Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Internet is EVIL! (updated)

There's something about people complaining about flawed research on the Internet that bugs me. Every time I read the latest mailing list, newsletter or blog post, I want to reply.

First, let's be clear that I wholeheartedly agree with those that point out the often underwhelming inclusion of citations with online family research. I've complained (mostly privately, until now) that a lack of documentation drives me nuts — if I can find the source of information about my ancestors, eventually I'll get around to getting my own photocopies. But I understand why most people chose not to list sources.

I'm about to send out a modified register report that, straight out of AQ, is 146 pages long — 45 pages of which are citations. There's still plenty to research for this surname, at least in my mind, but this is why I only list a handful of contacts on the website; there are too many citations derived from documents to manage. If anyone asks, I can easily check where the info came from, assuming I'm caught up on data entry and filing. And it's all there to see in the reports I send out privately.

This is different, though, than not knowing the source at all. Even if the source turns out to be inaccurate or comes secondhand, at least know where you found it.

What bugs me about other comments is what I perceive to be a different issue: How the Internet allows bad info to be found easily or spread quickly. I don't understand this line of thought. To me, the Internet makes it easy to share information and find new resources, and any identifiable pitfalls of online research seem to present themselves elsewhere. The Internet itself is not to blame. Poor research can be found in books, family newsletters, articles, vertical files, paid research (Anjou, anyone?) or unpublished private collections, not to mention the mistakes found in vital records and other assorted documents. It's people that are the problem. If anything, the Internet makes it easier to spot the flawed research and it's only going to get easier as more materials are digitized or at least indexed.

It's easy to complain about online family tree or GEDCOM backup sites, but that material would exist whether there was an Internet or not. You wouldn't be able to find it as easily, but the info is waiting for you in a library or with a new cousin. If anything, people should be praising the Internet for its ability to easily collect data, make comparisons and find new leads. (Aren't you baffled at how so many submissions to WorldConnect or FamilySearch can be so different for some individuals?)

Then there are those in the 'real world' that think "if it's online, it can't be trusted." Such thoughts are ridiculous. Wherever information comes from, it needs to be verified. I should question the work of a professional researcher or society, what is found on a state-issued death certificate, or in an obituary. Conversely, others should question my research. If I'm wrong about something, so be it. It's not the end of the world. I'd much rather be the person who can produce quality research while accepting that mistakes are made and corrections are part of the process, than the stubborn one who won't budge on the smallest detail.

The point that should be driven home is that we should stress good research and fact checking habits. It may be an extreme thought, but from personal experience I believe that everyone should take one class before beginning family research: How to Record Sources and Citations. Not learning that up front will cost you valuable time and perhaps add to your costs. And if everyone kept better records of their sources, judging the accuracy of online genealogical data wouldn't be such an issue.

Update (11/11): The news about family history books being scanned and put online came out a while back, but this sort of thing usually takes some time to make its way through mailing lists. In the last few days there have been several "I saw this on another list" kind of messages; the equivalent of forwarding email to dozens of people or sort of how I lazily post links here without writing anything else.

Granted, what I'm annoyed by at the moment is so far just a single message — I'm not going to scour all of RootsWeb's archives looking for supporting evidence to justify my pet peeve — but this is exactly what I wrote about before. To criticize a project over a couple of inferior (in someone's opinion) works and to then take a shot at the Internet...I simply do not understand this thought process.

This bad data or research, especially if it's over ten years old, is going to be found somewhere in the real world. Start complaining about that and lay off of the Internet for a while. It's working just fine for me and many others. Even bad data (different than fake info) can lead to something new and exciting, and groups (e.g., BYU, FHL, ProQuest, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft) that want to make it easier to find new leads for free are OK with me.

If some are disappointed that the Internet is not providing them with entirely accurate info or ready-made genealogies, then kindly tell me where in the real world you are getting that type of assistance because I need to become a member or visit their office ASAP.


1 comment:

Chris said...

I have to agree that the problem is a lack of basic skills. The Internet just allows bad genealogists to be more efficiently bad.