Genealogical Standards

Reflecting on genealogical standards. This is an area that could use a lot of work, maybe get some modernization going. I’m not optimistic. Seems like genealogists as a whole are not a self-reflective bunch. The rules are the rules and we’ll burn you as a heretic if you don’t agree.

I’m not sure entering place names in the form current at the time of the event really makes sense, for example. The standard was created as a time and in a culture where knowing the older names and jurisdictions was the easiest way to find where records might be located now. This was a particular problem for Americans moving west, with new towns, counties, territories, and states being created all sides as families moved through the landscape to find new opportunities. It doesn’t make so much sense when the Internet makes it easy to find the history of any particular location.

Names are also problematic. The standard has been to record the name given at birth. That makes sense in a modern, Euro-centric culture where names are fixed at birth by custom and bureaucracy. It doesn’t make as much sense in cultures where a birth name is not the same as someone’s adult name, where a person might name might change due to adoption, where a person’s name might change routinely through different stages of life, where surnames might take the form of patronymics, or surnames might be fluid or event absent altogether. Prosopographers, being academics, have a much better handle on names. In prosopography, names are not essentialist badges of identity but rather transactional. This is the name that denotes the person in this record, and this other, perhaps similar or even identical name, is attached to the person in this other record. Major and minor variations are to be expected. We can choose one name to represent the person in our database. Call it the “best known as” name. Think of it as the “encylopedic standard”. It makes more sense to enter Bill Clinton as William Jefferson Clinton rather than William Jefferson Blythe, III. His adoption and name change is not headline.

This is a subject that interests me greatly. It’s hard to find anyone who wants to discuss, debate, and explore, so I’m mostly over here on the sidelines noticing little pieces here and there. I hope to write more on this topic in the future.

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One thought on “Genealogical Standards

  1. I didn’t notice this post before, Justin. The issue with places is compounded by the fact that GEDCOM has the concept of a “place name”, or “place reference”, but not a “place”. GEDCOM 7 tried to fix this, and add place records that had their own names, properties, images, etc., but it was vetoed through industry feedback.

    I have a couple of old posts on this subject ( and but an important starting point regarding names is that places clearly have multiple names, just like people. Leveraging the similarities between persons and places is incredibly useful: using the old name or modern name should not be a showstopper if they refer to the same place entity in your data — it is the entity that is historically important rather than some modern “state, city, …” label (it is accepted that the actual text used has evidential significance).

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