Trust but verify - again

Alicia Crane WilliamsWhat is it with these genealogists? They’ve been researching for hundreds of years, published thousands of books and magazines, and still can’t get it right! In my last post, we left off with the question, “Can we trust nothing? must we verify everything from scratch?”

The answer is no, you don’t have to verify everything – but it is usually a good idea to verify whatever you can. Those who love the hunt and enjoy being genealogical vigilantes don’t mind this little quirk about our “pastime,” but it can certainly be confusing to newcomers, especially the millions being courted today with advertisements of “easy” genealogy.

Many years ago, all historians/genealogists were amateurs, usually retired generals and politicians, but in the mid-nineteenth century, Henry Adams and his lot at Harvard created the academic definition of history and the profession of historian. Only those with proper university training on how to research, compile, document, footnote, and defend their theories could be historians. In particular, historians wanted to separate themselves from “lay people” who compiled local and family histories without proper training and discipline.

Yet genealogies are, by definition, grass roots productions. Nobody wants to read genealogies about other people’s families. So it has traditionally been left to that individual in each family who is willing to do the work as a labor of love to the best of his or her ability, with whatever resources they had, any way they wanted. Their work is sincere and sometimes very good, but as a whole entirely without quality control.

In the past fifty years or so, the profession of genealogy has been following the historians’ example by working hard to establish standards and training, but that only works for those of us who enjoy the complexity of genealogical search and proof. Genealogy will always remain a grass roots endeavor. Those who want a quick fix now have the Internet and the quite logical, but entirely misguided, expectation that what they find there has at least some validity. Perhaps the analogy would be pointing someone who wanted to buy a car to a pile of automobile parts, many rusted and obsolete, and telling them to build their own.

There is no way to separate genealogy from its grass roots enthusiasts. They are the backbone of preservation because they collect information that might otherwise be lost. We cannot thank them sufficiently for their work.

For the rest of us the task is monumental: replacing the old and obsolete parts with shiny new ones manufactured – and verified – under strict quality control standards.

Alicia Crane Williams

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.View all posts by Alicia Crane Williams