What I’m Reading: Genealogy Standards, Crowdsourcing & Math

An interesting confluence of topics and ideas has emerged in some recent articles I’ve read. While I was working my way through the December 2013 issue of the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly, The New York Times published A.J. Jacobs opinion piece, “Are You My Cousin?,” and then a client pointed me to the blog post at Wait But Why titled “Your Family: Past, Present, and Future.”

What’s the connection? On the one side, it’s the Association of Professional Genealogists’ series of articles focusing on the five elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard:

•    a reasonably exhaustive search;
•    complete and accurate source citations;
•    analysis and correlation of the collected information;
•    resolution of any conflicting evidence; and
•    a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.

On the other, it’s using sites like WikiTree and World Family Tree to search for famous connections, and A.J. Jacobs learning that he is related to former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg because Bloomberg is his “wife’s great-uncle’s wife’s first cousin once removed’s husband’s uncles wife’s son’s wife’s first cousin once removed’s husband’s brother’s wife’s nephew.” Got all that? These trees, like other crowdsourced Web offerings like Wikipedia, can be convenient and helpful tools, but they also have inherent traps. Records and documentation can be lacking, assumptions can be made, and tree branches might end up being spliced together in some unlikely ways.

In the middle stands the mathematics, along with graphs and drawings by Wait But Why that explain that yes, we are all cousins, somehow, since we each have 128 fifth great grandparents. Or, on average in the US, more than 300 4th cousins. That’s a pretty wide canopy on a family tree.

It can be a great conversation starter to be able to trace back 10 generations or have someone famous in your tree. I’m not dismissing crowdsourcing as a tool for genealogy – it can be incredibly useful. I’ve contacted A.J. Jacobs to see if he is my cousin, but for me, and my work as a genealogist, I’m going to check for some documentation. I know that research will not always be able to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard, but I will strive to reach it.

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