Under ‘E is for evidence’ I wrote about the importance of evidence for historians. Diligent historians not only seek sources that will provide corroborating evidence for statements that they make but they will cite those sources equally diligently. In the world of family history there should be no vital event on a pedigree, or statement in a family story, that is un-attributed. You may know where a piece of evidence came from but does anyone else? When you are no longer the custodian of your family history, someone else should be able to follow your research trail. References serve to authenticate your work and enable others to understand how you reached your conclusions. Without references you might as well write a work of fiction. Without evidence you probably are writing a work of fiction!
Lately there has been a upsurge in courses and articles stressing the need for genealogical proof and this is laudable. The phrase ‘forensic genealogy’ has being bandied about, as if this were some form of elite genealogy. There is even a Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy. What is forensic genealogy? It appears to mean the creation of a pedigree backed up by evidence and cited references. I certainly have no argument with this methodology, which is one I both advocate and adopt. In 2010 Colleen Fitzpatrick wrote ‘Forensic genealogy has established itself as the modern approach to family research, for hobbyists, for the legal profession, and for law enforcement.’ This approach is not new, it is not ‘modern’, it is merely common sense. Forensic genealogy is in fact just good genealogy and many of us have been practising it for decades. Surely forensic genealogy should be the only form of genealogy – we are back to John Titford’s ‘genealogy for grown-ups’ (see ‘I is for Internet Genealogy’). Why would anyone want a pedigree that is based on guesswork?
There are those who say that all this obsession with evidence and with original sources and their citation makes a hobby seem like a great deal of hard work. Thoroughness is a necessary part of the process. Anyone who sets out to trace their family tree surely wants just that – their family tree, not someone else’s, not one that is inaccurate or cobbled together.
The sad thing about the advocacy of forensic genealogy and the provision of courses about genealogical proof is the accompanying suggestion that there is another sort of genealogy. ‘Hey, I’m only an amateur, I’m not one of these forensic guys, I don’t need to worry about evidence/sources/citations/proof.’ Well sorry but yes you do. If you want a pretty chart or that work of fiction I mentioned, go ahead, create your pedigree without reference to your sources, write a family history lacking in citations but this is not genealogy, forensic or otherwise.