Share this page

TIP FIFTEEN: Donít trust excessively the information provided by specialist web-sites: test it in the records.

Eric Trudgill    -    4 August 2012


Beginners won’t find tips here on finding research material: for that they can use the internet, join the Romany & Traveller FHS, and buy Sharon Floate’s excellent book, My Ancestors Were Gypsies. What they are offered here are tips on evaluating and interpreting the material they find.

TIP FIFTEEN: Don’t trust excessively the information provided by specialist web-sites: test it in the records.

Some web-sites specializing in Gypsy family history tend to be chat-rooms (as such performing an important social function). Others mix chat with what looks like serious research, & here you need to separate the wheat from the chaff: the data disseminated is sometimes valuable and sometimes suspect, and, even when it’s valuable, it’s sometimes destructive of data-dissemination.

The data is sometimes suspect because it’s undocumented in the records, uncritically derived from family tradition or the guesses of the gypsiologists and lesser mortals since, or because it’s documented unreliably from incomplete records on-line and synthesized unreliably through insufficient alertness to the methodological hazards I’ve been discussing in these tips.

The data is sometimes destructive, because of two types of contributor you find on these sites. One is the sort of commendably enthusiastic and generous-hearted people who are happy to give lots of time to anyone looking for information on particular Gypsies, but not having personally done much researchin the Record Offices, can only pass on data they’ve received in confidence, directly or indirectly, from someone who has. The other type without even being asked, either through arrogance and vanity or a misplaced desire to disseminate information, posts other people’s research on the internet without permission or even acknowledgement.

Being generous with one’s timeis an attractive quality, but it can create an expectation in people seeking information that others can afford to be equally generous: most experienced researchers can talk about total strangers who thought they had a right to be given data built up over years of arduous work, and sometimes requested it as brusquely as if they were phoning up for a pizza.

Being generous with one’s time is an attractive quality and does little harm. But being generous with other people’s information, especially when huge swathes (the product of 20 years hard grind) are put on the net, is unattractive and immensely harmful. Stealing people’s intellectual property can be as distressing to them as burgling their house. And the effect is very damaging to the dissemination of genealogical data: most experienced researchers, while they happily share their latest discoveries with each other, who appreciate how much such discoveries cost in time, effort and cash, are wary of giving them to people who’d most like to receive them; they’ve been burned too often. The people who run web-sites publishing mis-appropriated data might reflect on the possibility that, far from disseminating information, they’re inhibiting its dissemination

I personally haven’t been burned, but I have been annoyed twice, when people insertedstuff I knew to be wrong into material I’d given them, and placed it on the net (without my permission) as coming from me. And this returns me to my earlier point about the need, when visiting specialist web-sites, to separate the wheat from the chaff. If inexpert genealogists insert dodgy data of their own into properly researched material they’ve stolen, the unwary reader may be deceived into believing the dodgy data is as reliable as the stuff around it. As with the information provided by family members and the gypsiologists, so with even reliable-looking information on specialist web-sites, you shouldn’t trust it, if it’s important to your research without testing it in the records. The trouble is, as we’ll see in the next three months, you can’t always trust the records.

Copyright © 2012 Eric Trudgill