Is almost any location better than no location? Style rule on uncertain and modern place names. [closed]

+37 votes

Hi WikiTreers,

Through the discussion here led by Laura Bozzay it became clear that many members are not entering birth, death, and marriage locations for profiles because they don't know the correct historical place names. Rather than entering a current location name as a placeholder, they're not entering anything. Some members may not even be creating profiles for this reason.

I think we need to clarify that almost any location name is better than no location. Not knowing an historically-accurate place name in a person's native language shouldn't stop you from creating a profile. And if you create a profile, I think even something as broad as "North America" in one of the location fields would help members distinguish between people with the same names and dates in searches and matches. But maybe not everyone agrees with me on this? And even if there is general agreement, we should flesh out the details and make them explicit.

Here is my first attempt: Help:Uncertain_Locations

Do you agree with this policy page? I'm posting yes and no answers to facilitate the conversation. If you're able to give this some consideration, please vote up your preference and comment below the answer. You are welcome to post your own answer if you have questions or a new perspective. Please don't comment on this top post. Comments here will be hidden after they are read once.



P.S. I considered discussing the following two items here, but ultimately decided against it. I think it's best to agree on the basic policy first. We could circle back to one or both of them later.

1.) {{Modern Location}} Research Note Box?

According to our style rules on Research Note Boxes: "They are for information that's deemed so important that anyone who sees the profile should see the research note .... Research Note Boxes should be reserved for highlighting estimated or speculative information, not for information that is uncertain or unproven."

Even though we have an {{Estimated Date}} Research Note Box (RNB), I don't think we need a parallel one for Estimated Location. An estimated location is a non-specific location, e.g. if you say Europe instead of England. We don't need to call attention to this. If someone sees "Europe" it's obvious that it's a placeholder, unlike with an estimated but exact date.

What about {{Modern Location}}? This might be helpful, but I'm not sure if it's "so important that anyone who sees the profile should see the research note."

An advantage of using an RNB would be that it could categorize profiles in a maintenance category for profiles that need historically-accurate location names.

2.) "Modern" status indicator for locations?

Some members in the previous discussion raised the idea of a status indicator for "modern" parallel to the indicators for uncertain, certain, and blank for privacy. If you enter a modern place name because you don't know the historical place name, you could mark it as "modern" and then we could highlight this in various places like we do when data is uncertain. This would make things clearer than the Research Note Box mentioned in #1.

One concern would be that it would give the impression that entering a modern name is a valid choice. It could muddy the waters on the style rule. Also, a location could be both modern and uncertain. But this is worth further consideration.

closed with the note: Policy formally adopted
in The Tree House by Chris Whitten G2G Astronaut (1.4m points)
closed by Chris Whitten

Just letting everyone know, that you can find the profiles without any location on WT+ using magic keyword MissingLocation. you can combine it with your WikiTreeID or anything else. Like my managed profiles

There are almost 5 million profiles with missing birth location and almost 10 million with missing death location. You can see some stats here

Maybe we could have a community event like the Source-a-thon, but instead Location-a-thon?

Also perhaps it could be flagged when creating a profile, similar to how it flags if you put the birth date too close to the parent's birth date and so on.

8 Answers

+91 votes

Yes, almost any location name is better than no location at all. I agree with all or most of Help:Uncertain_Locations.

Vote up this answer if you would only make minor changes to the policy page. Comment below with those minor changes, or with any other comments or explanation.

by Chris Whitten G2G Astronaut (1.4m points)
@Chase - I have done that sort of thing, based on documents available, only to later find the location was totally different.  My most quoted example would be the x-greats-grandfather who was believed by the entire family (including my LDS cousin and his wife who both researched the family for years) to have been born in Scotland.  We even had names of parents.

Problem was, he was not born in Scotland, as documents uncovered by me showed him to be born in County Donegal, IRELAND - and the believed parents were nothing even close.

I tend to agree with Jelena - no location is far better in such a case than an incorrect one that has researchers and genealogists running around looking for someone in a place they never were.

My answer to these latest comments is: 

When someone else is looking for a matching profile, they know it's not, say, England, Australia, Italy, or North America. If you put nothing to give us a clue to the person's whereabouts during their lifetime, then the odds of creating a duplicate are much higher. Use the continent that they are known to have inhabited, at the least. 

Reiterating Chris' statement:

I think we need to clarify that almost any location name is better than no location. 

So  60-plus years of incorrect results, and wrong-headed speculation is a good thing?
@Chase and @Bobbie: How often do you want to hear it? I DO NOT have ANY clue WHERE my ancestor was born. AND I DO NOT have ANY clue WHERE my ancestor died. There is NO clue in ANY document available WHERE he was born or died. To type in ANYTHING in the Location field IS pure speculation based on NOTHING. The people who collected and transcribed the church records for years before putting them online did not find any location in any record they transcribed. Otherwise they would have written something. When they, who worked with the records for years, don't dare to type in a location, then who am I to type in a location?
Jelena & Melanie - you don't have any indication that these people lived in Europe?

For mine - the indications given were for Scotland, so Scotland was where - incorrectly - some 60-plus years of research, by some dozen or more researchers, were focussed.

All that wasted -- and it WAS wasted -- time and effort was all due to the incorrect location "Scotland".

Correcting typo.

Earth was not a serious suggestion, but it would be correctsmiley

M, interestingly it might not be a bad idea to take Earth seriously.  After all, WikiTree intends to have the accumulated genealogy available long after our lifetimes and interplanetary colonization is no longer in the realm of science fiction - it will probably happen during the next generation or two.  Even for right now, if a tragic loss of an astronaut occurred somewhere in orbit, on or en route to the moon or a not-too-distant-future visit to Mars, how would we be expected to identify the location?

Everyone else - I really think the source of the differences of opinion here is the result of members who have differing ideas of the most important use for the location data - please see my comment above about the search purpose versus the genealogical purpose driving different decisions about guessing locations when there actual information is not known.
@Bobbie: your question is wrong. The question is not where my ancestor LIVED. This one I could answer easily, at least for around nine years of his life. But the question of the Location fields is: Where WAS he BORN and where DID he DIE? These question I CANNOT answer at all with the sources I have. But these questions are the relevant questions here. And this is why I leave the Location fields blank.

"I think we need to clarify that ALMOST ANY location name is better than no location. "

Almost any location NOT any location.

Jelena is perfectly correct to not include a location on her earliest ancestor based on the wording of this policy which clearly gives space for edge cases like hers.

I imagine the most cursory look a the biography of her ancestor would give all the information you need.

+8 votes

No, I do not agree with this policy.

Vote up this answer and comment below if you think Help:Uncertain_Locations needs significant changes. You might want to create a completely new draft proposal on a free-space page and link to it from your comment.

by Chris Whitten G2G Astronaut (1.4m points)
Well... I probably missed it and need to read the page again, but, what happened to just clicking on the Automatic Place Name Suggestion?  I really, really like the find and click.
No one is proposing any changes to that "optional" resource but also please be aware that using it, while definitely better than a Blank space, means accepting FamilySearch's definitions, which are not necessarily what WikiTree endorses.  "British Colonial America," which was NOT an 18th Century term, comes to mind.  That list is good so far as it goes but its limitations are why the Orange Pull Down that it's Not Necessary to use it was added.
ok.  I've thought-on-it for 24 hours, or so.  The page is very well-written and easily understood.  I always like to read how a policy contributes to the larger, mission-centric view that I, of course, do not have, but you do.  I am record-focused in that I source the data at the top of profiles.  Whole families occupy my thinking as I add data to location fields.

I read the policy and added 'Uncertain Location, United States' to a profile in a family I was last sourcing.  Then thought about it and went back and marked 'certain.'  Previously I had left the field blank, because the widow did not even know she was a widow, that her husband had died.  So your policy took a blank for death location and distinguished it from 'just another blank location.'  And, it is accurate. (Thank you!)  That one was easy and in the future, all profiles with the same/similar Unknown for location will also be easy.  So that means typing in 'Uncertain Location, United States,' 'Uncertain Location, (name of state), United States,' etc.  I would rather the faster method of find and click, because it is just one profile in a family that is in my thinking and I have to move along or chance not getting a source on a related profile (train of thought).

So 'what is it' on the page that 'needs significant changes' that I would add this under a vote of no.  What significant change is it that I, as student, cannot write?

I cannot give examples.
I don't think anyone is saying to use a location wording of 'Uncertain Location' in any location field, as you stated above. Uncertain is a bullet item under a location field. 'Certain' should only be used when a source is attached showing the location that was entered.
Thank you, Linda.  I added a Research Notes entry about the "Uncertain Location."

I do not agree with this proposed policy. And if implemented, I hope that Projects will have the option to pot-out. For the México Project it is our practice to add place names to the location fields (birth, marriage or death) when they are known based on information in the actual images of the archival records, or from information in reputable historical/genealogical texts. It is not acceptable to add place names based on assumptions or guesses, since this will introduce errors, diminish the accuracy of the profiles, and may actually make matching for duplicate profiles more difficult.

+6 votes

I'd add the explicit continent names we decide to standardize on instead of wording like:

  • such as Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, etc.

And instead, we could explicitly specify something like:

  • (i.e., Antarctica, North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australasia)

Also probably good to standardize on non-continent birth location process, such as born at sea, do we specify name of ocean or what?  What about died in the sky (rocket accident, etc.)?  Born in an airplane?

by William Foster G2G6 Pilot (112k points)
I do Not think a continent name is needed IF there is a national name in the locator field but, in the absence of any national name, yes, even a continent name is better than No Information.

As for those "At Sea" births or deaths, while I agree that even that vague information is better than No Information, whenever possible, we should specify at least which Ocean (or lake, river etc.) the event occurred.  If more is known, eg., "En route from Europe to North America" or "During WW II" or like that can be put in the Biography section.

My comments on other parts of this will be posted elsewhere but basically I agree that Some Information is better than No Information at all.
I have used Europe for a birth place a few times, for people who immigrated to North America in the 1600s and may have been born in one of several places (for example, the Netherlands, France, or Belgian Flanders). The profile will, of course, explain what is known, but I know of no term other than Europe that is allowed in a location field and that fits that sort of situation.
+7 votes
I agree with the basic proposal but I'm not sure I understand why modern or translated location names need to all be in Research Notes?

I can understand with locations that have had many changes over the years, there might need to be some explanation of why one name was chosen over another, and that should be in Research Notes?

But I would think for many locations it could be a part of the biography eg (Jane Doe was born in Brisbane in 1850, which was then a part of the colony of New South Wales, but is now capital of the state of Queensland).

Or even in the location field itself
Jane Doe
born 1850 in Brisbane, Colony of New South Wales (Queensland, Australia)
by John Atkinson G2G6 Pilot (545k points)
I agree with John Atkinson that I cannot support adding Research Boxes for missing or incomplete or inconclusive geographic place names.  To keep their "impact," they should be reserved for major discrepancies or controversies any reader should be aware of at once.

To deal with the very-real "historic vs. modern-day" appellations, I think Parentheses ( and ) should be used.  So a 17th Century French-speaking Walloon who was born in "Mons, Hainaut, Pays-bas espagnols, Saint Empire germanique" would have that written followed by "(Today: Mons, Belgique)".  A Flemish speaker would have "Bergen, Hainaut, Spaans Nederlands, Heiliges Römisches Reich (Today: Bergen, België)".  

Over time, many, many geographic names have changed so having a (Today: XXX) component allowed would be very helpful with a minimum of extra space or addition required.

I also believe that if an English-language speaker wants to put the profile in English and writes the geographic place name in English, that, since our basic-computer language is also English, that this should be allowed and will not lead to a Data Doctor "suggestion".
Mapping, John. If we just have to worry about extracting the modern name and tacking coordinates on it, it is much easier than maintaining tables with all the old place names tied to the same physical location.
Sorry Jonathan, but I'm not totally sure what you are suggesting, but if it's that we should be using modern names, then I don't see how that agrees with our Honor code about accuracy?
To Chet. I agree with your comments.

I think you have described the ideal solution of including the modern name inside parentheses after the historic name.
I have voted yes to Chris's question because I agree with most of what he has said.

I support Chris's comment on agreeing to the basic policy, then circle back to unresolved issues.

Using English location names for other language places unfortunately will not create "suggestions" as it is deemed at this time as legit (not by WikiTree standards but by Aleš). All I can see is an unchecked proliferation of "Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, Poland, Hungary, Holy Roman Empire, Europe" etc. I would probably be ok with this policy if at the same time non-native language locations would be flagged so that those of us who care about that bit of WikiTree policy could find them and correct them.

As for the use of parentheses I think in some areas that could result in some unwieldy monsters of location names [for instance "Weißenstein, Grafschaft Rechberg und Roter Löwe, Heiliges Römisches Reich (Weißenstein, part of Lauterstein, Baden-Württemberg, Deutschland)"]. And for people keen on counties, we haven't even added that bit of information.

+4 votes
Yes, I agree and voted it up!  Also, I use the drop down list of names extensively (is that from  I find it very helpful.  I think Australia and South America should be added to continent list also.  Perhaps "Other" for Pacific Islanders, Central Americans, Caribbean Islanders with Research Note box to explain. Of course, these would only be used as broad locations where a country is not known.
by Kitty Smith G2G6 Pilot (590k points)
+9 votes
I do agree that even a country is better than nothing.

For many Kiwi profiles that I create, I often just put New Zealand as the location if I have a birth or death record from the NZ BDM index. Because the index never mentions a location. You have to actually purchase the certificate to get the location.
by Robynne Lozier G2G Astronaut (1.1m points)
The situation in Australia is similar although some records show the registration district (marriages don't, just the state). I generally put in the registration district as given on the state BDM's as a birth or death location in the absence of other information. The person will at least have been born or died near that location (although it might actually have been a small town nearby). If more detailed information comes to light then I update the profile.
I agree, Robynne. There is nothing more frustrating than eventually finding a duplicate has been created inadvertently because a PM has failed to enter New Zealand on a whole family of profiles. So often there are really good NZBDM sources on the profile, but the PM thinks a town etc. should have been added. Also, on NZ profiles, the drop-down place menu can create issues because of the multiple changes in province/region names.
+2 votes
I though it made sense to add this thread that showed up in G2G here as it illustrates some of the issues that led to my original post asking to modify the existing policy.   From where I sit, there is one issue here.  For some areas figuring out what "they used" has experts and natives of the country disagreeing.   If it is that hard for them, it is even harder for those of us who are descendants living in other countries trying to understand what to use.  For this reason it is sometimes better or more clear to use a modern name than picking the wrong name when it is not clear what the right name should be.
by Laura Bozzay G2G6 Pilot (721k points)
+2 votes
I have read through the entire thread at least 3 times now...  I have a couple of suggestions.  

1,  There seems to be enough issues around locations that I would suggest it have its own issues area.  We can debate the wording and if it should be independent of, or a subsection of, Research Notes but I think we have enough issues cited above that it would make sense to me to make it easy for any user new or old to find it quickly.  My suggestion is === Location Notes === And this be included Below Biography and above Sources.  Exactly where in that area I think we can determine once we decide we want a section set off like this.    If we do that we could perhaps change the wording of the Uncertain button to read Uncertain / check location notes.  That I think would be clear and if the profile creator wants to clarify whatever they enter in the location field it would give new folks a hint to look for and in Location Notes.  

2.  We are never going to get a system that covers 100% of situations which is why we always need a way to explain things.  I mean, think about the poor souls who died on the Challenger space mission... what location do you use for them?  Strasosphere?  Outer space?  Florida?  I mean humans are messy so our stories are at times also going to be messy.   If we make it easy to find explanations of those messy parts of life and death we have done our job.  

Using Jelena's example I could see entering Probably Europe.  Now that would mean we would have to allow the word Probably but that makes it clear to all users we are guessing based on at least some prior knowledge.  It doesn't mean he actually was born in or died in Europe but since he lived there most of his life it is a good guess.  Then when better info comes along that can replace the Probably Europe.  

3.  There are a number of us with ancestors who may have been born in the Old World or the New World so to speak.  So perhaps for those ambiguities we could allow  Europe Or America  /  Europe or India (etc)  Something that narrows down the possibilities to a probability.  Once again these would signal anyone that the location is a best guess.  

I think we need to remember that we include information to help ourselves and others learn about our ancestors and part of learning is not having all the answers.  It is a journey and sometimes  we are testing pathways to find the route that gets us to our destination.  

In a location notes area we could list where we looked but found nothing...  however, just because we did not find a record there does not mean that person was not born or died there... it just mean no record of it is there.  With all the wars and just age deterioration of records it is not beyond reasonability that a page from a church book has been lost to the mists of time... Ink or water damage, rot, mice and other animals take their toll.  And then there is the human error of someone just forgetting to write it down or writing it down with the wrong name.  My grandfather's birth record lists him as Josephine and his twin sister as Marc Anthony.  The midwife was a bit confused... instead of Joseph and Anne Marie.  She also got mom's name wrong but the date, the house address and the father are all correct.  Records can have errors and our job is to note these in an effort to set the record right...  

Thanks everyone for taking this issue seriously.  And for all the thinking you are bringing to it.   I think we share the same goal.  To have the best information we can on a profile to make it easy for others to find our ancestors.
by Laura Bozzay G2G6 Pilot (721k points)

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