ELECTRONIC GENEAOLOGY- LET THE SURFER BEWARE
by Terry Hogan
The Internet can be an excellent tool to open doors for basic genealogical research, but it should not replace it. Too often sloppy research becomes part of the electronic records. Trust but verify. Every transaction of data recording and of intellectual assessment adds a new layer of opportunity for error introduction. Like the old parlor game of people lining up and by whispering, each, in his turn, hears and the retells the tale to the next in line. By the time the tale is told out loud at the end of the line, it seldom resembles its origin.
The opportunities for transcription errors are many. Early handwriting differs dramatically from our own. Many microfilm documents are of very poor quality, often reflecting the poor quality of the original documents. Therefore, they are read wrong and recorded wrong. Each recordation allows the opportunity of transcription errors, or un-acknowledged editorial ''corrections'' that may reflect the bias of the transcriber.
I am not discrediting Internet opportunities or other forms of electronic data bases. Use them as a guide, recognize their potential shortcomings, and if it is important to you, verify with the original document, or as original as possible. It is not only a way of reducing the number of errors in your own document, it also adds to its values. A photocopy of an ancestor's wedding certificate, land title, or military file adds more than a reference to a CD or an LDS record.
One of the best Internet opportunities is to find the Surname helper homepage. This is a homepage that sets up a forum for information exchange between users who are researching the same surname. First you can review the inquiries already posted, both as a source of information, and as a way to find others who are researching the same surname. If this doesn't work, you can post your own surname inquiry, providing as much information as possible for people who will be reading it. Don't say that you are looking for information on "the Hogan line." Say you are looking for information on "Jasper Hogan, born 1844 in Logan or Todd Co. KY, and raised by Samuel and Amy Blake formerly of Montgomery Co., NC." This will provide other experienced researchers with enough information to know whether they have information that would be helpful, and intriguing enough for them to believe you might also be useful to their efforts.
In addition, think about what you are doing. Recognize ALL of your assumptions. More often than not, it is the unrecognized assumption that will lead you astray. Do not make the assumption that if the data are from the ''Mormon Church'' (LDS) that it is correct. Like most systems, some data are better than others. Some of these data are based on transcribed county court house records and as such, have minimal opportunities for errors. Others are data contributions from genealogical researches that can submit data without any stringent data accuracy tests. Some are perfectly fine data, thoughtful, heavily researched and deserve credit. Others are not. Only the user, by conducting his/her own independent research can confirm or refute the data.
Beyond the essential question of accuracy of information, there is also the pleasure of seeing the first hand information or as near to it as possible. As strange as it sounds, I found it very special to handle my great grandfather's actual civil war records at the National Archives in Washington DC. Similarly, I have a photocopy of the passenger list of my Swedish ancestors' ship, the Swedish bark, Maria, when it arrived in New York harbor in 1850. The original of this document is also filed away at the National Archives.
Of course, the Internet is improving daily in this regard. With the greater use of scanners, increase in computer memories, etc. more transmission of copies of primary source information will be possible either directly, or in combination with regular mail. For example, the State of Illinois has some excellent historical resources available now on the veterans who served in the Illinois Civil War units. By tracking down my great grandfather, Jasper Newton Hogan's civil war unit (Company H, 91st Illinois Volunteer Infantry), I was able to e-mail the Illinois State Archives and request a copy of the ''Muster and Descriptive Roll of Company H. In less than 3 weeks, I received a photocopy of the original document, from John Daly, Director of Illinois State Archives*, by mail, without cost. This document provided the following information on my great grandfather: rank, age when enlisted, when enlisted, where enlisted, occupation prior to enlistment, location of birth, when, where, and who enrolled him for service, date and location of muster, date mustered out, and the all important ''remarks.'' Although his remarks column was uneventful, the others help to document the unit's battles, by listing of his fellow soldiers who died in battles, as well as by those who died of illness at various locations.
Knox County is getting a very nice genealogy site that it can be proud of. It is building up a record of "queries" by people looking for ancestors, and it is developing a very good "biographies" section. Under this section, you will find photos of Knox County residents of yesteryear (mostly from the old county histories) along with text providing their biographies. This will be a big help for out-of-county or out-of-state folks who can't get to the local library and study the old books directly. The site also provides information on the Knox County Genealogical Society along with an ordering form of publications available from that group. For example, they publish an index for various old county histories that were published originally without them. A published index can save countless hours of looking for the incidental mentioning of your relative either in a historical section or in someone else biographical sketch. The Knox County reprint lists includes a number of important references for those of us looking for long lost Swede ancestors, e.g. "Swedes in Knox County", which is the translated portion of the 1880 "Swedes in Illinois" that deals with Knox County. Even if you are not interested in genealogy, you may like this site from a purely historical perspective, as some of the publications may be of interest to you. It is being developed and maintained by a volunteer, Pat Thomas. The site address is given at the end of this article.
Cyndi Howells, author of ''Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet'' (see below for address) has traced the history of genealogy in a recent article entitled ''Tracking Your Family Through Time and Technology'' (Feb./Mar '99 Issue of American Heritage magazine). The article not only traces the expansion of genealogy and the computer as its able tool, but she also suggests various libraries, books, software, and internet sites that may be helpful.
Get modern, and a modem. Surf the web and look for your great, great Uncle Sven from Sweden. But look with skepticism. Let the surfer beware.
Mailing address: John Daly, Illinois State Archives, c/o Jesse White, Secretary of State, Springfield, IL 62756. Specify the unit and the individual's name. Also, do forget the return address as a part of your letter (don't assume the envelope will stay with your request).
Some Suggested Internet Surfing Locations:
For Knox County Civil War Veteran Information: http://www.rootsweb.com/~ilcivilw/county/knox.htm
For Knox County Genealogy:
For beginning general genealogy research in Illinois: http://www.rootsweb.com/~ilgenweb
For general inquiries to see what is available:
Cyndi's list of Genealogy Sites on the Internet:
For "Mormon Church" (LDS) records (it can be busy at times, you may need to try at off-peak times):