Standards for Technology in Genealogy

By Mark Howells



A version of this article first appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of Ancestry Magazine


About the Technology Column

It is a great privilege and challenge to be asked to take up Ancestry's Technology Column. Jake Gehring is a very hard act to follow. I will attempt to continue Jake's fine tradition of providing technology information useful to genealogists in clear language - free of "technobabble". I hope you will enjoy reading future columns as much as I will enjoy writing them.

Standards

All hobbies have standards. Model railroading has standard gauges of track. Coin collecting has standards for describing the condition of coins. As a hobby, genealogy is no exception. Research standards and standards of evidence continue to be an important topic for all genealogy researchers. Standards have perhaps become more important with the increasing popularity of genealogy. More researchers engaged in genealogy increases the need for standards and the consistency which standards provide.

The National Genealogical Society (World Wide Web site at http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/ ) has recently endorsed three standards for genealogists. These three are Standards For Sound Genealogical Research; Standards For Using Records Repositories and Libraries; and Standards For Use Of Technology In Genealogical Research, available at Genealogical Standards.

Standards for Use of Technology

The Standards For Use Of Technology In Genealogical Research are of particular interest the readers of this column. These Standards on technology are listed in full in the side panel and may be found on the World Wide Web at http://www.genealogy.org/~ngs/standtec.html. Of course, there have been previous technology-oriented standards, such as the widely accepted GEnealogical Data COMmunications (GEDCOM) standard for sharing genealogical information between diverse software programs. To my knowledge however, these Standards from the National Genealogical Society are the first to address how technology should be used as a research tool.

It's worthwhile to review some of the points in these Standards and emphasize their importance. The Standards provide a solid framework for approaching how technology can assist us in our genealogical research. The Standards' opening sentence sets their tone by reminding us that "computers are tools". As with any tool we use, we remain responsible for whether the tool is used badly or well. Here are just five parts of the Standards which are particularly noteworthy.

Be Polite

"Genealogists...treat people on-line as courteously and civilly as they would treat them face-to-face, not separated by networks and anonymity."
Always be kind to the people you meet on-line. You never know if person on the other end of the wire might turn out to be your fourth cousin, twice removed - the one with the family bible in their attic! If someone on-line gets your hackles up, try responding as you would if they were sitting next to you. The temptation to respond more strongly must be resisted. When "meeting" people electronically, good manners are more, not less, important.

Be Skeptical

"Genealogists...preserve the integrity of their own data bases by evaluating the reliability of downloaded data before incorporating it into their own files."
The old saying about computers - "garbage in, garbage out" - should really be changed to "garbage in, gospel out" because we are so apt to believe in the accuracy of computerized output. This is due to the "authority" which computers apparently lend to the data they process. ALL information from ANY source should carefully scrutinized for its accuracy before any reliance is placed on it. Computerized information is no exception.

Be Thorough

"Genealogists...treat compiled information from on-line sources or digital data bases like that from other published sources, useful primarily as a guide to locating original records, but not as evidence for a conclusion or assertion."
As with any genealogical resource which has been derived from original source material, computerized information should be used as a road sign pointing back to the original source records. When an entry is found in a database such as the International Genealogical Index or in one of the commercially available CD-ROM databases, the entry can only be used as helpful clue. The information from the entry must be further verified by consulting the original record.

Be Accurate

"Genealogists...cite sources for data obtained on-line or from digital media with the same care that is appropriate for sources on paper and other traditional media, and enter data into a digital database only when its source can remain associated with it."
Genealogical information without proper citations is only hearsay. We've all learned the value of citing our sources of genealogical research. First, it helps us remember where we got our information from for our own research purposes - cross checking, re-evaluating, and comparison with information found later. Second, it shows the other researchers with whom we share our research that we have conducted careful and reliable research. The electronic sources of genealogical information must be noted and preserved as carefully as any other source.

Be Aware

"Genealogists...accept that technology has not changed the principles of genealogical research, only some of the procedures."
Returning to the theme that "computers are tools", this part nicely summarizes the main point of the Standards. The basic principles which generate sound genealogical research have remained constant in the face of rapid technical change. The fundamental processes which guide quality genealogy have not altered - only the tools have changed. The National Genealogical Society's Standards For Use Of Technology In Genealogical Research are a good reminder of this fact.


Standards For Use Of Technology In Genealogical Research

Recommended by the National Genealogical Society

Mindful that computers are tools, genealogists take full responsibility for their work, and therefore they--

    • learn the capabilities and limits of their equipment and software, and use them only when they are the most appropriate tools for a purpose.
    • refuse to let computer software automatically embellish their work.
    • treat compiled information from on-line sources or digital data bases like that from other published sources, useful primarily as a guide to locating original records, but not as evidence for a conclusion or assertion.
    • accept digital images or enhancements of an original record as a satisfactory substitute for the original only when there is reasonable assurance that the image accurately reproduces the unaltered original.
    • cite sources for data obtained on-line or from digital media with the same care that is appropriate for sources on paper and other traditional media, and enter data into a digital database only when its source can remain associated with it.
    • always cite the sources for information or data posted on-line or sent to others, naming the author of a digital file as its immediate source, while crediting original sources cited within the file.
    • preserve the integrity of their own data bases by evaluating the reliability of downloaded data before incorporating it into their own files.
    • provide, whenever they alter data received in digital form, a description of the change that will accompany the altered data whenever it is shared with others.
    • actively oppose the proliferation of error, rumor and fraud by personally verifying or correcting information, or noting it as unverified, before passing it on to others.
    • treat people on-line as courteously and civilly as they would treat them face-to-face, not separated by networks and anonymity.
    • accept that technology has not changed the principles of genealogical research, only some of the procedures.

    Copyright © 1997 by the National Genealogical Society. Permission is granted to copy or publish this material provided it is reproduced in its entirety, including this notice.



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Standards for Technology in Genealogy
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Updated June 10, 2000

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