Quality vs. Quantity Remix

Published September 22, 2011 by Steve Watts #

I made a loose reference in my last post to the quality vs. quantity dilemma faced by many genealogists today. The Genealogy community in general seems rather conflicted on the subject. On the one hand, all of the new records and sharing add huge opportunities to learn things that it would otherwise take much longer to learn (much of what we learn might not even be possible for many). On the other hand, this same thing propagates inaccurate and even “stolen” content at the same lightning pace. My intent here is to present issues - there are few answers because much of the pursuit depends upon what exactly one is pursuing.

One thing is very clear - if someone uses the work of another - online or otherwise - that work should be properly cited. If someone uses a small segment of the work of another that is publicly available, permission is not generally required. If someone uses a large segment of a given work of another, permission is appropriate if permission is possible. The rules surrounding this are more complex than I am stating, but if one is not using something like these rules, then I question their technique and perhaps even their motives. Beyond the rules is logic - if you wish to go back and be able to retrace your steps at any point, you will have saved yourself a great deal of time if you cite your sources.

With appropriate citation chains, the task of determining the credibility of information is made more feasible. The question each Genealogist needs to ask is “if the citation chain is broken in some, or even all items in a given collection, does it make the information useless?” The recommendations I often see for this topic seem to say “throw it out, because the bathwater is tainted.” I’m not really sure what this is telling me. Perhaps this is simply folks out there saying “I refuse to work with someone who violates copyright rules.” For my part, I am doubtful that there is much work out there that does not contain some level of original content gleaned from family members and personal experience - this at a minimum is probably valuable primary source material. That’s normally how anyone gets started in this process and tells me that even work that lacks proper citation probably contains nuggets of information that are worth finding.

This brings up another interesting related discussion. There appears to be a strong tendency to pursue only direct lines. Our experience is that there was great deal of information out there on our direct line - and much of it was from indirect lines. This seems pretty clear, and yet we encounter the tendency over and over when talking to folks who are thinking about pursuing the history of their family. It seems likely that this comes from the extreme difficulty folks have historically encountered with family history - a largely obsolete concern for those able to use computers and navigate the Internet.

All of the above points to more information than many will know what to do with. Take your time with it, and search for the best information available. Don’t throw things out just because there are some questionable items within, but also don’t accept things at face value. Cite sources and document your trail so that you and others can retrace your steps and move forward instead of rehashing or throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In this case, I think quantity will lead to quality, but only if quality is your goal and quality is what you actually strive for.