Tuesday, 25 January 2022

Crystal Balls


About the time of my previous post on Genealogical Software, I came across a forward-looking article by Dick Eastman that mentioned push-button genealogy: What I See in My Crystal Ball: The Future of Genealogy Research. After picking myself up off the floor and composing myself, I just had to comment on the fallacy of this.

In all fairness, these mentions were really talking about automated record matching, and the article acknowledges that the process is not quite there yet, especially not "for all ancestors". However, in this vision of the future, we would eventually be able "to push a button and see a filled-in pedigree chart within seconds". So what's wrong with this picture?

Well, it assumes that records are clear, unambiguous, and cover everyone. Of the two-dozen or so research articles that I have published, more than 75% involve difficult cases of establishing identities and relationships where those facts were either disguised, deliberately hidden, or simply not documented in the records. If someone changed their name, or tried to conceal the parentage of a birth, then the "reliable records" are not going to help, no matter how much the developers "fine-tune the algorithms".

At best, this push-button genealogy will generate a valuable set of hints, and we all know how unreliable such hints can be. But on the whole, wouldn't the list be mostly accurate, once the technology has matured more; wouldn't it only be a minority of cases that needed the heavy-lifting? Well, no, once you have an error then it propagates downwards through subsequent generations, and all would have to be unpicked if that error ever got detected. As they say: one bad apple can spoil the bunch.

Difficult identity cases need a wider perspective (basically the FAN principle), and a consideration of both context and non-written sources. If you ignore such things as ephemera or oral history, instead expecting direct answers to be found in the so-called reliable records, then you will fail at some point.

This all reminds me of the case that got me into genealogy, a case recounted on a very early episode of Mondays with Myrt. This was a promise to my mother that I would find her estranged five siblings. They were all taken away from the family home back in 1947, and then sent to various foster homes or officially adopted. My mother was the oldest at the time (9 years), and it had been so long that she could only just recall their names and ages.

My first plan was to hire a professional but they told me that it simply wasn't possible. You see, all the relevant records were destroyed within 25 years of the event, and so there were no records to go on. I didn't accept the impossibility of this endeavour because it was important to me, and to my mother. My mother's natural parents (who I found had divorced shortly after the event) had passed on well before I started, and so my research had to identify extended family (aunts, uncles, cousins) and actually talk to real people, much as a detective would do. I did consult records but they were not obvious ones, and only selected on the basis of cases made from such testimony. Most of those siblings had changed their name (two had even changed their given name as well as their surname), but the effort was successful: they were reunited on my mother's 70th birthday.

Maybe you can now understand why I take such developer-based claims with a large pinch of salt. Genealogical research needs real people, and its evolution is not helped by wild and misdirected claims about what software can do for them.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree - push-button family history will never be anything more than possible clues to prove or disprove for all the reasons you've mentioned.