Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Copy That?

In cop lingo, someone saying "copy" is basically agreeing: "I got that." In other words, what you said is what I heard. Check. Or, as one resource puts it, "affirmative."

That word doesn't have such a positive spin in every discipline. If you mentioned "copy" to genealogists, for instance, it would raise hackles. Dire warnings would ensue. You might quickly assume that "copy" was a concept frowned upon in genealogical circles.

That attitude might have been rapidly accelerated by the advent of online resources. Ever since the launch of Rootsweb in the 1990s, the ability to build one's tree by cutting and pasting from publicly posted material has also become the focus of ridicule and scorn among those who know better. Why, all you would be doing there is copying the mistakes of others—and perpetuating them.

With that scenario in mind, it constantly amazes to take a look at the other side of the digital divide—that time preceding the advent of online research capabilities—when the era of books reigned supreme. That was the age when scholarly researchers and respected genealogists devoted themselves to publishing family histories based on diligent contact of extended family members. The revered books born of this effort of bygone centuries now fill the shelves of libraries across the land—in some cases, affording their administrators bragging rights to claim they are the largest repository of such records, or the second largest genealogical research center in the nation.

Unlike bits and bytes, books apparently mean something.

What they don't mean, necessarily, is that the information contained between their covers is fail-safe. If you've followed along here at A Family Tapestry for any amount of time, you already know I have a beef with the researchers of that era who published books on the Taliaferro line. It's my contention that they have one of the daughters of the younger Zachariah Taliaferro and his wife, Margaret Chew Carter, listed incorrectly. But what do I know? I'm only an online researcher. Never mind that I have more documentation available at my fingertips than a researcher of a century ago could access in nearly a lifetime of travel.

With that in mind, I enter this new project of researching my McClellan line with some trepidation. I have a lot to gain by mounting this research challenge: this is a pioneer family in the state of Florida, including a direct ancestor who was instrumental in the launch of the new state's government. I want to know more about that history.

Besides that, on a more personal note, I have hundreds of DNA test matches for whom I have no way of connecting them to my family tree. I suspect some loose ends might plug into this line of my family tree which I've neglected for so long. I won't know until I launch into that process of researching all the siblings of those ancestors and then tracing their descendants' lines forward through time.

That's where the problem crops up. Do I use those old books as my trailblazers? Can genealogy books make acceptable family history road maps? Or are they just as fault-laden as the trees we're warned against, now posted in online services? When is it permissible to take a peek?

In my case, I have a hybrid resource for my McClellan research: it's a book, but it wasn't written a hundred years ago. Actually, it was self-published by a distant family in-law in 1994, Bonney McClellan. If I remember correctly from my conversation when I purchased the book Kissin' Cousins from her, she had mentioned she was a former officer of the local genealogical society. When you open the cover of her book and delve into the text, it is apparent that she knew her way around source documents and other archival material. Land grants and plat maps, wills and probate, old photos, newspaper clippings and other material fill the book. The narrative filling the pages of her book sounds just like the lingo you'd expect from a genealogy tome.

But do I copy that?

I certainly still wouldn't advocate a wholesale lifting of her material. But we need to have the liberty, as conscientious researchers, to be able to access the work of others and use it as the guide it was intended to be. The work of others can serve as our trailblazers, whether found in hundred-year-old books, more recently published material, and, yes, even in the works of our fellow citizen genealogists posted online.

However, as the old saying has always warned any window shopper, caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware!


  1. Just because it's in a book doesn't make the information better. Just because it's online doesn't make the information current. Just because there is documentation doesn't mean the information is correct. I can say a marriage record confirms this couple, but you need to check it yourself because it could be for another couple who had the same name. The purpose of documentation is to help someone find the same information. We can't merely pick up where the last researcher left off and move forward. Their work is a guide to take us backwards too.

  2. A guide and after that it is up to the researcher to find documents to back up someone elses guesses:)

    1. Aren't you glad those documents are often so easily accessible now?! Yet I'm glad--grateful--for those trailblazers who left the record of their research there for us to examine and compare with the documents we can find. Often it is because of their hints that we are led to "discover" those documents that we otherwise might not have found.

  3. Before we could say, "It wouldn't be on the internet if it wasn't true," we used to say, "It wouldn't be in a book if it wasn't true."

    1. Thanks for providing that perspective, Elizabeth. I suspected there was some misplaced reverence about those books...

  4. I'd use both book and online materials as "guidance" or possible "shaking leaf hint" and not put the stamp of "fact" or Truth (with the capital T) on anything that isn't "iron-clad."

    But surely the research is worth something even if only a "you might want to look and see if this is the "Truth" or not."

    1. It's all worth a look, and should have its "day in court," for lead generation, if nothing else.


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