In the 22 November 2010 edition of Mailbox Monday I challenged readers to check Ancestry.com’s attempts to correct silly place names in their indexes. Readers sent many examples that show that Ancestry.com’s automated abbreviation expansion still produces silly results because context is not considered.
As I read through reader comments, I wondered if English speaking pairs of FamilySearch indexers would ever misindex obvious abbreviations. I decided that a good test case would be a newborn living in Indiana. The younger the baby, the more likely it was born in Indiana, not Iowa.
I searched the 1850 U.S. Census on Ancestry.com for newborns Ancestry.com thought were in Iowa and enumerated in Indiana. I found one and verified from the image that the birthplace was “Ia.” Then I checked the FamilySearch index.
As I expected, FamilySearch Indexers had correctly indexed “Indiana.”
I searched again and found John Houts, 2 months old, born in Ia, and enumerated in Shawnee, Fountain, Indiana. I was surprised that both on Ancestry.com and on FamilySearch.org this newborn Indiana resident’s birthplace was rendered “Iowa.”
This may be an example of presentism. “Presentism is … historical analysis in which present-day ideas and perspectives are [used for] interpretations of the past. … Historians seek to avoid presentism in their work because they believe it creates a distorted understanding of their subject matter.”1
Present day indexers know that IA is the present postal code for Iowa. They may be applying present practices to a past that was different.
As Kathy Gunter Sullivan put it in a recent edition of NGS Magazine, “Despite being handicapped by twenty-first century experience, we attempt to time-travel [to] meet these… folks who by their choices and proclivities affect our lives as well as the shape of our noses.”2
Vendors Listen Up
Ancestry.com and FamilySearch would do well to heed the warning of Elizabeth Shown Mills. “When we record our findings, we should not alter the language of the records. If we do, odds are, we will change the original intent and distort our portrayals.”3
With this in mind, here’s how the search result for John Houts, the example above, should be rendered:
- Indexers key exactly what is seen; any interpretation is secondary.
- Vendors display exactly what is keyed; any interpretation is secondary.
- The vendor displays any interpretations (such as birth date calculations and abbreviation expansion) inside square brackets. That is the English language punctuation standard for text inserted into an original.
- The vendor displays the image at the top; it is the primary result of the search.
- Keyed information is derivative; the vendor displays it second. To minimize vendor interpretation, it is arranged like the original.
- The vendor uses the same column headings as the original. Otherwise, vendors provide mouse-over popups that display original headings.
- The vendor provides links to the enumerator instructions.
- To avoid interpretation of relationships within a household, the vendor displays the result for a single individual within the context of a household.
As Paul McCartney never put it:
The world has had enough of silly presentisms.
I look around me and I see it’s really so.
Quality conclusions don’t come in a minute.
Sometimes they never come at all.
I only know that when I see ‘em,
Quality conclusions are not silly at all.
1. Various contributors, “Presentism (Literary and Historical Analysis),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia (http://en.wikipedia.org : 6 September 2010, 14:35 UTC).
2. “Late-night Ruminations of a Tired Genealogist,” October-December 2009, 34.
3. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 2nd ed. (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009), 20.