Publish or Perish

by | Jan 3, 2004 | Genealogy, Notes while surfing

I always liked those Dell Logic Puzzles. You know the kind I’m talking about—
 John wore a red shirt and liked green lollypops. Fred wore a shirt of another primary color and played basketball. Suzy’s dress did not match Fred’s or John’s but she liked both lollypops and basketball. What color was John’s hair?
Then they’d give you a table to use to assist your thought process. OK OK. I know that the puzzles are a little easier than that. But at least you know that there IS a solution for the puzzle and so you keep going ‘til you’ve solved it. I’ve often thought that a genealogical question should be solvable with a logic puzzle formula. A problem arises though when you don’t know if you have all the clues, or have too many clues that don’t pertain to the problem.
Recently on Heycuz, Dan Sullivan voiced his frustration over solving the dilemma over the parentage of Owen Sullivan. “With all the information that we have collected, why can’t we know for sure who his parents were?” he wondered.
I know exactly the frustration Dan feels. I think every one of my lines has reached a dead-end. Now, more than in the past it seems every one of my lines has a road-closed sign. I keep hoping that if I keep looking, one day that long-lost (document type here) will be found and solve our deepest most agonizing quandaries.
Hugh Sullivan, on the other hand, changed the rules of the game by changing the equation from “who is he?” to “who is he not?” and said that he made the decision about his Sullivan ancestor by using a preponderance of evidence and challenged others to disprove it. Hugh has battled this for years. For instance, a while back he wrote on the Sullivan-Rootsweb list:

“I was guided by the Sherlock Holmes philosophy – eliminate the impossible and whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be fact. Unfortunately I can’t eliminate all the impossible. So, at some point, I switched to the task of finding the most probable (and least improbable) – I have done that. I think I know my entire lineage. But it is based on preponderance of evidence, circumstantial evidence, logic, proximate location and a little “everybody’s gotta be somewhere”.
Both Dan and Hugh battled over the decision whether to publish the information they had, since neither could provide proof. They finally decided not to publish. Robert Bryant countered that he would prefer that his children know at least something about his family’s history, being careful to note what was proven and what was conjecture. One of my cousins, Wava Boyd Tory, has a ton of information that makes my head spin, but repeatedly says she will not release it until she has absolute proof. I know where she is coming from, yet I mourn the loss of such a great vehicle of information, work and time.
As a publisher, I have had a lot of experience dealing with the idea that errors will occur in my finished product. After pulling many all-nighters scouring every page to eliminate an error, you finally “put the paper to bed” and inevitably when you pick up a freshly printed piece there’s the error slapping you in the face. Publishers deal with this because we have deadlines. We also have the saving grace of retractions.
In research circles, educators and scientists also have their own “excuses” for publishing data that might contain errors. Institutions with a publish-or-perish philosophy fund most of them. Errors or not, they are contractually obligated to publish a certain number of works. Of course, no one wants to publish errors and so every effort is made to keep them to a minimum. The best-case scenario is that the error is only a typo. Worse case is that your entire piece is based on previously accepted, but false assumptions.
How is genealogy any different?
Listening to genealogists on this subject, one would get the idea that the field of genealogy is somehow different from any other field of research. Many say that they cannot publish because they haven’t proven everything absolutely. The volumes and volumes of work that have been lost because of this excuse break my heart. I am certain that Wava and Hugh have been working on genealogy for at least 20 years, if not 30. If a scientist or researcher has that number of years under his or her belt, he is given the rank of “Expert.” Having a number of conversations with Hugh over the years, I wouldn’t hesitate dubbing him an Expert on the subject of North Carolina Sullivan genealogy or Wava as an expert on my particular family line. I have incredible respect and admiration for the information for both of them. If Wava says something is true, it’s highly likely that it is. But, they and many, many other genealogists with just as much experience, are robbing us of their work because of some unforeseeable repercussions.
What could happen if you do publish an error?

  1.     Your great-great-great-great grandfather is not your grandfather. Well, you know what I mean.    
  2. Someone copies and republishes your work along with its errors. Happens all the time, and in increasing numbers with the Internet.
  3. Someone checks your sources. You did list them, didn’t you? Tell me you did!
  4. Somebody proves you wrong. Hey, isn’t that what you wanted all along? The Truth?

I can hear the comments now: “Oh you would say that April; Look at your own website.” I have. I wrote it and continue to rewrite it. It’s an evolving website with lineages based on information I have today. Tomorrow it will be different. Every effort has been made to note when something is not proven, to correct every error and yet I know there are errors on it. At least family members have found a home to share their research and reconnect with their cousins.
What could happen if you don’t publish?

  1. Absolutely nothing. Cousin Mary won’t know that you found her great-great-great grandmother moved to Minnesota of all places, remarried and had a whole other family; you’ll never meet the many cousins who were related to the man whose crumbling tombstone you stumbled across in dilapidated cemetery; and young budding genealogists will never praise your name, because after all you didn’t publish.

 Many genealogists also drag their feet because they don’t have all the “facts.” But let’s not forget the sources that genealogists use, as facts are often wrong. One example:
Funeral records state that Preston James Sullivan died January 26, 2000 in Nashville, Davidson County, TN. The obituary, published the next day, also stated the same place. However, his daughter Sylvia Lane explains how the “facts” are wrong.
“He wanted to die at home (Nashville), but he was taken to Baptist Hospital and because of the severity of his Alzheimer’s, he was transferred to Tennessee Veterans Home in Murfreesboro, Rutherford County, TN. … My father opened his eyes, smiled at me, and closed his eyes again. He was gone.” She was there when he died, so obviously she knew his place of death better than the so-called “facts.” Unfortunately, most of the time we don’t have living sources to tell us the truth. That is just one example, and I’ve run into many errors from vital records to errors by court clerks while transcribing documents.
If genealogists wait until all the facts are gathered, they’d never publish. If a newspaper waited until they had the “Truth,” we wouldn’t have many daily papers. If a scientist waited ’til they had the “Truth,” we wouldn’t have many cures.
My advice for the genealogist: Don’t let your work perish, publish.
My mind and time have been occupied lately on a variety of projects, so I have not written the annual“New Year’s Resolutions.” Looking at last year’s column, I see they haven’t changed much anyway. It’s not that we haven’t accomplished a lot. We have added a number of new members, corrected family lines, and moved to our new home at I am still in the process of moving everything from the freepages website at Rootsweb with my focus right now on getting the Family Album over here to this site. The problem is that the software that I used to use for cataloging and writing the captions for all the photographs is incompatible with my new computer. This means I’ve been copying the information for each photo one at a time. The second area of focus is to write the script for a search engine to make the vast amount of information more accessible to visitors.  So far, I haven’t been satisfied with any of my efforts.