Archive for January, 2008

A standard is like a yard stick. It is an measure of comparison for a quantity or quality; a criterion. As a matter of fact, a yard is a standard, as is an ounce, a dram, a meter, an acre, a degree, or any number of terms of measurement that we commonly use. Yet, these standards are standards of quantity. In other words, no matter who uses the standard (the yard stick), the value of that measure is independent of the person doing the measuring. Use a yard stick to determine the length of a piece of wood, the results will be the same whether you run the measurement or I do. However, unless qualitative standards are operationally defined using some objectively measurable equivalent, they are not independent of the person doing the measuring. Confused? Let’s see if I can simplify it a bit.

I stand at 5’4″. My grandmother was 4’11”. I consider my grandmother to be a short woman. My friend, Lucy, is 5’11”. I am a short woman to her. “Short” is a relative or qualitative standard. Here’s another example. Around 1800, Franz Josef Gall, a German physician, developed a theory that qualities of human traits, such as intelligence, honesty, loyalty, could be determined by examining the bumps and fissures of a person’s skull. Phrenology, the study of these bumps and fissures, was very popular throughout the 19th and even into the 20th century. (See a phrenology map at Wikipedia.) Later, some historians of psychology made a not-so-surprising observation about the interpretations of these maps used by Gall and later adherents. Those better, more refined traits were found on heads which were curiously shaped like the heads of the men who made the maps. There was not a criminal, a con man, or an idiot among these phrenologists. The important point to take away from these examples is: Unless you can separate the standard (of measurement) from the person applying the standard, you will have variance. Where you have variance, you have a pseudo-standard. Now, let’s turn our attention to the first step of the Genealogical Proof Standards.

The BCG Standards Manual describes the GPS as a 5-step process. The first of these steps is to:

conduct a reasonably exhaustive search in reliable sources for all information that is or may be pertinent to the identity, relationship, event, or situation in question.

I underscored those phrases that lack independence from the person applying the measurement. As a pseudo-standard, one cannot not know if what is being evaluated has achieved full measure of the standard. Exhaustive is a fairly objective term. It suggests that “no stone is left unturned.” However, reasonably is harder to pin down in any precise way. Depending upon the research question, the breadth of resources accessible to you, “reasonable” can vary. It can vary even among experts in the research area. How can you know that your search has been reasonably exhaustive? The truth is, you cannot know with any certainty. You can apply a series of “checklists” but still miss that critical source that was hidden.

For those researchers whose confidence or experience in the particular research area is still developing, consider starting with a checklist constructed from the seventeen chapters in Part II of Val Greenwood’s tome, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. Greenwood discusses the more commonly used types of source found in genealogy today. Of course, as you discover other source types, add these to your checklist. For living ancestors, I add their oral histories, where applicable. For a few states, bibliographies and union catalogs have been published to give the genealogist an overview of what is available. Finally, talk to people, especially reference librarians at university libraries about collections. You can often work with a local reference librarian who can help you submit interlibrary loan requests (ILL) for items not available locally.

Another strategy that I use is reading social histories about the time and place where my research is focused. I read for two reasons: (1) to gain an understanding of the records that I expect to research and (2) to examine the book’s bibliography. Where social historians use original records, I can hope to find original documents pertinent to my own research.

I will address the fuzziness of reliable sources in another post.


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Reflections on GPS

A few weeks back, a group of experienced genealogists gathered to dissect and discuss an NGSQ article. During discussion, the topic of Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) arose when one participant asked about GPS. She was familiar with the “Preponderance of Evidence” principle (POE), but had not read anything on GPS. Another participant replied, “It’s the same thing, just a different label.” Others countered that there was a material difference between the two standards, but even these individuals varied on their explanation of the difference. It was not the first time that I encountered variable perspectives on GPS. This was just the latest.

Coincident to our discussion, I was reading various books and articles that describe GPS. Genealogy, as a discipline, is still in a transition period whereby it is moving away from a less reliable standard (POE) to one that better serves the nature of our research (GPS). As a result, it is rare to read anything that does not discuss both standards.

If you are somewhat a novice to genealogy, my advice is to focus upon how GPS is explained. Ignore any reference to POE. POE is not necessary for you to try to learn at this point. Trying to learn both in unison and to tease apart the differences, is likely to cause confusion and, perhaps, unnecessary anxiety. Understanding POE is not necessary for you to understand how to apply GPS to you present-day research.

However, if you “cut your genealogical teeth” on POE, then you have some reorienting of your mindset and re-engineering your analysis process. But this involves little more than changing how you examine or analyze your data—which, frankly, is sometimes easier said than done. The difference, simply stated, is that GPS seeks to eliminate or to minimize the potential for error inherent with POE. This shift involved adopting new terminology to distinguish the old way of doing things and to avoid confusion with the legal interpretation of POE. Thus, the label Genealogical Proof Standard was created.

That’s as much as I want to say about POE. Here, I want to discuss my general understanding of GPS and what has been written about it. I want to describe that understanding in terms of my background in research design and epistemology (how we know whatever it is that we know).

Some authors have written about GPS calling it a methodology. But their description is wrong. A methodology provides specific steps to reproduce an experiment or study. A simple analogy would be getting to work from home. There are specific steps that you follow daily to go from home to work (or other places). For some, it would might look like:

  1. Get in car.
  2. Start engine.
  3. Pull out of driveway,
  4. Turn left onto street.
  5. Arrive at work.

The nature of the sources that we use in genealogical research don’t allow the clear-cut step-wise traits of a methodology. GPS is more like a check list of features. As you look at your research, you take this check list (GPS) and answer the question: Does my research have this quality (feature) and, if so, to what degree does it have this quality? Let me explain by analogy: Suppose you want to purchase a new car. You develop a check list of features to help you decide which car to purchase.

  1. Does it get good gas mileage?
  2. How expensive is it to maintain?
  3. What is its resale history?

With each of these questions, you look for an optimal combination of those qualities. In a perfect world you want the best gas mileage, the least maintenance costs, and the highest resale value. You want the most for the lowest price. But let’s return to earth. The car that meets all these standards probably does not exist. Instead you seek an optimal combination of these qualities. Otherwise, you will never purchase a car.

In many ways this is true of our research. We seek the optimal combination of the features of quality research. If we waited until all the questions were answered, we would never publish anything of our findings. I will try to explore GPS in more detail over the next few postings.

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Recently I spoke to a genealogical society about the importance of collecting family history as a “project” not simply a stop on the way to the written records. We have the opportunity to create historical records of the quality and standards of any written record if we understand the procedures and apply the standards. Among the archives that collect oral histories from ordinary people include several universities and the Library of Congress.

In 2000, a bipartisan, joint resolution was signed into law establishing The Veterans History Project under the auspices of the Family Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The project depends on volunteers to interview and record the stories of veterans of the armed services in every major conflict since WWI. (By the way, only two WWI vets are still living as of this date.) As importantly, the project seeks the stories of men and women who, in some material way, supported these war efforts in war industry, USO, flight instructors, etc.

If you wish to have a vet’s story included in the project, the website offers a field kit to help you get started.

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Happy New Year, All!

This year is going to be a busy one with new challenges. I have been named editor to a local society’s journal. So I may be posting items on the issues of getting one’s research published on the smaller scale, IOW, not book length. If you visit this blog from time to time, then I can guess that you are interested in writing well and that you wish to someday see your writing in print. So let’s start with some of the practical issues of getting from idea to print (or XML, if you desire electronic publication).

One of the best ways to start writing the family history book that you envision is by writing your family’s story in smaller chunks. Submit articles to a journal or newsletter whose focus is the region or surname that is prominent in your article. While most genealogical journals and society newsletters are not juried the way The American Genealogist, New England Register, and National Genealogical Society Quarterly are, you can still ask the editor if he or she minds giving you feedback on your submission.

The feedback you want will vary somewhat with the type of article that you wrote. But there are certain basics that apply regardless of whether the article is a biography of a “black sheep” ancestor or describing how you finally pieced together the evidence that proved one’s lineage. In this post, I will cover spelling and grammar.

First impressions are lasting—make them positive.

The first thing that you want to do is activate your grammar and spell checker on your wordprocessing software (if not already activated). However, don’t stop there. “There” and “their” are both correctly spelled words but they are often used in the wrong place within a sentence. Editors don’t want to be correcting spelling and grammar. So have someone else proof your near final copy of the article to be sure that you’ve caught those little irritating errors. Hey, even the most experienced writers make such mistakes, so do don’t beat yourself up if you find them in your drafts. [Insert: save that until you find those mistakes in the published copy. <g>]

Another tool that I use is “text to speech” software. Text-to-speech software was developed for the visually impaired and people with dyslexia. But it helps me to find other minor glitches that crept into the text from the dozens of re-writes and edits over the course of the article’s development. Removing text and replacing it with other text is one of the ways many technical errors found in my own writing are introduced. I have Adobe Pro 7.0 which has “text-to-speech” functions within the software. So I cannot recommend any package that is stand-alone. My best advice is to talk to someone at your local public school about what software they use for children with visual impairments or dyslexia. You might also check with your local public library to see what software they may have on their computer systems for people with such needs. Finally, search for internet websites that offer text-to-speech software from free download (basic functions) to modest prices ($39.99) to expensive ($299, plus). If anyone has recommendations, please share them with us here.

By the time I’ve asked a friend to provide that “human factor” in reviewing a piece of my writing, they think that I don’t make those silly composition mistakes that everyone else makes…boy, are they wrong.

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