Revisiting the Biography

+4 votes
I want to get some feedback on the Style of Biographies.   Nothing makes me happier than to grab onto a gedcom and reduce it from 5 pages to about a half page.  I have no problem deleting gedcom "junk", but perhaps more controversial is the presence of parents, siblings, marriage, children and other information found both in the profile fields (above) and in the biography (below)- seems like a distraction and a waste of space to me.  A particular excess that I try to delete is putting every child in a vertical list for every census found in the sources.

     I think the biography is a nice summary of the profile, (i.e. born... where.... parents.....married.... had X children... died....where....) with inline references to show the sources.

     To list EVERY census and repeat the profile fields in the biography is a waste of time unless it gives significant new information.  Let's be concise
in Policy and Style by Bob Hanrahan G2G6 (8.8k points)
retagged by Ellen Smith
I agree about the census data. I think raw census data belongs linked in the sources for the most part, not in the bio.

Quite often the same information is just repeated census after census, and that doesn't need to be in the bio.  If something changes, if someone moves or dies or marries, that belongs in the bio, with a link to the census where it came from.

One possibly germane comment I can make is about the reliance on links to webpages or online resources in lieu of full and detailed citations. I've sometimes had folks come in behind my admittedly wordy source citations and reduce them to something like "1850 U.S. Census, Virginia, <link here>"; and some have not been happy when I reversed their abbreviations.

I've been dealing with the web since before the first graphical browser was introduced in 1993. And URLs change or vanish far more often than we may realize. We can look just a few years ago to Ancestry's acquisition of RootsWeb for an example; or the 2018 closing of due to the GDPR; or the wholesale changing of links at that occurred with their website revamp in 2011. All links are ephemeral and any of them could go away tomorrow; even the Internet Wayback Machine could lose funding and be forced to close.

Personally, I don't view documentation on WikiTree the same as I would for a research paper...but even on that paper I would need to use fully qualified citations that enable interested readers to locate, without an accompanying link, the exact source material I used. Instead, I view the WikiTree genealogy citations from the lens of an unknown 3rd cousin twice removed who is just becoming interested in investigating her family tree. If I use "1850 U.S. Census, Virginia, <link here>" can she locate the original information? Probably. Maybe even if the link has died. But she's going to have to do some digging.

If I've already done the work, why should I make her repeat it? Expanding that inadequate census citation to include everything that might be pertinent--enumeration district, dwelling number, street address if present, enumeration date (which can be vital to know but is often omitted in citations), the household members including all their warts of misspellings, incorrect ages, incorrect birth states, incorrect family relationships--means that the link to an original record becomes nothing but a nicety, just like it was a scant 20 years ago. There's no need for researcher after researcher to go slog through the very same handwritten entries over and over: I took a moment to record in detail what I found. They can verify with the original record at a glance if they choose, but the same wheel doesn't have to be repeatedly invented over and over. Life is short, and nobody is paying by the word to bind and print this stuff up into a book.

On one of my own websites I have a quotation from May 2013 by an unknown individual whose username at the Family Tree DNA Forums is "Frederator." He or she wrote:

"Oh, you wanted a short answer.

"Brevity, especially when it comes to something as operationally complex as the interpretation of autosomal DNA, comes at the expense of accuracy. I prefer accuracy."

WikiTree biographies can certainly fill up with GEDCOM junk; we've probably all run into profiles that were merged three or more times, each of which commingled more and more GEDCOM junk into an impressive morass. Thank you to the folks who try to clean that up for the rest of us. But a citation--in the correct place under Sources, not in the narrative biography--that provides more than the CMS minimum, that offers some transcription and possibly explanatory context...well, if it takes up several lines but presents solid information, my stance is that I'd rather have it than not, and that it's easy to scroll down on a webpage.

And yes, every relevant source discovered should be cited, IMHO. If an individual appears in six census enumerations plus a couple of census substitutes reconstituted from tax rolls, I think every single one of them needs to be cited. Genealogists reconstruct history piece by tiny piece, not just provide single citations to support BDM data.

I am not pleased with the tendency of many on WT to go rewriting accurate citations according to their own personal formatting preferences. It seems to me that the collaborative nature of WT slights the concept called "author".

However, it seems to me that your extended comment blurs the distinction between the text and the citation. The biography is the text, the citation supports the text. I quite agree that all facts in the text should be supported by citations which inform the reader where the facts came from and can be verified.

So if the biography includes (frex) material about the life of the subject and this material originates in a census report, that report should be cited. That does not mean that the report should be quoted in its entirety.

The notion of a citation is to point the reader to the source of the facts. If I am doing Biblical exegesis, it is generally sufficient to cite book, chapter and verse.  Quoting the verse is not considered a requirement; the reader is expected either to know it or to look it up.
Well said, Edison!
Edison, your comment should have been an answer. It's got my upvote.
+1 for Edison's comment

Edison...I must give a "short answer" for fear of derailing this topic. What you have said goes to the root of many of the issues that many amateur genealogists have with wikitree and should be held up as an example of the highest form of TRUE collaboration (for current and for potential future readers of any given profile). 

2 Answers

+11 votes

I think this boils down to personal preference. The overall intent of the Biography is "to tell the story of your ancestor by providing more detail about the vital statistics, including explanations and information about where you got the information." 

Some people prefer a timeline format, some prefer a fully written bio, some use a mixture of both... Some may even start at a timeline format and work towards a fully written biography - it is all in how they work.

A particular excess that I try to delete is putting every child in a vertical list for every census found in the sources.

To list EVERY census and repeat the profile fields in the biography is a waste of time unless it gives significant new information.  Let's be concise

This is where we would have to disagree - and my only word of caution here is to be mindful of the PM's (are they active on WikiTree? When did they last edit the profile?) and what may be Research Notes (but not marked as such). I have profiles right now that include this very type of bio for very specific reasons as I flesh out families.

Granted, you mentioned GEDCOM Junk, but many times, this information can be very helpful in finding more information (or the original sources). So while some see these as junk, as I see them as a reference to find more information - and deleting it can be detrimental to those enjoy untangling those webs of orphaned, abandoned, or otherwise neglected profiles.

by Steven Harris G2G6 Pilot (723k points)
I agree with Steve about the Census 'family list'.  I don't include all the profile information for each person with the census, just a copy / paste of the 'family list' for each census.  

That information is very useful to see when children came and went from the family (did they die young, never appear, leave to get married, etc), but also to verify where they were born, that the years are consistently going up by the incremental years since last census.  Information from the 1900 US Census has the birth month and year, which is very useful, not just age, marriage year, where parents were born, as well as for the wives, how many children they had and how many are still living, are all very valid piece of information to help with determining parents, etc.  Frequently the family list will show an in-law living with them, which can help to determine the maiden name of the wife.
I tend to add all the names I see listed, because I was told once that you never know who, on reading that profile, may see a name (with age and place of birth also noted) that looks as though it might be their ancestor that they've been looking for and could not find "at home".

I don't do it in a vertical list, but I do include it narratively as this paragraph is written.  Children present in one census early in their life may not appear in subsequent returns.  Where did they go?  Oh, look, they're away at school, or staying with the grandparents/a cousin/uncles or aunts.  Or they moved away to work - and that might take them a long way from "home", or it may be just down the street.

Listing those found in a census, part of the family, or just there for the night, is important to others than just the person editing the profile.
Well said, Steve!
+7 votes
Kudos for cleaning up old GEDCOM!

As Steve said, be careful with that old GEDCOM junk. I try to always keep an Ancestry Tree reference, with the template, even if under a See Also with a note that the tree longer exists. Also, watch for the FSFTID which might have lots of info.

Although I don't particularly prefer the tabular approach to listing the census, why not include all the sources that apply, including the census. The census does tell a story of someones life, perhaps living with the in-laws in one census, with several children in the next, housing a nephew and a mother-in-law in the next, and with a now-divorced daughter and grandson in the next. There is just so much information in the census... did the person have a single occupation throughout their lifetime or change, does a wildly different occupation suggest this might not be a record for that person... and so on...

As for listing all of the children, isn't that part of what is identified as genealogically defined?
by Kay Knight G2G6 Pilot (584k points)

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