Irish Roots

October 26th

The Navajo Excuse

John Grenham


As more and more information moves online, usually in transcript, family historians are becoming increasingly concerned about the quality of the transcripts. Murphy's's law applies double to genealogy. Even if only one baptismal entry is misinterpreted, it will be your great-grandfather's.

So how worried should you be? A lot depends on the nature of the transcript. What has now become the norm, a database transcript or index linked to scanned copies of the original, allows researchers to do their own checking of the original, and usually permits some kind of feedback for users to point out errors. For earlier or ad-hoc transcripts without copies of the originals, caution is the only approach. Some are excellent; some are very definitely not excellent. You have to remember that everyone makes mistakes, from the Irish-speaker unsure of the spelling of their own surname in English, to the registrar mishearing the name, to the transcriber mistaking a "v" for an "r", to the typesetter using a broken "h" to make an "n". Every stage of a record's life adds its own layer of error. For a long, long time every genealogist's golden rule has been "if it's not in the index, that doesn't mean it's not in the original." But if it is in the index, then hallelujah.

A useful defence against expectations of perfection is Navajo blanket-weaving practice. A flaw is deliberately woven into each piece, because flawlessness is an insult to the Great Spirit.

My own favourite non-insult to the Great Spirit was in the second edition of Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, where readers looking in Co. Armagh for details of Newry Roman Catholic records were instructed to see under Co. Down. And, of course, readers looking in Down to were told to look in Armagh.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.


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