The Drive-By Genealogist’s Lament

(Photo by Mr. Hermit)

By now most of us are familiar with Sharon Tate Moody’s article “Drive-by Genealogists Should Learn a Few Rules” where she had the gall to

“wonder if we should require folks to have a research license (sort of like a driver’s license) before they can publish their “work,” in print or on the Internet.”

As you can imagine, the atrocity of such a statement ruffled a few feathers.

When I read the article, I thought it was pretty funny. It wasn’t until I got to the comments at the end that I learned that people could be deeply offended by the notion that a poorly thought out argument when presented as fact might be subject to criticism.

The blogging community pounced. The best title goes to Amy Coffin for her article “Time to Pop a Cap in the Term ‘Drive-by Genealogist‘”.

We should probably define who we are talking about here. A Drive-By Genealogist is a person who uses the Internet to find family trees that have branches that intersect their own and then copies any new leaves (people) into their own database usually grabbing vital statistics such as birth, marriage and death dates along the way. Critical to this definition is that they do not copy whatever evidence might have been used to support these claims. Also critical is that they then publish their updated family tree back to the Internet with the new leaves, but without the supporting evidence (on occasion they cite the tree or website they got their information from as evidence). The arguments against Drive-By Genealogy also apply to Drive-In Genealogy, whereby someone merges another person’s GEDCOM file with their own. In this latter case, they may never even look at the individuals they have imported before publishing their collection back to the Internet.

The obvious problem with these approaches to name collecting is that without supporting evidence, no claim can be considered anything other than false, because assuming something is true without evidence, as we all know, can lead to all sorts of real atrocities.

In a recent article, “How Can We Communicate ‘The Right Way?’“, Randy Seaver blamed education as the culprit and asked how the genealogy community might go about teaching best practices to the masses. He answered thusly

“Only by repetition in all of the communication avenues we have – print and digital magazines; society newsletters, monthly programs, classes and seminars; webinars, videos, podcasts and radio shows; newspaper and periodical columns or articles; blogs and social media.”

Randy is as always a gentleman of reason, and though I do not disagree with him entirely, I think there is something more fundamental going on here. I do not think that the biggest problem with Drive-By Genealogists is that they aren’t educated. I think the biggest problem with Drive-By Genealogists is they’re lazy.

I’ll just let that sink in for a moment while you pour yourself another glass of wine. …

Drive-By Genealogists are lazy because genealogy is a lot of work. It can take years and thousands of hours of research to track down the sources necessary to support a family history. Most people have lives. They work and have families, eat out, read books, watch TV, go dancing, hang with friends, in general do things that take time. Fitting in a few thousand extra hours here or there is not in the cards for most people – and never will be.

Drive-By Genealogists are educated, they went to school, many to college, raised sons and daughters, helped with their children’s home work, learned how to set an alarm clock, program a microwave, a bleeping VCR. I doubt that many of them do not see the fallacy in what they are doing. I know I did when I used to do it. It was both obvious and inevitable.

Randy is undoubtedly right that most people cannot recite the Genealogy Proof Standard, but most people I bet, if asked, could tell you if one source is likely to be better than another based on everyday common sense. After all, that is all the GPS is, a reasoned argument for common sense.

In my response to Randy I stated

“Let’s not forget that we need to also get the manufacturers of genealogy software, particularly database editors and online tree generators to enforce or at least encourage best practices including the GPS.”

I am ashamed to admit that of all the venues Randy suggested for reaching the masses with educational materials, social media and occasionally blogs are the only ones I participate in. I think it is also reasonable to demand that the manufacturers of our genealogy products encourage best practices. We do this by purchasing only those products which do!

I have blogged ad nauseum on why it is a disadvantage for big tree companies and genealogy software vendors to implement such restrictions, but it comes down to money. If your online family tree said “UNSUPPORTED” next to every claim lacking a source reference (like mine does) you might find yourself using a different product that was not so in-your-face about it. But would it be smart of you to do so? If everyone who didn’t like being reminded that their published “facts” were actually poorly thought out arguments, had their feathers ruffled, and chose instead to use less restricted software, then that is exactly what we would get, and that why that is exactly what we have.

Leave a Comment
  • Amy Coffin
    27 Nov 2013

    Thank you for the "best title" award. I gladly accept.

  • Andy Hatchett
    27 Nov 2013

    There are NO 'Drive-By Genealogists" - merely JUNKOLOGISTS.

  • Jade
    20 Nov 2013

    I think the original article and so many comments were simply in the wrong places to be read by any but a very few of the hypothesized drive-by treebies. I think Randy is on more the right track.

    You say, " If everyone who didn't like being reminded that their published "facts" were actually poorly thought out arguments, had their feathers ruffled, and chose instead to use less restricted software, then that is exactly what we would get, and that why that is exactly what we have."

    "We" do not "have" the genealogical accounts posted by myriad others. They post what they wish, whether supported by evidence or by anything at all. As individual genealogists we must do the best we can with our own little corners, and with what wiki/borg type trees we choose to participate in. True enough, the latter can be and have been adversely affected by poor research practices (or lack thereof). With the possible exception of a group of a particular faith, "we" don't have to look at them, participate in them, or try to correct them.

    Part of the original article reminded me a bit of a continuing theme on one of the genealogical-source-provider's message boards: why don't people do excellent research and post all source-citations in their trees, so [the posters] can copy the results with reasonable assurance of accuracy? Heheheheh . . . .

  • Dave
    03 Dec 2012

    I think Jade is on the right track. The problem isn't those who publish unsupported facts*. The problem lies with those that unquestioningly use and propagate them.

    *I'm using the scientific use of the word "fact," which is opposed to an opinion. A fact can be false.