Become the Expert – Then, Collaborate

Burton Lee Roberts

Burton Lee Roberts

If anyone knows more about Burton Lee Roberts than me, it would be my mother – and I’ve told her things over the past five years she didn’t know about him.  He was my father for thirty-three years before his death in 1988.  While free with his opinions, he held his secrets close.  I peppered him with questions all my life about his family, growing up, military service and the medical profession.  He and I cleared land together, did electrical trim work over one summer and fished on a few occasions.  I got to know him better (understand) through my psychology and pastoral counseling studies.  He and I spoke of spiritual things on only a couple of occasions.  We later had our goodbye conversation when it became clear he would not live much longer.  I believed we were ready.  I was wrong.

My 2012 budding interest in genealogy, and Dad’s family in particular, brought multiple new facts and affirmations about his life to light.  And with those discoveries many more new questions I wish I could ask.  I peppered Mom and one surviving aunt with some of those questions.  I so wish I had become interested in genealogy earlier.  My dad’s sister would have been a gold mine of information.  She died in 2010.  Missed opportunity.

Now what?  I still know a great deal about him and continue to pursue missing information and historical tidbits.  I will tell his story – and stories.  As I’ve explained, I’m in the best position of perhaps anyone to do so.

What about you?  Whose life or family line do you know better than just about anyone else?  This makes you the closest thing to an “expert” on that line.  (Tread lightly here.  One definition of an expert is “a has been under pressure”.)  You have something significant you should consider giving it to the greater genealogical community.  How do you share it?

Collaborate

I use online trees and DNA to find new cousins.  My online tree is bigger, more expansive and less documented than the one I’m building offline.  It’s only a tool to find those new cousins.  These cousins know more about a particular part of a family line than I do.  They have access to documents and therefore documentation I do not have.  They often have photos and family lore.  This is when I let them “straighten me out”.  I’m ready to consider their facts and hear their arguments.  Trust, but verify.  When I find a researcher (cousin) who will not turn and run the first time we disagree, I find a jewel.  I treasure these people in my genealogical research and my life.  I could not know what I know today without them.  May their tribe increase.

My appeal to you

  • Do diligent research.  Follow genealogical proof standards.
  • Write and post stories to your online trees.
  • Find other researchers interested in your family line through online trees and DNA results.
  • Be ready to collaborate.  Be generous with your research.  Be open to having your work questioned.  If you’re right, best genealogical research practices will confirm it.  If you’re wrong, you’ve found what you’ve wanted all along – a more accurate representative tree of your family lines.

TIP:  When you’re contacted by another researcher and told you may be wrong (or often just told you’re flat-out wrong!), receive it and let them know you welcome their input.  Consider them a research partner in this branch of your research.  Check out their documentation.  If they’re right, admit it.  Tell them how right they are and how much you appreciate their work.  Right or wrong, let them know you appreciate their effort to assist you.

A cousin once contacted me and told me I might need to check a part of my tree.  They believed I was wrong about who and how I had a branch configured.  They shared with me their understanding of that branch.  Here’s the first thing I thought.  It’s unlikely I would know more or be more accurate than this cousin about this part of our shared tree.  I listened.  I considered.  Of course, she was right –  and of course I wish I always thought this way!

A “new cousin” recently contacted me and said I might want to reconsider some children I had attributed to a couple in my tree.  He sent me transcriptions of two legal documents with source citations.  He was right.  I did want to reconsider it.  His information introduced me to a new person in my tree previously unknown and resolved some conflict in my research.  Collaboration.

Become the expert in your branches of the family tree and then freely, willing, joyfully collaborate with others.

 

Genealogy Tip #9: Writing Family Stories and the Genealogical Proof Standards

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”?[i]

Writing Our Family StoriesMany family storytellers aren’t interested in genealogical proof standards.  They’re simply telling stories to entertain.  That’s their goal.  I applaud the storyteller.  I love a good story.  But, the family historian can’t afford to adopt this attitude.  Their goal must first be accuracy and then entertainment.  Otherwise, it’s not history and they’re not a family historian.  So, let’s be clear, this post is not about family stories vs. genealogical proof standards.  It’s about family stories and genealogical proof standards.  It’s about how we take well researched family facts and use them to tell accurately entertaining stories – and if we can’t, we should make it clear we’re only repeating a family tale.

I visited a “family history” website this past week that illustrates the clash.  The writer warned me in the first few lines not to trust all of the things written about their family on the internet (Sites and trees other than theirs is what they had in mind.).  One page later they inform us their ancestors welcomed Davy Crockett into their home in Tennessee as he made his way to the Alamo.  They further claim their ancestors were neighbors to another Republic of Texas history legend, Edward Burleson.[ii]  This is done without any reference to one scintilla of evidence supporting such claims.  Is this a problem? Yes? No? Maybe?  Tell the story.  It’s not a “crime”.  It’s not the problem.  To repeat it as historical fact or as if it were historically accurate IS a problem.

Family stories are told in many forms all over the world.  This isn’t a problem.  If you’re telling family stories, you’re not in trouble – even if they’re speculative and knowingly or unknowingly inaccurate.  However, if you tell these unsubstantiated stories as if they’re historical facts and you expect other family trees to reflect your “notion of the truth”, this is a problem.  And if you’re reading and repeating these stories as “gospel truth”, you’re participating in and propagating a problem.

Family stories and genealogical proof standards are not incongruous.  You need not decide one or the other.  You can choose both.  Here are some suggestions.

First, Understand the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Genealogical Standards book cover“Proof is a fundamental concept in genealogy. In order to merit confidence, each conclusion about an ancestor must have sufficient credibility to be accepted as “proved.” Acceptable conclusions, therefore, meet the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS). The GPS consists of five elements:

  • reasonably exhaustive research;
  • complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item;
  • tests—through processes of analysis and correlation—of all sources, information items, and evidence;
  • resolution of conflicts among evidence items; and
  • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.

Each element contributes to a conclusion’s credibility in a different way, described in the table below, but all the elements are necessary to establish proof.

Element of the GPS Contribution to Credibility
Reasonably exhaustive research
  • Assumes examination of a wide range of high quality sources
  • Minimizes the probability that undiscovered evidence will overturn a too-hasty conclusion
Complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item
  • Demonstrates the extent of the search and the quality of the sources
  • Allows others to replicate the steps taken to reach the conclusion. (Inability to replicate the research casts doubt on the conclusion.)
Tests—through processes of analysis and correlation—of all sources, information items, and evidence
  • Facilitates sound interpretation of the data contributed by each source
  • Ensures that the conclusion reflects all the evidence
Resolution of conflicts among evidence items
  • Substantiates the conclusion’s credibility. (If conflicting evidence is not resolved, a credible conclusion is not possible.)
Soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.
  • Eliminates the possibility that the conclusion is based on bias, preconception, or inadequate appreciation of the evidence
  • Explains how the evidence led to the conclusion “

(The previous quote is taken from the Board for Certification of Genealogist blog[iii])

This should be the standard for our family history research.

Need more information?  Consider these excellent resources:

Next, Understand the Purpose(s) of Our Stories

Why do we tell our family stories?

  1. Inform and Encourage. Knowing our family’s history helps us find “our place”.  We gain a sense of belonging and find value in our family members’ accomplishments and place in history.
  2. Inspire. We tell our family stories to inspire family members and others to greatness.  “Common people” accomplishing uncommon things inspires us to rise to a greater finish.
  3. Warn. We share our family’s stories as a warning to ourselves and others.  We all have “black sheep” in our families.  (They’re some of my favorites.)  Telling their stories in our “tales” warns us about our present path or our possible future.  Someone will tell our story one day.  Will it inspire or warn off a future generation?
  4. Entertain. Our stories may inform, encourage, inspire or even warn.  They should also entertain.  Think about it.  If our goal is to inform and inspire, aren’t we more likely to accomplish this if we’re also entertaining?

What makes our stories entertaining? 

I would be the last person to tell you how to write.  I’m woefully inadequate.  I do, however, have a fair ability to recognize a good story and a good storyteller.  They can articulate or at least know intuitively their story needs three parts.  (Don’t think beginning, middle and end.)  Think instead of your favorite stories/movies.  What do they have in common?  Every good story has three ingredients:

  • Origination. The listener/reader needs to be drawn in and at the same time oriented to the main character and crisis in the story.  It grabs, excites, introduces, informs and compels the reader/listener forward into the story.  The first part of a good origination could be a sentence, paragraphs or chapters in length.  For example, “James Williams was short in stature but he was guaranteed another inch or two from the hangman’s noose.”  Conflict (inner or outer) in one form or another is always introduced in this first part.  To have a story, something has to go wrong.
  • The conflict escalates. Things may get better, but they eventually get worse.  There may be a series of improvements but if there is, things continue to get worse after each one.  It’s a roller-coaster of emotions as you learn more and care more about the main character and feel stronger angst toward his combatants.  Impending doom is approaching.  “…James’ attorney had located his third potential witness to alibi his client and save him from the gallows, but like the previous two, he too disappeared.”  The tension builds.
  • Resolution.  The story is brought to a conclusion when the initial conflict is brought to a resolution.  In the fictional stories I used to tell my children, the hero always won.  But, that’s not always possible when telling historically accurate stories.  Sometimes James Williams is hung.

There is a wealth of information on “what makes a good story”.  Google it.  Read a book about it.  Take a course.  Practice. Practice.  Practice.  But never stop learning or trying to make your stories entertaining.  Our improving ability to tell our stories will increase the likelihood our family histories will be known, cherished and repeated.

Use the comment section to share any “what makes a good story” material you know of to help family history writers.

Now, Combine the two disciplines.

Here’s how we transform our family research into entertaining, historical, uncompromised family stories.

  1. Use the Genealogical Proof Standards as a guideline in your family research. Have a story to tell based on historical facts demonstrated by historical, genealogical evidence.  Catalog and save your documentation.  Use endnotes to share your sources.
  2. Write or tell your story based on the facts you’ve uncovered and documented. Write your story using the guidelines on what makes a good story.  It will take time and practice but you can do it.  Make it a good story.  Make it a true story.  Use accurate, documented facts.
  3. If you feel you must tell your relative’s tall tale (or short tale) about your ancestor, or you just want to tell it, clearly identify it as a historically unsubstantiated tale.

Writing our family’s history is fun and entertaining.  To be history, it needs to be accurate.  We’re not creating fictional families.  We’re family historians.  We’re uncovering history.  We tell the rich story of our ancestors.  Knowing their true stories adds richness to our lives.  Telling their stories well adds richness to the lives of others.

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Now, let’s go write those entertaining stories!

[i] According to Barry Popik this phrase or a form of it is often credited to Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie but it appeared in print as early as 1882 or six years before Dobie was born.

[ii] The website mentioned in this example is real but being withheld in order to…well, protect my possible cousin!

[iii] Board for Certification of Genealogist.

[iv] Available at Amazon.

[v] Available at Amazon.

[vi] Available at Amazon.