Saturday, January 3, 2009

Full Circle or Infinite Loop?

After a full day of family history research finding data that supports my own records, I started wondering why it was so difficult to find information on my ancestors in the first place. The information was available on numerous and various sites. “Ain’t the Internet great?”, I thought.

And then I started noticing identical sourcing comments, identical typos, my idioms and occasional misspellings. Obviously, there was a lot of copying going on. Everywhere.

Then I noticed some obvious errors that I remember correcting over the past few years. Upon closer inspection of the sites, I recognized that I was looking at my own data that had been posted and reposted over and over. My old errors carried forward on these sites.

I then started searching sites that I don’t use often. Some fine person had posted information on them that tied to my family. Maybe the data would provide clues to help in my own ancestral quest and sourcing of my old data. (Folks of my generation will remember that in the ‘old days’, we rarely wrote down the sources, just notes quoting pieces of the documents we’d found).

The guy posting the data was pretty good. The dates and places matched what I had in my own constantly updated records. Even the source quotes were the same.

And then the house of cards came tumbling down. ‘The Guy’ was me. I’d posted the data over the past few years during my all night research forays and had promptly forgotten all about it.

They say that driving with a lack of sleep is just like driving drunk. I think that researching from 7 pm to 7 am is just as detrimental to your cognitive abilities as drunk driving. I literally don’t remember posting the data, but there was my name as the poster and sure enough, my login allowed me to change the data. Fortunately, everything I found was ‘posted’ not ‘copied’.

GenDataLoop1The wholesale copying of data isn’t new to most of us, but my experience certainly reinforced its inevitable weakness. If you haven’t traced the data and proven it yourself, all you have is a story and as often as not, the story is wrong or full of grievous errors.

Will our posted data ever fade from the scene? Will our errors ever be stamped into submission by well sourced corrections? Are we forced to live with them forever?

The movie “Notting Hill” was playing in the corner of one of my screens while I was finding this mess. Julia Roberts said something to the effect that even though today's newspapers will soon line the bottom of canary cages, a copy of the data is always on file and would always be resurrected to embarrass us in the future.

I suppose that all but the “perfect” among us data posters will be embarrassed from now on. The bad information will float up from the Ancestral File, the Pedigree Resource File, Ancestry Family Tree postings and of course any of the way-back screen scrapes that exist.

A number of years ago, I started embedding spellings, idioms and verbiage patterns in my notes and postings that I’d easily recognize in a future day. It is ‘interesting’ watching them surface over and over. Adding copyright statements aren’t relevant in relation to governmental records of dates and places and apparently aren’t all that useful when applied to the text you include in your postings either.

A few years ago, I attended the funeral of one of my uncles only to hear his eulogy parrot the one I gave at my brothers funeral a few months earlier. Of course the names and dates and a few sentences were changed, but it was my original text, quotes and dialog. Someone had passed on a copy of my text and apparently it fit the bill in another grieving situation.

It was an interesting experience and unfortunately caused me to smile and shake my head at the wrong time. However, I did restrain the body shake of a quiet chuckle and thus further embarrassment was avoided.

Avoid seeing someone shake their head at you. Yes indeed, we need to work together in our research but do it aboveboard.

Looking through my own data, I can see notes that I obviously didn’t write. Where and when did they enter my records? I don’t know. Now I have to excise them and follow the source hints to recreate factual records.

Wholesale theft isn’t the answer to doing research. Someone may actually believe your data to be 100% correct and stop doing research that may find the “hopefully few” grievous errors that you’ve introduced.

If we don’t do our own research or confirm the work done by others the ‘story’ will be perpetuated as fact until it is almost impossible to fix, repeal and supersede with truth.

The New Family Search program and database opens up the opportunity to dispute each others ‘facts’ and statements but at present can’t possibly resolve all the errors that submitters have introduced over the years. It won’t be open to the general populace for some time if my ‘sources’ are correct. Go ahead. Quote me on this. I enjoy future embarrassment. An open chuckle is encouraged at this point.

It will be interesting watching how this issue sorts itself out, if it ever does. Until then, make sure you contact the posters of data and work with them. Ask if you can quote their work and / or team up with them in your common research efforts.

If you steal their data and work, shame on you for the theft and if you don’t prove the data yourself, double shame on you for aiding and abetting the perpetuation of any errors in it.

For now, I’m going back and finding additional ‘forgotten’ wee hour postings that I've made. If they are wrong I’ll fix them and quote them in my research notes. Maybe that will close the loop and that “smart guy” I discovered will be properly neutralized. Full Circle. The circuit should be complete and shorted out…. at least in my records.

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