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Is it just me, or does genealogy software need a re-think?

Don't get me wrong, I'm no Luddite. I worked in IT for 30 years and have developed my fair share of software in that time. I strongly believe that technology has a made a major contribution to the boom that family history is currently enjoying. I also believe software can make the life of every genealogist easier and more productive. It's just that I don't think it goes far enough at present - unless, that is, I'm missing something and there are programs and features out there I'm not aware of - in which case, please enlighten me, because I need them.

My concern with most (actually, all) genealogy software I've ever used is that it's geared towards recording "facts". We progress by attaching events and other data to individuals: you create an entry in a database for an individual, then gradually build up details of that person's life by inputting their birth, baptism, marriage, death, burial etc. as you uncover that information. You also connect those individuals to previous and next generations and to their spouses, and can then use the information recorded to generate charts and reports. If you're lucky, the software will also enable - and hopefully even encourage - you to input references for the sources from which that data has been obtained.

So what's wrong with that, I hear you ask? Well, nothing, so far as recording "facts" goes. But the trouble is, so often in genealogy, we're not actually dealing in "facts"; not, at least, in the sense of clear-cut, hard-and-fast indisputable truths about people's lives. In reality, much of what we do as genealogists is actually about hypothesis, conjecture and interpretation. It's about taking snippets of information from various sources and piecing them together as best we can to form a coherent view that hopefully approximates to the reality of history. Some of the sources at our disposal will be highly reliable and in agreement one another, but often sources will be incomplete or questionable and the details we obtain from one source may conflict with those we glean from another. But ideally, we still need to record it all somewhere, and it would be good to be able to do that electronically in some convenient, accessible and usable form (i.e. not just in Notepad or Excel) but without being obliged to make premature decisions about which of several possible pieces of information to give preference to, or which of several possible interpretations or hypotheses to select.

It's a cliché to talk about genealogy as being like trying to piece together a jigsaw to try to form a picture of a person's life, but the analogy is such as good one, it's hard to avoid it. However, so often the task we're faced with is even harder than the hardest jigsaw puzzle. So often it's rather as if somebody had taken all of the jigsaw puzzles out of the cupboard, thrown all of the pieces into a big bag, shaken it up and thrown away the boxes. We're left with no idea what the pictures we're trying to reconstruct should look like and, what's more, not only do we need to put the pieces together in the right way, we also need to disentangle the pieces of several different puzzles from one another in the process.

What worries me about genealogy software is that at present it does nothing to help this process of piecing together information to form a coherent picture. In fact, I think it can make it harder, or encourage "bad" genealogy, by which I mean asserting as "facts" things which are unproven. If we try to use current genealogy software to construct an hypothesis, just to test out an idea, there's an immediate risk things will begin to become crystallised and open to misinterpretation as historical "truth" rather than theory. As soon as we record a piece of information against an individual, however tentative that assignment, that data begins to look like a "fact". As soon as we connect two people together, however unsure we are of that connection, that link begins to look like a solid bond.

Let's take some examples which might make my point clearer.

Suppose we have an individual who was born before 1837, when civil registration of births, marriages and deaths started in England and Wales, and for whom no birth certificate is available therefore to give us an "official" date of birth. If we want to determine or infer that person's date of birth, we will be obliged to work from other sources. The sources available to us might include the following:

  • an entry on the 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 censuses, giving that person's age as 15, 27, 38, 45, 53 and 60 respectively;
  • a marriage certificate dated 1848, giving an age of 21
  • a death certificate dated 1900, giving an age of 80
  • a baptism dated 1st November 1830
  • a family bible, giving a date of birth of 1st November 1830

So, what date of birth do we record in our genealogy program, which only lets us enter a single date of birth against a person? The temptation will be, I suspect, to enter the date of birth from the family bible, since that's the only full date we have available. But it's seriously at odds with the dates of birth implied by the ages collected from the other sources, which are also inconsistent with one another. We also need somehow to explain away how the child was born and baptised on the same day. But, once we've entered into our program "01 Nov 1830" as the date of birth, and "family bible" as the source of that information, there's a risk this will become a "fact". If we export the data as a GEDCOM and publish it online, this date of birth is now "out there" and could become the "received wisdom" for ever more. How frustrating is that, if, some while later, we come across the child's baptism certificate in an elderly relative's possession and discover that it states that the child was baptised aged 7 years on 1st November 1830 and realise that the date in the family bible was incorrect (it could have been written out many years later by someone who entered the date of baptism rather than the date of birth)?

Wouldn't it be better if our genealogy software enabled us to enter several possible values for each piece of data held against a person, each with a documentary source and perhaps a confidence factor of some kind, so we could clearly indicate that the information was uncertain and not a known "fact"?

Let's consider another example. Imagine we're trying to identify the parents of a child baptised in 1799, son of a William and Mary Lock. We search the marriage indexes and identify two possible couples called William and Mary Lock in the right area at the right time. The one couple were married the year before the child's baptism in the village a mile or so down the road. The other couple were married twenty miles away 10 years previously. The temptation will be for us to attach the child to the first couple as their son because they seem so much more likely to be the "right" couple based on the available information. And immediately, however much we ourselves might still have the outside possibility of his belonging to the second couple in the back of our minds as an alternative to be remembered, we have set that relationship in stone and there's a risk it has become a "fact". We ourselves might forget about the second couple. If we publish our data online, no one else will know we still considered this a possible link, that's for sure.

Wouldn't it be great if there were some way in the software for us to indicate a tentative or speculative link to the first couple but also a possible link to the second, with confidence levels and reasons? Is there any software out there that allows that? I'm not aware of any.

Wouldn't it be better if genealogy software could be re-designed to support and assist the genealogical method, by which I means the process we go through to arrive at reasonable conclusions, rather than just the final conclusions themselves? Rather than assigning facts to individuals and then cross-referencing to sources, couldn't we start by recording the content of sources? 

I think what I would like to see is a package which allowed you to:

  • record sources by using pre-defined or user-defined templates (e.g. forms for census data from various years, GRO certificates, parish registers etc. plus forms we built ourselves for unusual or ad hoc requirements)
  • link those sources together to form connections where the information they provide relates to the same "fact" (e.g. a date of birth taken from a birth certificate and an age taken from a census or death certificate) and enable us to highlight the degree to which the information is or is not consistent, with confidence levels assigned to each source, and the ability to comment on our reasons for those confidence levels
  • construct multiple hypothetical timelines and pedigrees for individuals and family groups as a means of trying to analyse the information available to us from the various sources and piece it together into some kind of coherent structure
  • perhaps (is this pie in the sky?) have the program suggest possible connections and point out inconsistencies?

If this could all be done in some kind of graphical form, maybe akin to a mind map, we might then have a tool which was truly of assistance to the genealogical method rather than just allowing us to record - all too often prematurely - the end results of the genealogical method.