This blog post was inspired by a conversation on Facebook with my cousin Leisa Wilkie (another awesome family & local historian!) and some of her friends. Leisa is the authority on ghosts and scary tales in Canton, Georgia. Be sure to like her Facebook page Canton Ghosts or take the Canton Ghost Tour.
When I got started working on my family’s genealogy at age 14, I had no idea what I was doing. I essentially asked relatives to give me their information. The extent of my primary source research was looking at censuses on microfilm at the local library or receiving manila envelopes stuffed with copies from distant relatives I found through Rootsweb and Cyndi’s List. It took me until college (where I was a history major thus inculcated with the importance of primary sources) that I realized that I needed to go back and do my own research.
Honestly, a LOT of people are 14-years-old in genealogy years… and this isn’t going to kill you!
Genealogy Mistakes Rarely Kill Anyone
First of all, like academic cheating, messing up on your genealogy only hurts you and the other people who choose to follow your lead. This isn’t like that fallacious paper on vaccinations that led to children dying because D-list celebrity Jenny McCarthy publicized the idea. (I have zero patience for anti-science b.s.) Genealogy is a relatively harmless hobby – for the most part. Nobody dies if you think grandma’s maiden name was Smith while it was actually Jones. (There are always exceptions, like racial and caste-based discrimination based on lineage, but I don’t think that’s what we’re dealing with here.)
Genealogical laziness or ignorance generally just leads to brick walls and confusion. Oh well. Too bad.
No One is Born Knowing How to Cite a Primary Source
Secondly, everyone has to start somewhere. There are people out there who’s interest in genealogy is sparked by an old family story, or by viewing a family census record, or by some other tiny event that creates a curious flame. While some people are scholars who insist on doing everything the “right” way, others jump in feet first. (Like 14-year-old me.) It might take them awhile to learn the proper way to cite sources or that there will be no death certificate for Great-Grandpa who died in 1890. During that time, they might create some erroneous family trees on Ancestry or put some bad information out there into the world. So what’s it to you? If YOU’RE doing your job as a genealogist, then you’re going to demand verification.
I literally do this ALL the time on Ancestry. If I see someone who has some information I haven’t been able to verify, I pop them an email and ask them what their source was. Sadly, they usually say something like they “found it on the internet.” Still, there may be a kernel of truth in the story – or something to disprove. It’s a hint, nonetheless. Plus, asking them for verification just might get them to thinking about verifying and citing sources in the future.
Ask Yourself: What are you Trying to Protect?
Third and finally, I think jumping on people for failing to do genealogy the “proper” way is exclusionist and frankly, pretty silly.
I’m a professional writer and social media consultant. When I got my start in professional writing, I had no idea what I was doing. But guess what? Just like with genealogy, I jumped in with both feet, took my knocks, learned from a bunch of writers more experienced than I, and am now very successful and happy in my career. I can imagine that – at my lowest (i.e. POOREST) point – if people in my industry were writing numerous blog posts telling me how I was doing everything wrong, I might have been down on myself enough to listen to them and give up on my passion.
Plus, I keep seeing this thread in the genealogical community of “we need to get younger people interested in genealogy.” I see the same thing with some of the organizations I volunteer with – they want a younger generation to step up. Well, you’re not going to get younger people interested in genealogy or community organizations if you insist that only the Old Guard has all the answers. Younger people need to be able to make their mistakes – not constantly have holes poked in their passions.
The TL;DR version of this post is:
1.) Genealogical mistakes are highly unlikely to kill anyone, so chill.
2.) Everybody has to start somewhere. Nobody is born knowing how to cite primary sources. Cut new or untrained genealogists some slack and focusing on guiding and educating, not jumping down their throats for a simple mistake.
3.) Don’t be a dick. You don’t own genealogy. Stay understanding and innovative, and embrace new people – even when they’re making their rookie mistakes. Remember what happens when the Old Guard becomes too oppressive!
And on that note – Happy Detecting!