By Daniel Hubbard | May 9, 2010
Years ago my grandfather ordered a few copies of a book that covered some research into his surname. After he died, my mother asked if I wanted a copy but added that the book wasn’t any good. I wondered how my mom, who is not a family historian, was able to make such a judgment. She told me that absolutely no one described in the book ever did anything wrong.
Angels and Demons
Never doing anything wrong, now that is a telltale sign. I’ve found a book or two like that. Perfection is probably not very factual. Any given person in your ancestry could be a saint. They do exist, but everyone? All the descendants too? Time to get out Ockham’s Razor and ask if it is more likely that of the thousands of people mentioned in a book, no one so much as uttered a muffled “Gad Zooks” as he dented his brightly shining armor on a low branch or, the other possibility, if perhaps the author was prone to editing out a few things and adding an embellishment here and there.
I think of this kind of reading as “judging a book by its innards.” Judging a book by its cover is a famous mistake but perhaps judging by the innards is a possible method for getting a feel for things. When I think of this kind of judging I don’t think of going back to original sources and checking all the facts. That is, of course, the ultimate method for checking the value of a book and what one should do when a secondary source seems to be valuable. Before going that far, it can save time to eliminate some of the chaff or to convince yourself that there really could be something to what a book is telling you.
Can you imagine how happy I was to read these words in a published genealogy? “He drowned in a shallow, half-frozen stream while stone drunk.” Whatever faults that book might have, I knew that it did not pretend to present a perfect family.
County histories can be wonderful sources. They can also be seriously misleading. That makes them a good place to practice judging a book by its innards. Usually, there is no one author so it isn’t possible to judge the whole book. Instead the parts need to be judged separately. With luck, your ancestor will be one of the earliest settlers and the local amateur historian will have gotten information from the oldest citizens of the area and mentioned the still faintly visible outline of your ancestor’s original cabin. By now those old citizens will be one hundred years in the grave and the cabin outline totally faded and then paved over. Compare that with the biographies of prominent citizens. Some may be a reasonable representation of some of the facts but often they read like advertisements, images of human perfection.
Besides the red flag of perfection and the positive sign of admissions of failings, there are other things to look for. Does the author seem to have one branch of the family with which he or she had an axe to grind? Are you left wondering if the Robinson branch of the family really was descended from both Attila the Hun and Vlad the Impaler?
A Foolish Consistency?
When Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” he was referring to what today we might call an inability to think outside the box, always being consistent in ones thoughts and actions, never doing something new “because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.” He does not seem to be arguing that what was true on page 10 can be false on page 42. Internal inconsistency happens to everyone who speaks or writes at one time or another. No one is perfect. Sometimes though, those inconsistencies are a warning sign.
Do the different parts of the book agree with each other? I mentioned in When Memory Divides that there is at least one very interesting and potentially useful reason for internal inconsistency but what if it isn’t that kind, where specific memories and general memories disagree? What if it is the kind of inconsistency that just seems like something must be out and out wrong? Sometimes an author begins to write, realizes that something is not adding up, changes the conclusion and then needs to go back and fix what has already been written. If not every instance and subtle side effect is caught, an inconsistency will get into print but in that case it is usually fairly easy to spot what the author is really trying to say and what slipped through the editing cracks. It may not be good but at least you can tell what you should follow up. Other times the inconsistency could go either way. That should be a bit more troubling. If it is not clear what the author was thinking, why wasn’t it noticed and corrected? If you want to check the statements, with which one do you start? Should you be wondering if it isn’t worth your time to check at all? How many such inconsistencies are there? Too many and too blatant and it is probably time to move on.
The Battle of Trafalgar Was not Fought in Yorkshire (with apologies to Monty Python)
Another way to judge a book by its innards is to take notice of the facts that are in an area you know something about or can easily check. Assuming that the main point of your reading is to learn some new and obscure facts, you usually will not be able to quickly check those but usually there are background facts that are easily checked. Do they make sense? Do you get the vague feeling that something is not quite right? What if you look up a few things and find that, well, that isn’t really what happened. Whenever someone is writing off the main topic there is a danger that they will need to cut some corners or simplify but if there are signs of a lack of care with those things, be wary. If you can get a feeling for how accurate the obscure parts of the book are likely to be from the accuracy, or lack thereof, found for the other facts you may have saved yourself from making some false assumptions.
Does it Follow?
One final thing is to really think about the conclusions the author is drawing. Even if you are reserving judgment on the evidence until you decide whether or not you believe the book to be useful, what about the conclusions? Do the facts add up to what the author claims? If they do not, it is a warning sign. On the positive side, there are things beyond simply drawing reasonable conclusions that the author might do to increase your level of confidence. Does the author use wording to help the reader judge how certain he is? Even better, does the author point out possible failings in her analysis, present other hypotheses or point out records that have not been found but that might increase or decrease confidence?
One Last Thought
I always feel a bit uneasy scrutinizing someone else’s work. There is the old, “There but for the grace of God go I” feeling when I believe that I’ve found an error. It is good to keep a bit of humility when finding fault. It can help avoid some of the lasting enmities that sometimes develop. On the other hand, as a reader of a secondary source, it is not the author’s family history on which you are working. It is your own, so be careful what you add to it. Questioning and checking are a must. Examine the known evidence, look for new evidence, ponder everyone’s conclusions and when the time comes, share your results so that somewhere down the line, someone can question, check and hopefully benefit from your work. That is how progress is made.Twitter It!