16 August 2016

IAJGS 2016, Day 6

Renee Steinig and Judy Baston - "It's All in How You Ask: Getting the Most From Discussion Group Queries"

I was particularly interested Renee Steinig's and Judy Baston's talk because I, too, am a discussion group moderator for JewishGen. About 6-8 days each month I check the moderators' inbox for messages sent for posting on the main discussion forum: the "JewishGen Discussion Group."

Before sending messages on for posting, moderators must do some magic to the message headers and review content to make sure the messages are clear and acceptable within our guidelines. Renee moderates the Gesher Galicia mailing list and Judy, the JRI-Poland, Litvak SIG, Lodz, and Bialy Gen lists. For a list of JewishGen mailing lists, see this page.

Renee's and Judy's goals in this presentation were to help writers formulate inquiries that not only navigate the rules of all JewishGen mailing lists (thereby avoiding having one's messages rejected by moderators), but also generate the kinds of responses desired.

Moderated forums such as JewishGen's assure that no abusive, defamatory or indecent language is posted and that no one is subject to personal attacks. In addition, moderators review messages to ensure that copyrights are not violated in posted messages. All one has to do is read content in a non-moderated comment list these days to see why this is so important.

Moderators may change a subject line for a message or address capitalization issues, but they may not change the body of the message text. Therefore, if a message must be rejected for content, a moderator sends it back to the author and may suggest changes.

Additional reasons why a message might be rejected are the message:
  • was sent in plain text (the Lyris program will reject it);
  • was not related to Jewish genealogy;
  • included long quotations without permission (it is best to paraphrase long quotes and/or just provide a web link);
  • debates Jewish law or custom (Halakha);
  • discusses opinions on contemporary anti-semitism; 
  • should have been answered privately (usually for providing individual's contact information or for providing information that may only be of interest to one family researcher); and
  • (for SIG lists) is not related to SIG area of coverage 
If you would like to recommend a researcher of guide, JewishGen has a page specifically for this purpose in the InfoFiles area.

One thing I don't recall Renee and Judy mentioning is that moderators check all web links (URLs) provided in a message (including those for ViewMate messages). If one or more URLs do not work, that is grounds for rejection.

Renee and Judy provided guidelines for crafting quality messages/inquiries:
  • Make subject lines specific;
  • Do not include diacritical marks (accents) in your text - they are not supported by Lyris;
  • Use upper case letters only for surnames;
  • Full addresses/phone numbers of living people will not be posted;
  • Do not use abbreviations;
  • Provide enough information so readers know what sources you have already checked, but not so much information that readers will not read your message;
  • There is such a thing as too much information; and
  • When asking for help with a document posted on ViewMate, nclude surname, town, year (or approximate date).
In your signature block make sure to include:
  • Your full name and location;
  • Correctly spelled surnames and towns;and
  • A research (surname/town list) - limited to six lines.
I definitely like one of their helpful hints. If you have somehow missed the message from one day, you may request instant access to that day's digest for the main or SIG mailing lists. Put the following formatted information in your email subject line:
get [listname] (yyyymmdd]
Examples: get jewishgen 20160815
           get galicia 20160608

Send the message to lyris@lyris.jewishgen.org

You may also check message archives for the main discussion group or SIG groups.

Ron Arons - "Critical and Creative Thinking for Genealogy"

Ron Arons is a creative guy. He always seems to come up with new ways look at and analyze genealogical information.

He is also fearless. He knew full-well that he and I likely would have a difference of opinion about his topic, but he asked me to introduce him, nonetheless.

In this talk, Ron discussed two modes of thinking: critical and creative. Critical thinking is defined as deductive and focused. Creative thinking is inductive, divergent, diffused. Both are necessary and complementary when dealing with problem solving. Both are associated with skill sets that can be improved.

The Genealogical Proof Standard (© 2014-2016, E.H. Garber)
In particular, Ron was concerned that creative thinking been given short-shrift in the currently accepted genealogical methodology of the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS): that the GPS requires critical thinking and is hostile to silent on creative thinking.[1] He argued that the GPS only allows focused questions and does not allow consideration of the question, "why?"

The Genealogical Proof Standard was developed by members of the Board for Certification of Genealogists and outlines best practices for the discipline. Meeting the standard requires five elements:
  • conducting a reasonably exhaustive research, 
  • citing sources, 
  • analyzing information and assessing the quality of evidence, 
  • resolving conflicts, and 
  • developing a soundly-reasoned, written conclusion

As I mentioned in my comments toward the end of Ron's presentation, I was pleased that Ron has been studying and presenting about thinking creatively in genealogical research. Our thorniest genealogical problems are best addressed with a marriage of creative and critical thinking approaches. But, I do not agree with him that the GPS does not allow for creativity. Quite the contrary, I believe the GPS provides a framework within which creative thinking flourishes.

While Thomas W. Jones, one of the main proponents of the GPS, argues in his seminal work, Mastering Genealogical Proof, that we must start our research process with focused questions to "...frame our research scope, lead us to relevant information and help identify evidence...," his identification, evaluation and analysis of sources that may provide information that bears on our research questions is nothing but creative.[2] In fact some of the most outstanding articles published in the National Genealogical Quarterly, undeniably the flagship of GPS, blow me away with how creatively they solve problems posed.

Now, one of Ron's issues seems to be that the research questions that Thomas W. Jones identifies do not include why questions. Jones states that genealogical questions have two characteristics:
  1. They concern a documented person, and
  2. They seek information about the defining characteristics of that person (relationship, identity or activity).
Ron seems to believe that why questions, which may require information regarding historical context, are not acceptable in GPS. I would argue that within GPS context is critical to consideration of the location of extant records, to analysis of the creation and development of records collected, and, ultimately, to resolution of conflicts (which involves comparing and contrasting evidence from records and the context within which information in those records was recorded). Even creating citations for records used is a process that requires often in-depth understanding of the historical context of record creation.

Thus, while the purely genealogical questions posed by Thomas W. Jones, may seem stifling, they are, in fact liberating. As we pursue some basic questions, we are required to ask, "why?" Genealogical proof as defined in the GPS requires understanding of context.

Ron offered an interesting case for asking why. He tells the story of his grandfather who was married to several women at the same time.

He asked how common was bigamy in the 1800s and early 1900s? By the end of 1800s, bigamy was an increasing problem in New York - probably due to immigrant men making new lives for themselves in New York when their first wives and families were still in the old country.

He also wanted to know if his grandfather's sentence for bigamy was consistent
with those obtained by others. It was.

I agree that perhaps historical context and social science tools may not be applied as often as they should in genealogical analyses and provided in written genealogical proofs. But I would blame that more on the background of researchers than the limitations of the GPS. In fact, GPS requires that these types of context studies be integral, when appropriate, to our understanding of the genealogical record.

There's my soapbox and I think I will stand on it!

1. Ron Aron has pointed out that I misrepresented his opinion on where creativity fits in the GPS. I agree my initial recollection was incorrect. I have, therefore, changed the text to more closely reflect his point of view.
2. Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 2013), 7.


  1. Great blog, Emily. However, I do take exception to how you represented my statement regarding the GPS and creative thinking. I never said that the GPS was "hostile" to creative thinking. I believe my exact words were that, "The GPS says nothing about creative thinking." I will stick to my guns and argue that these two categorizations are quite different. How would the GPS be "hostile" to the concept of creative thinking if the GPS says nothing at all about the subject?

    In my presentation, I correctly categorized Dr. Thomas Jones' notion of a properly constructed "focused" question:
    - Who? , concerning the identity of an individual
    - Where?, concerning a location (of an event)
    - When?, date or time frame (of an event or series of events)
    Dr. Jones explicitly states in his book Mastering Genealogical Proof that the question, "Who was Eleanor Medley?" (which I would translate to: "What was this person's life all about") is forbidden (see pages 7-8 of MGP).

    The book Genealogy Standards offers very much the same. Section 10 (pages 11-12) of the book states, "Genealogical-research questions include: a) a clearly described unique person, group, or event as the question's focus; and b) specification of unknown or forgotten information that the research is to discover (for example an identity, relationship, event or biographical detail)." Here, too, one can infer that open-ended questions (i.e. thinking creatively) is verboten. Show me one place in the book where the words open-ended, creative, or creativity are used and I'll swim into the ocean and eat whale.

    What I find more troubling is that the purveyors of the GPS are not only going to have all genealogists adopt the GPS even if they are absolute novices. (Geesh, the vast majority of family researchers are doing it for FUN. Do they really appreciate being told that they're doing things the wrong way? Isn't genealogical research as much (or more) about the journey (learning how to think) than the end result (names, dates, and places)? Even more disturbing is that if someone disagrees with the GPS, they are put in their place by these same purveyors. As a result, I know people close to the Board of Certification of Genealogists who share my opinions, but are afraid to say anything for fear of retribution. If, as a community, we are to move genealogy forward as a more rigorous regimen or process, I would hope that there would be a more open environment to alternative ideas. I humbly submit that this is not the case today. I have much more to say on the topic; if anyone is interested in having an open, honest conversation about the topic I invite them to contact me.

    So, Emily, should you take on the Impossible Mission of posting my response to your blog, I would "violently" argue that you are fearless as well.

  2. I agree that "hostile" was incorrect and I will correct it in the post. I do not think I have acted as thought police, however. I posted this to allow for discussion of ideas. I do not feel I have censured you. I am sorry you do not feel my post was honest.


Comments on posts are always welcome but will be approved before posting. I actually prefer to just let people comment without going through this rigmarole, but I've recently had to delete some posts that I had not vetted before publication. So, please don't be offended. I love to hear from you!