Genealogy Tip: It’s important to know your sources’ points of view in genealogy
In the age of the Internet we have all come to the realization of the importance of knowing what your source is and what their point of view, or bias, might be. After all you don’t want to be caught believing the most recent post from The Onion is actually news. Plus if you are a political junky, you certainly are aware you can follow the same story on Fox and MSNBC and get quite a different view of it.
So it is with our genealogy and family history. You must know your sources and what their biases may have been. It is critical to the quality of your final product as well as how you spend your time researching.
Let me explain…
Bias has been with us since time immemorial. I bet even the Neanderthals were biased against the Hominids. There is also the primary fact throughout history, history has tended to be written by the victors and not the vanquished.
You can compound this with the fact stories and memories change over time. As genealogy fans we all have come across those bits of family lore and stories, which tend to contain embellishments, errors in memory, and at times are simply made up. The other fact is that these bits of family lore tend to change over time. Personally, I don’t think there was a single story my grandfather told me about his youth in Cornwall that didn’t change each time he told it to me. Plus it can depend on who was told the story. Again, in my family, my great grandfather disappeared from the family in 1911. According to some stories he vanished. According to my grandmother he often would come by the house late in the nights to see the family again. Yet others said he left to escape overwhelming debts. We may never know, but I am sure each person who related their story no doubt believed it to be the truth.
In my work on my Czech genealogy there is the rift between those immigrants who were Freethinkers and those who stayed loyal to the Roman Catholic Church. According to several well recognized academics on Czech history, such as Dr. Bruce Garver and Dr. Karel Bicha, the split was roughly 50/50. The chasm between these two groups could be huge and again in my own family not only did it split branches of the family apart, but it lingered into my youth in the 1950s and 1960s.
I bring this split up as a case in point as there are authors who have written about the Czech experiences in America who are highly biased towards one side and just as highly biased against the other. Even someone as well-known as Jan Habenicht, in his wonderful book History of Czechs in America consistently showed his bias for those Czechs who remained Catholic and gave very short shrift to the Freethinking communities. On the other side, you can find authors such as Hugo Chotek who were just as vehemently pro-Freethinkers and anti-Catholic. To do a good job you simply need to be aware that these types of biases exist and can effect an author’s work.
One excellent way I have come to try and better understand authors’ biases is to read each and every footnote. You can learn a lot about an author’s focus by reading what works she/he cites in their work and which she/he decided to ignore and not include.
This issue of bias also illustrates the need to find original documents and sources. All you have to do is follow the news once again. In one case occurring right now, someone in the New York Police Department has been altering Wiki information on their ‘enemies’ so you can see why any WIKI is not a qualified source.
So be cautious and maintain a healthy level of skepticism when doing your research.
In the long run it will pay you dividends and save you time and possibly even some hard earned cash.
Onward To Our Past®