That struggle between free and expensive, encapsulated in the Stewart Brand quote I mentioned earlier this week concerning the dichotomy inherent in the nature of information, can all be blamed on something I read earlier this month.
It was a long and rambling piece recognized by genealogy blogger Randy Seaver in his "Best of the Genea Blogs" week in review on June 12. Since I rely on Randy's take—among many others—on what's new and interesting in the world of genealogy, I noticed his mention of this particular post.
The post came with a title which seemed innocuous enough—"Is Your Genealogist Certified or Certifiable?" Don't let that title fool you into thinking the subject matter was one straightforward—or bland—declaration of opinion. Above all, don't convince yourself that you will either agree or disagree with the body of his contention. This article is a journey. And it is not an either/or proposition; it is both/and. Don't let the consuming sense of violent opposition keep you from mining the nuggets embedded within the screed.
Before I start sharing some excerpts from this article, let me mention a few background details. For one thing, being unfamiliar with this blogger—E. Randol Schoenberg—I had no idea he was likely the very man sitting behind the table underneath the banner for Geni.com at the conference I just attended earlier this month.
Still, since I am not familiar with Geni.com, being a staffer at their table at a conference exhibit hall would not be a compelling enough reason to draw me aside. So I didn't stop by.
(Now, if someone had told me that this very man was a grandson of composer Arnold Schoenberg, for that I would have stopped.)
Granted, if earlier, I had been introduced to this man's blog posts, I likely would have wanted to have some face to face interaction. But now I can only hope to have a chance to connect in the future with someone who remarked,
If you don’t publish your work and allow it to be reviewed (as all scientists and academics do, for example) you really cannot advance the field or find out if you made a mistake. A field in which no one publishes their work so that it can be verified is not rigorous enough to be taken seriously.About what circumstance did he make this comment? He was concerned with genealogists who do not make their own trees—research on their own families—available for public scrutiny. (Read here: those who do not post a public family tree, which is not necessarily one and the same as an academic publication of one's "work," in which responsibility for the veracity—or value—of the work may be fixed upon a specific individual or team of researchers.)
Of course, this man has a vested interest in encouraging people to make their trees public: he is an advocate for Geni.com, home of the "World Family Tree."
As compelling an argument as Schoenberg can make for your participation in this public tree project, he can turn scathing in his replies to those recoiling from that open access. Take his remarks about that protest I've been writing about this week, the one complaining about who "stole" someone else's family tree.
No amount of explanation can temper their ire. The mere suggestion that they might not have the right to tell other people what they can and cannot put on a family tree sends them into a fit of fury. No, their family trees are highly valuable trade secrets that must be kept out of the public domain.
He continues with his apparent characteristic flair:
And of course, their work is always 100% correct, although no one is ever allowed to check it to make sure. They cannot be associated with the work of others who certainly don’t meet their high standards. Indeed, their work must be protected from the masses who are all just chomping at the bit to alter their trees and intentionally insert mistakes into their otherwise error-free data.... [N]o matter what privacy protections a company might offer, they aren’t enough to protect their family members from the marauding hordes that are just waiting to peek at their family trees to torment them and steal their identities.
This acerbic treatment continues in his other posts. True to blogging form, Schoenberg hyperlinked some of his references to expanded treatment in previous posts, including one about the World Family Tree, asking "Why Aren't You A Part of It?"
This is where I found myself getting a bit testy. True, the blogger starts out innocuously enough. "Most people start genealogy with a pretty narcissistic it’s-all-about-me approach," he begins. "But as you mature, you should start to think about how you can contribute your work to something larger than yourself."
His conclusion? "The best way to do that is not to work alone."
But he can't just leave nice enough alone.
Let's face it, you're lazy. I know why you haven’t put your tree on Geni. You think it’s a lot of work, and you don’t want to have to redo everything you’ve done for the past umpteen years.
Continuing in a third post, "Answers to Geni Skeptics," hyperlinked from the second post mentioned above, he begins to take on the air of a Yiddish grandmother.
About "someone stole my tree"...
You don’t own your mother and father, even if you call them “my mother” or “my father.” So, no one can “steal” your family tree.... The bottom line is that anyone is allowed to create a family tree [on Geni.com] using the data on your family tree. So, get over it.
About demanding that a family member be deleted from the World Family Tree:
Please. Let your sister take care of herself. You aren’t responsible for her.
About dislike over the lack of control on a public tree like the one on Geni.com:
If, when you were in Kindergarten, you got a “Needs Improvement” in Works Well With Others, then Geni is not for you.
About finding mistakes on a collaborative tree:
You didn’t bother to try to fix the mistake because you’d rather criticize Geni than actually do genealogy. You think you are the greatest genealogist in the world, but you have no clue because you have never worked on a collaborative site like Geni and seen how other genealogists work. There are folks on Geni who do more serious genealogical work before breakfast each morning than you do in an entire week. But you wouldn’t know that, because you are too old-fashioned to try something new.
But most of all, what irks me is that, though the author goes to great lengths to compare genealogy with science in general (ah, now you see the inspiration for yesterday's post), he dismisses the efforts of genealogical research with a brusque comment,
that beautiful little tree that you spruce up and polish and admire is going to simply disappear into oblivion when you are gone. No one is going to care.
And reduces genealogical work to the mere assembling of facts, as if, unlike a scientific exploration, the effort of a case study would not add anything of conceptually original work.
The basic facts on a family tree...are neither original nor authored by you. They are not protected by copyright. This is true even if you did a lot of work or paid a lot of money to compile the information. The bottom line is that anyone is allowed to create a family tree using the data on your family tree. So, get over it.
I've thought long and hard about these three posts by this southern California attorney. While I may not be as eloquent—nor as biting—as he, I still disagree. Genealogical research is not merely the assembling of publicly-accessible facts. Not, at least, if you take the time to construct a thorough proof argument in support of the way you chose to do the assembly of those disparate—and often hidden—parts.
While this author may contend that a "field in which no one publishes their work so that it can be verified is not rigorous enough to be taken seriously," if no one may receive credit for that hard-won work, it is likely there will not even be such work published.
Rigorous work requiring peer-reviewed examination also includes holding the workers responsible for their own work. I'm concerned that "work" which magically appears—or is subsequently magically adjusted (maybe to the better, maybe to the worse)—without any responsibility affixed to insure its accuracy may, in the long run, not provide enough incentive for qualified participants to continue contributing to the increase of that body of knowledge.