Saturday, 5 October 2013

OK, I have a Family Tree. Now What?

Is the goal of creating a family tree worthwhile? What does it tell us about our ancestors? Is this pursuit actually holding back a genuine quest for historical knowledge?

Someone new to genealogy would be forgiven for thinking that genealogy is all about family trees, i.e. some depiction of our biological lineage (including pedigree charts, fan charts, etc.). I know through experience that there are newcomers who believe these terms synonymous and that a family tree is what they should be asking for. Digging below the surface, however, reveals that they actually want more but they do not know what to call it, or what form it might take. This may be difficult to accept for those professionals reading this. Sometimes, over-familiarity with a subject means that you do not see it the way that others, outside of your circle, do.

I want to make a case that the focus on biological lineage in many quarters is actually bad for genealogy, and that it is limiting the online tools and the software products that we are offered. It may also contribute to the denigration of genealogy by some academic historians.

The term family tree is ubiquitous but it is not correct from a mathematical perspective. Even if every family was a nice neat nuclear family then eventually, in some remote generation, we would find that a common ancestor contributed to several lines of lineage. This effect is called Pedigree Collapse. However, we also know that families are more complex than nuclear ones, and together this means that successive generations cannot be represented accurately using a mathematically-correct tree. If we consider relationship types other than biological ones then the representation is not even close to a tree.

So, let’s assume that someone produces a family tree. Maybe they researched it themselves, or maybe they hired someone, or maybe they just took one of the online trees at face value without checking it. Then what? What does it tell them about their ancestors? I have seen too many family trees that focus solely on the surname shared by the person creating it, as though surnames are somehow significant from a genetic point of view. What about all their other ancestors; those whose surname was different? OK, they can print off some huge chart (software and printer permitting) that they can use to wallpaper their bathroom. But what about those odd people who collect trees and stick them together, often resulting in hundreds of thousands of individuals – and sometimes well over a million. What use is such a philatelic pursuit to them, other than being able to wallpaper their whole house, and most of their street too?

If those people look deeply at some of the dates in their trees then they may see a glimmer of something else. For instance, a child’s death on Christmas Day! There’s a story there – a very sad one in this case. That ‘something else’ is what we call family history. It is hardly surprising that the term family history is often held as a more precise description of our pursuit, particularly in the face of a literal interpretation of the term genealogy. For instance, a typical dictionary definition of genealogy[1] is: a record or table of the descent of a person, family, or group from an ancestor or ancestors; a family tree.

Most people who have spent time doing their own research will want to find any and all available information relating to the history of their family. Even if they began with the goal of a family tree, they would quickly have grasped the importance of the extra details from census returns such as occupations, or the fact that a family were neighbours of other family members, or even of future spouses. Building up a picture of their lives, as best we can, tells us much about how we got here, and is something we rightly want to preserve and pass on to our descendants.

We now see many Web sites encouraging people to collaborate on recent local history, including our houses, streets, towns/villages, photographs, personal recollections and personal histories. This is adding our own contributions to that growing collection of family history, and ensuring that our lives are not forgotten. I want to pass on an image of my childhood to my own children but, due to the sometimes over-zealous slum clearance projects of the 1960’s and 1970’s in England, virtually none of the places where I, or my parents or grandparents, lived exist now. I therefore spend as much time researching local places as I do my ancestors. Is this desire to include our own history a new phenomenon?

No, it’s actually following an ancient tradition of oral family-lore and folklore – the telling and re-telling of stories to our family and community members. Although we still tell stories of our past to our children, we now have many alternative media forms including photographs, home movies, letters and other personal documents, official documents, and now digital family history data.

Isn’t it a shame, then, that so much of the supporting software for genealogy is still focused on the concept of a family tree rather than family history? I have recently written about the impact of this on online tools at Collaboration With Tears and later at Collaboration Without Tears, but similar limitations may be found in the software tools that we purchase for our home computers. I expect that some vendors – if they read my blogs posts, of course – will be preparing to counter this and indicate how they support attachments such as photographs, video, and document scans, and how they can represent events in peoples’ lives. Even with products that support full event-based histories, though, the primary presentation interface relies on a family tree. When it comes to generating a timeline, the fact that it was a secondary consideration betrays itself when you find that not everything can be placed on the timeline (e.g. those attachments mentioned above). Where is the support for recording narrative, both for recollections and for transcribed evidence? And what the heck happened to citations?

Sources and citations is such an important subject that I plan to cover it at a later date. I mention it because it is a demonstrable disaster from the point of view of software. It spills over from genealogy into other fields but there are so many entrenched attitudes and so little co-operation that it makes them onerous to use and impossible to share reliably.

Part of the reason for the software limitations might be blamed on the GEDCOM data format. This format is rather old by anyone’s standards, and it was primarily designed to represent family trees. Although it is still successfully used to transfer family trees between people and between products, it falls down badly when you try to transfer data beyond that limited tree concept. As I describe under Commercial Realities of Data Standards, the design of existing software products have been strongly influenced by the concepts within GEDCOM, and by the need to retain some compatibility with it.

The answer to the poser of the title question may be obvious, but what about the industry? Genealogy is about history rather than just lineage. This fact needs to be better communicated to new or non-genealogists, and better embraced by our software tools. We also need modern data standards that support this greater scope. Change is inevitable but how much better if it came from within rather than from “without”.

[1] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., s.v. “genealogy”.