Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Right and Wrong vs. Consistency

Public Service Announcement: Copyright and plagiarism are hot topics right now in the world of genealogy. I have written about it as have several other bloggers and I have tried to link to these other writings so that you can get the information from several different perspectives. Elizabeth Shown Mills has just written an excellent article with examples, Plagiarism—Five "Copywrongs" of Historical Writing. The two articles that I wrote are, Copyright © and Copyright Infringement. Another article that I have linked to in the past is Copyright and Copy Wrong by Michael Lecleric. Please protect yourself by understanding copyright infringement.

You know by now that I am on several mailing lists. Three of the most active are the Legacy Family Tree (LFT) mailing list (for people who use or are interested in the LFT genealogy database software), the Transitional Genealogists Forum (TGF) and the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) list. One topic that frequently comes up on all three lists is what is the right way to record something. This could be about how to properly cite a source, or should you put the cemetery address in the burial location field or is it okay to put Mrs. Davis if you don't know her Christian or maiden name. The list goes on indefinitely.

I wrote a blog post on Genealogy Standards last July. Although I am a big believer in certain documentation standards I am more a believer in CONSISTENCY (the whole reason behind having standards). There is certainly room for interpretation when it comes to how you document things. Sometimes, especially when citing your sources, it can be more of an art than a science but the one thing that remains true is how important it is to remain consistent.

Even if you don't agree with how most genealogists do a certain thing at least be consistent within your own file. For example, the standard way to record burial locations is the same way that you record any location:

Purvis, Lamar, Mississippi, United States

There are many people out there that like to see the cemetery name in the location field like this:

Coaltown Cemetery, Purvis, Lamar, Mississippi, United States

If you like doing it this way then fine, just make sure that you always do it this way. It will make your research look much more professional and credible.

Once you decide on a format then stick to it. Here is and example of what you don't want in your locations:

Purvis, Lamar, Mississippi, United States
Purvis, Lamar County, Mississippi, United States
Purvis, Lamar Co, MS, USA
Purvis, Lamar County, MS, United States of America

I am sure that you could come up with some more variations for this one location. If I was looking at someone's file and saw all of these variations for their locations I would immediately question all of their facts because they were so sloppy in entering them. How can I trust their work if they can't be careful enough to record their locations in a consistent manner? This is a newbie mistake and any researcher that has been doing this for any length of time should have this corrected.

Here is an example with dates. Dates should always be entered 04 Mar 1850 but if you like it better as 03-04-1850 so be it. With dates it is even more important to be consistent. With the 03-04-1850 is that March 4th or April 3rd? (That is why you shouldn't write the dates this way but if you insist at least make it consistent). What if you have dates across your file like this:

04 Feb 1912
2 March 1809

Pick one style and stick with it!

So if you started out this way, how do you correct things like this? If you have hundreds or thousands of entries in your file the task itself is so daunting that you might hesitate. I am most familiar with Legacy Family Tree since that is what I use but I am assuming that the other top programs have the capabilities to do this. Legacy has a master location list. On this screen you can merge duplicates easily. All of my Purvis, MS entries would show up together and I can readily see that I have four entries for one location. I can merge the bad three into the good one and then all of the locations will be corrected with one click. It still takes some time to go through all of the locations to find the dups on the list but it really is quite easy.

You can also scan through the master surname list and find all the surnames that you accidentally entered in all caps and correct them, or, if you really want them in all caps then you can correct those that are not. You can format dates correctly across your entire file with one click. You just tell it what format you want and it will correct all of the dates even though they are in several different formats.

If you want people to take your research seriously, record your information in a consistent manner and don't forget to document WHERE you got your information. For more information about that, read The Basics of Citing Your Sources.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. Great blog. When I teach the basics of genealogy I always tell my students that it is okay to "deviate" from the norm, it is their family tree after all, but they need to pick a style and stick with it. You make an excellent point that failure to maintain your own standards makes all of your work appear questionable.

  2. Thank you so much for your kind comments! I of course made this very same mistake when I first started out 22 years ago. I felt a real sense of accomplishment when I cleaned up my file and that was the first step toward becoming a more professional researcher :)

  3. Thanks for a great post Michele.

    I'm working right now on cleaning up location and other format issues after moving my database off Ancestry, into RootsMagic, then on to my website. It is a work in progress. Love Ancestry, but they've done me no favors in this regard as their location data across record sets is inconsistent. I've got 14 years of research spanning my entire learning experience to correct. Having a great time doing it though.

    As I bring my citations up to GPS, I find occasionally the EE proscribed version fails to convey something I find essential or an adjustment must be made to accommodate how I want information to show on the web. EE allows for flexibility if you understand the principles behind record citation rather than try to use it as a cookie cutter citation model. But being inconsistent in your citation format is almost as bad as not citing at all. It just becomes gobbledygook.

  4. So true! As a matter of fact, I use Elizabeth Shown Mills' first book, Evidence! Citation and Analysis, as the template for some of my citations because they tend to be more simplified. I have a Style Sheet in Microsoft Word. When I tweak a citation to the way I like, I record it in this Style Sheet so that I can refer to it. That way I can keep my citations consistent.

    I will say that going through 14 years of research will be a blessing in disguise. You will find errors you didn't know you had and you will find answers to some questions that you didn't know you had either!

  5. Michelle, that is certainly my goal. My ability to analyse and correlate information into evidence is wildly improved from my early days. I like your idea of maintaining your own style sheet for quick reference. Gonna give that a try.

  6. My style sheet also has things on there like how I format papers (what font and size for titles and body, justification etc.) I want my reports to be consistent too. I also have a letterhead template so that all of my correspondence is professional looking and consistent :)

  7. Michele - you wrote "Dates should always be entered 04 Mar 1850 but if you . . . ." Is there a reson for the 0 before single digit dates? Does it result in lining something up? Does something else happen? I will be interested in your comment.

  8. Great question. You were the 2nd person to ask me that, the first questions came in by email.

    If I record the date as 04 Mar 1850 I am telling you that I am sure that the date is the 4th of Mar. If I see 4 Mar 1850 it makes me wonder in my head if there was another digit there. If I am looking at a cemetery survey and I see that someone records 04 Jun 1945 and 08 Aug 1900 it makes me believe that the person was sure of the date. If I see 4 Jun 1945 or 8 Aug 1900 I immediately wonder if there is a digit missing, perhaps only because of a typo.

    This is a very similar concept to "leading zeros" in the medical field. For example,

    You would write 0.5 mg Ativan, not .5 You need the leading zero to make yourself clear. Is that . a smudge? Is it really 5 mg? That is why you always put the leading zero.