grandmother. Although it’s apparent they knew each other, I haven’t posted the marriage proposal publicly because at the time it supposedly took place he’d been married to Martha for 15 years! I’m doing the best I can.

‘Transparency about one’s own degree of accuracy’ – Except for some extracted biographies and obits, I only post skeletal descendant charts online. So far I have not seen an option in Legacy to include the degree of certainty on each name, date and place so it stands as it does. Obviously, if you think about it for even a second, by the time you’re looking at people born in the 1700’s and earlier especially, you might want to take it with a grain of salt OR contact the author for more information.

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MT 3-02-2011 at 6:14 AM

As a child I became fascinated with genealogy, immersed myself in it and over the years encouraged others by teaching them how to research their ancestors. Shared the joy.
And yes, I was all for accuracy and veracity.
Then I decided to take some courses.
I was told I had to own certain books, write a certain way and the final straw, in a critique, instead of enjoying the story, the research, the flavor or what have you, what I got was a comment about using a comma instead of a period in a footnote. The world shook off of it’s axis.
Clearly that little punctuation mark made the footnote useless.
I completed the course, put my research away and have not looked back. It killed the joy.
I stumbled across your article and am glad to see that there are some who are not drinking the kool-aid.

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JL 3-02-2011 at 10:39 AM

That’s a sad testimonial. Everyone’s in it for their own reason and I think it’s something you have to re-assess regularly. There’s no point doing it for some-one else’s reason or to stop doing it for some-one else’s reason.

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Judy 3-02-2011 at 5:22 PM

Well, I see you’ve received a lot of comments on this post. But I just had to write to let you know that I am laughing so hard – you completely made my day !

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valentinoswife 3-03-2011 at 6:25 AM

I’ll tell you a funny gem just so you know you aren’t totally alone. I started genealogy for my husband’s family about 12 years ago. At that time we could purchase CDs from a major company that included information from overseas – so I did. I also went for the first time to a FHC to look up some microfilm information. Somewhere along the line between THOSE sources and a relative I was given what I believed to be the first name of a great-grandmother. Well as I became a bit more knowledgeable I finally got my hands on a copy of the originals from the 1800’s and of course the name was spelled incorrectly to me – as in a totally different name! Well I had already submitted my incorrect tree to this group years before so I felt it important to correct the error. I was politely informed by their Genealogy Police (we’re the professionals and we have standards thank you very much) that they would not change the incorrect information. After all they explained someone had submitted that information and therefore they had sourced it and it was obviously not the same person I was referring to! I tried to tell them to check THEIR sources because I was THAT person! Can you believe it? So that incorrect information is still showing up even now 10+ years later every time I do a search! Errrrrr.

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Dee 3-05-2011 at 3:17 PM

Like others here, in my early years of research (ahem, 40+ years ago) I wasn’t aware of the importance of sourcing — let alone footnoting. Now I “do the best I can.” I do print on every ancestor chart, in the “prepared by” box, my name, email and “PLEASE warn me about possible errors or omissions!” (There’s space for that because I deliberately don’t include my address or telephone.) Cheers, Dee

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Bob 3-06-2011 at 5:28 PM

I have just stumbled upon your blog, and I have to tell you, I think it’s great! Fortunately I have never had a visit from the genealogy police. Fortunate for them that is. I’ve been doing genealogy for over 30 years (several of these years professionally), and the number one thing I have learned is, nothing in genealogy is absolute once you get beyond your g-g-grand parents. I don’t care what census you look at, what marriage / birth / baptism / whatever record or document. Unless you personally wrote it, you cannot guarantee that the particular document or record is 100% accurate. And then there’s the gaps. Some records were destroyed, some lost. And let’s not forget that sometimes people intentionally put in wrong information (for whatever reason), and sometimes they just plain didn’t know and had to guess. This is why I have found the same person, living in the same place, same house, on four different censuses, and having four different birth years (1810, 1809, 1811, and 1800!). What it comes down to is, if you didn’t write it, you can’t guarantee its accuracy. I don’t care what any genealogy police say. I do my research, and whenever possible I source it. But let’s face the facts here, there’s not always a source, and sometimes you have to make an informed, educated guess (Oh! did you just hear the G.P.’s gasping all the air out of the room!). Don’t anybody worry about the “genealogy police,” they have no jurisdiction over anyone. If you don’t do things according to their way of doing things, I can promise you that you won’t go to hell (or wherever they want to send you), you won’t be condemned by anyone that matters, and chances are, your research will still be just as accurate (if not more, assuming you’re not just making things up) than those who are complaining.

So, JL, keep up the great work on this wonderful blog, and everyone else, just keep on plugging away!

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JL 3-06-2011 at 6:17 PM

Well said! Listen to Bob. By the time this hobby/profession/whatever you want to call it, is sucking the joy out of your life, it’s time to quit. So, don’t let the GP get you in a room with no joy.

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Genedocs Wetpaint 8-26-2012 at 8:27 PM

Interesting post and threads! Until you have had to trod through hell on earth to try and honor your last dying ancestor’s true wishes only to have them trampled over a prolonged and agonizing timeframe by a relative who couldn’t care one bit less about anyone but themself, it really doesn’t dawn on you the importance of honoring the dead, all of them, they are all part of your larger family and deserve the dignity of your diligence to preserve their few remaining items of evidence they even existed. Afterall, one day we will each and all be in their shoes.

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HollyChilds 8-27-2012 at 2:06 AM

I am vulnerable to an attack by the Genealogy Police and I wouldn’t be able to defend myself at all! The sources thing is what bothers me the most about making an online tree at ancestry.com. It is really easy to source information that comes off ancestry, and next to impossible to source anything from anywhere else. I have several trees, possibly way too many trees. My own family history is getting harder and harder, so I have taken to pleading with near-strangers to let me play with their families instead. I like working on their trees on ancestry.com so they can look at the results. I like being able to link censuses. I like being able to easily attach pictures. I do not like the slipshod documentation habits I’m developing. How are my friends going to make any progress if they or their children ever want to continue what I’ve started, if they have to completely start over by documenting what I did? Why don’t the GP go after ancestry.com? I am but an innocent pawn…

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Fran Meservy 11-09-2013 at 12:33 PM

I love your comments about the Genealogy police. I butted heads with one (who is also a cousin) for about a year. Every time I put something up on my website, she’d tell me it was wrong or I had no right to post the information. I finally just said, “It’s my Grandma too & you do not have exclusive rights to our ancestors.” Didn’t hear from her for 10 years. Last year she wrote and asked if I’d be her friend because everyone (friends & close relatives) died except me. Even though I was on the bottom of her totom pole, I now share information with her.

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JL Beeken 11-09-2013 at 12:46 PM

Nothing like desperation to bring on some humility.

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JG Walker 11-09-2013 at 8:24 PM

As annoying as the “Genealogy Police” are, they are not nearly as scarey as the researchers (and I use that term loosely) who are so eager to fill their tree that they just grab a name and fit them into their family tree! Actually, I believe these are the people who the Genealogy Police should be referred to. They could benefit from each other! JMHO
Your article made me laugh!

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JL Beeken 11-09-2013 at 8:59 PM

Thanks. It was the best I could make at the time of an experience that had me bummed. I’d never met anyone like that in genealogy circles; vicious to the core.

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