Saturday, November 24, 2012

Of Rodney King and Aussie Hats...

I've been oddly disturbed the last few days about the discussion going on (again) regarding perceived elitism toward newbies in the genealogical community. I hate conflict, and in the words of the late Rodney King, my first response is "can we all get along?"

The conversation has been wide-ranging, with many ideas expressed, and I won't re-hash it here, except to direct you to the Transitional Genealogists Forum and Harold Henderson's excellent post at his Midwestern Microhistory blog. One point I don't recall being mentioned is that all genealogists, young or old, certified/accredited or beginner, would be well-served to more frequently separate fact from opinion:
  • It is a fact that there is a lot of bad genealogical data on the Internet.
  • It is a fact that some people are of the opinion that some experienced genealogists are snobs and treat beginning genealogists poorly.
  • It is my opinion that these two facts are not necessarily related, and should be addressed separately if we are to progress in improving either issue.
I agree that the metaphors the original author used were poorly chosen, but I think it requires a huge leap of logic to conclude that the article is indicative of a snobbish or elitist attitude that is dismissive of the needs of beginning genealogists, or that this attitude is widespread. On the other hand, I agree with those who seek first to encourage newbie enthusiasm, and believe that discussing the details of the Genealogical Proof Standard with beginners can be an exercise in futility.

I don't think it's asking too much, however, to encourage beginners to "cite your sources," while explaining that "my grandmother told me" is a perfectly acceptable source. That's certainly what I was told when I was an "out-of-place amongst my elders 20-something" more than three decades ago. (How to format those sources can come later.) And I don't think it's asking too much to suggest that they begin to think about the differences between information and the assumptions we make (or opinions we form) about that information.

This brings me to the subject of Australian-style hats. Earlier this week, I scanned a photograph of my father's B-24 Liberator bomber crew serving in Australia and New Guinea in 1942-43 and sent it to the son of his buddy on the crew:
Gun Moll Inc Crew - Pilot Everett A. Eisenberg
319th Squadron "Asterperious"
5th Air Force, 90th Bomb Group "The Jolly Rogers"

I had plenty of reliable information (including his signature with address on the back of the photo) to know that one man on the crew was Australian and served with the RAAF, but I could only identify my father and the pilot. I assumed that the man on the right in the front row was the Australian.

Boy, was I wrong! He is not from Australia, but my father's best buddy from New Jersey, according to his son.

See how that works? We take information and develop assumptions or opinions about the information that may or may not be accurate. I suggest that, with examples like this, it is not difficult to start the process of teaching beginners about sources, information, and evidence.

I also suggest that in this recurring discussion of elitism, it would be helpful if we all step-back, carefully separate fact from opinion, and ponder whether expressing opinions in a manner that can be interpreted (or misinterpreted) as characterizing either hobbyists or professionals with a negative broad brush does anyone any good.