By Daniel Hubbard | June 6, 2011
If there might be Three Laws of Genealogy, I wonder if there could be Seven Deadly Sins as well. As I was thinking about what they might be, my wife happened to show me an article she had seen concerning the Seven Deadly Decorating Sins. That, and the possibility of illustrations from Hieronymus Bosch, clinched it as a topic.
Sin, in the realm of what for most people is a hobby, is a bit of a strange concept. There might be some real sins possible. Intentionally misleading and destroying evidence come to mind but I’ll stick to the original big seven.
What might the objects of the genealogists lustful desires be? For everyone’s safety and comfort, I’ll confine lusts to the purely genealogical. So what do genealogists lust after? Mayflower passengers, Revolutionary patriots and royalty come to mind. The second lust isn’t really compatible with the third but since when did objects of lust need to be compatible?
Have you ever seen a genealogist voraciously devour one gedcom file after another? Not even pausing to get a feel for the data? It’s not a pretty sight to see a database bloating up on all those duplicated individuals. All of them full of empty and sourceless calories.
Anyone trying to use genealogy as a path to unbridled wealth and power either has problems far worse than any deadly sin or, alternatively, is already the prince of somewhere.
Here we have arrived at coveting being the subject of a Commandment. Somehow, coveting your neighbor’s ancestors or research logs doesn’t seem to be in the same category as coveting spouses, houses or domestic animals. On the other hand, it isn’t the healthiest mindset either.
My guess is that the first thing that comes to mind in this case ought to be not citing sources. You don’t need to be able to recite from Evidence Explained, backwards, in Latin, in your sleep to do yourself the favor of keeping track of your sources. I just gave a talk that was an introduction to genealogy. I boiled source handling down to a couple simple rules that could fit in among all the other things that needed to be mentioned in that hour.
- Make copies of your sources if you can.
- Imagine that you need to find the source again and need to do it fast. Write down the information you’d want to have to go from nothing to having the paper in your hand. Keep that information with your copy.
- When done studying a source, file it in a way that you can find it later. When you have a question about the source months down the road, you want the is-it-worth-digging-out threshold to be very, very low.
I wrote that the first thing to come to mind ought to be skipping source citations because I need to confess that the first thing that came to mind was a scene that contained this line of dialog— “Look at that. Just look at that! Do you see that lackadaisical turning of the microfilm reader crank? Has she no self respect, no pride?”
Ah, pride. Genealogists can reach the sin of pride in at least two ways. Pride in one’s research and pride in one’s ancestors. What are the signs that one has crossed over the line between justifiable happiness with one’s own research and the ancestral lives uncovered and genealogical sin?
- When you see someone at a genealogy conference wearing a “My great-great-granddad could have licked you great-great-grandad” shirt, do you simply start screaming “liar!”?
- Do your military ancestors always seem to outrank everyone else’s?” Do yours always outrank theirs by a lot? Even when you talk to people named Grant, Lee, Pershing and Eisenhower?
- Do you consider your proof of descent from the Viking chieftain, Ragnar “the infertile” Eriksson to be unassailable?
To paraphrase—Rule #1 Not every proof/ancestor will be perfect. Rule #2 You can’t change rule #1.
Not many genealogists that I can think of actually become wrathful, at least not about genealogy. I have seen a few episodes that come close. Once at the Family History Library I sat next to someone who was trying to work through a nineteenth century tome that not only had no index but had no detectable organization method whatsoever (neither chronological, alphabetical nor geographical). In retrospect I think the sections were arranged so that their first letters spelled out “I am Lord Voldemort”* but it wasn’t my source so I don’t have the citation information and can’t go back and check. Anyway, there was only a hint of wrath mixed into the despair.
A more genealogical sin might be bitterness. It always saddens me when relatives become bitter with each other about some facet of an ancestor’s life or some proof of relationship—neither of them really listening to the other; neither realizing that they might both have part of the answer, or worse yet, stop speaking to each other over something they both got wrong.
There you have it. The seventh and final deadly sin. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my proof that my great-great-grandad really could have licked yours.
* If you don’t understand the reference, suffice it to say that my kids have been very interested in Harry Potter.Twitter It!