Friday, November 15, 2013

Learning: The Village Idiot Factor

We've spent a lot of time talking about getting started on your genealogy, but I am well aware that many who are finding this blog are already well along in that journey. As I was thinking about what would help you regardless of where you are in your research, I thought about "the genealogical standard of proof."

The Genealogical Standard of Proof is fancy language that basically means to support your information with documentation. I personally don't like the title because I think it's very misleading. If you're calling something a standard, you're referring to something which doesn't change. If you're calling something proof, you're calling something irrefutable evidence--beyond the shadow of a doubt, something that absolutely reflects the truth.

My problem with these two ideas--of standard and proof--is that they are totally unhelpful in terms of thinking about the records I'm trying to find. Why? Because the person I am looking for, or the person who wrote the records, or kept them, or digitized them--they are all variations and degrees of the same person.

The Village Idiot!

I have a witch hunter in my family. True story!

I can't keep a strict standard for accuracy or infallibility in my evidence because the records do not allow me to do so. We simply can't expect consistency from records in societies where people could not read and write. Or spell their own name. Or went on witch hunts. Logical, cohesive conclusions just weren't their thing.

In fact, when I can't find something in a database or in a book after reasonable effort has been made, everything I know about "proper method" and "standards of proof" goes out the window. Or headfirst off a wall. Because thinking like an idiot may be the only way I'll ever find this information.

And do be sure to check out the Village Idiot skit from Monty Python.
It will make you feel much better!
These days I ask myself, quite literally, "If I were an idiot, what are some mistakes I could have made that would make this record impossible for someone else to find?" Instead of combing the errors out of my research, I try to calculate for them and anticipate them because I've been doing this long enough to know that they simply can't be avoided.

Take into account the Village Idiot Factor

If the Village Idiot was your ancestor, or the census taker, or the person who indexed the database, or the person who designed the search engine you're using, you're dealing more with trial and error than with real research. Try different name spellings. Use wild card searches for the name. Extend the parameters on your date ranges. Get rid of the dates. If you're dealing with census data, try different combinations of information you already have. Look at ever single Hannah in the city of Halifax from Ward 5 if you have to. (Real example.) Then marvel at how crazily the indexer transcribed/misspelled that last name.

Look for the right thing. If you can't find it, start looking for the wrong thing. On purpose. And be really persistent. Almost stupidly so. Because that may be the only way to find the information about your ancestor.

So what is a good standard to use for judging a record?

Once you've got some records together, when you analyze them carefully you'll probably notice that not all of the information matches. That is normal. But then, how do you know which information is correct?

I don't compare my records to some sort of standard to determine if my record is accurate enough or not. I use other records from that same person to determine how accurate a document is. I look for information that repeats on all the documentation. The more information that repeats or is similar enough to be valid, the more likely it is to be accurate information, and to apply to the person I'm researching. The less things line up, the less likely it is that the information is right, or that it applies to the person I'm researching.

 I call this a reliability rating. Before I look at a record and ask myself, "Does this apply to my ancestor?" or "Is this information accurate for my ancestor?" I ask myself, "How reliable is this record?"

I use three main criteria to rate the reliability of the records I discover:

Primary versus Secondary

A primary record is a record that comes from the lifetime of my ancestor. It doesn't need to come directly from my ancestor, but it needs to have been recorded while they were alive. A secondary record is one that was recorded after they died. Secondary records can fill in a lot of gaps in hindsight. Published genealogies can be really valuable secondary resources. But we have to remember that if they didn't live with our ancestor--never met them, never spoke to them, were not there personally to witness the information, most of the time the information they record has to take a back seat to someone who was there personally.

First-hand versus Second-hand

A first-hand record will come directly from an ancestor. Some people would think that this is the most reliable criteria, but it isn't. In cases of old age, memories become faded and get scrambled together, or forgotten. Sometimes ancestors lie, or leave out important information. But generally speaking, first-hand information will be more reliable than second-hand information. Second-hand information is anything that comes from someone who is NOT my ancestor. Sometimes that information CAN be more accurate, because an outsider's experience can be more objective. It depends on the information you're analyzing. I would trust a first-hand account for something like a birth date, but not necessarily for something like an account of a trial, or something that could have a lot of bias about it. You have to be the judge.

Earlier versus Later

My husband has a great example of this distinction. He is descended from James Henry Sutton, or "Alabama Jim" as the newspapers have called him. He fought on both sides in the Civil War, and was captured at one point by Union forces. 

He wrote a personal memoir later on in his life, and some of the information is incomplete and inaccurate. My husband has had to substantiate a lot of things with earlier records in order to piece the story of his desertion from the 48th Alabama back together. Earlier records in this instance are going to be more accurate, because this story has only become more elephantine with each retelling.

Sometimes records are created as something is happening, and then they snowball out of control. Sometimes they're created with inaccurate information, later records hopefully will have been corrected. Timelines are really useful tools for myth busting in this way.

Use these three criteria to analyze your records

Then ask yourself some questions:
  • Is my documentation primary or secondary? Are most of your records things that were written about your ancestor AFTER they died? If so, you'll want some more primary source documents, stuff from when they were alive. 
  • So you've decided you want primary source documents. What kind do you want? First-hand, or second-hand? Do you want things that you ancestor wrote about him/herself, or do you want stuff that someone wrote about them?
  • Do you have a good mixture of these, but now you're trying to fact check? Find the earliest versions of the record or account that you can find. Try to find someone else who was there. Get as close to the event or the person as you can. Have many different accounts of the events and put the pieces together. Not everything needs to have your ancestor's name on it to be helpful in painting a picture.

Filling in blanks for family history can be difficult. Sometimes we even tell ourselves that we've "dead-ended." We've trained ourselves on the Genealogical Standard of Proof, for Pete's sake, and we still haven't found anything. That must mean there's nothing else to find, right?

Well, in my experience that is the time to ask yourself, "If I were an idiot..."

Or Upper Class Twit of the Year...

I've never come away from that experience disappointed!