Monday, February 28, 2011

Place Name Standardization

Randy Seaver at Geneamusings has 'standardized' all of the place names in his genealogy database.  This means that his colonial ancestors are recorded as having been born in the United States, even though that is chronologically impossible.  He says this is for allowing geocoding, and suggests future software may even require it.

Tamura Jones at Modern Software Experience wrote back in 2009 -  
"It is possible for someone to always live and work in the same town, yet be born in Saint Petersburg, marry in Petrograd (1914-1924), have children born in Leningrad (1924-1991), and die in Saint Petersburg. If that is how it happened, that is how it should be documented. Events should be documented using the names that were current at the time of the event."
I side with Tamura.  If a software program requires me to lie about my ancestors in order to use it, I will not use the software program.  That's the only term I can imagine using, for if I know the information isn't true, and I speak the information or write the information down as truth, it is a lie.

If the hypothetical genealogy software adds fields for "current name of geographical location" I wouldn't mind filling in that field, but it is by its nature a field that would constantly have to be updated.  Place names are still in flux.  As databases grow, the need to constantly check to see if place names are 'current' would be cumbersome.

I guess that could be computerized, but I can also envision software making a decision that the user doesn't like.  A current example - is someone born in Jerusalem born in Israel or Palestine? Regardless of your personal preference, would you allow a software program to make that decision for you?

I remember once writing a post referencing my Transylvanian-born grandfather, and mentioned that I preferred saying 'Transylvanian' to either 'Hungarian' or 'Romanian'.  I received a fiery comment insisting that All Transylvanians are Romanians, and Hungary has nothing whatsoever to do with Transylvania.  Nationalistic pride in the commenter clearly colored his historical vision, but the area of Transylvania in which my grandfather was born was in Hungary at the time of his birth.  For me to write down that his birthplace was Almasu, Romania would be wrong.  He considered himself of Hungarian birth, and was proud that his father had served in the army of Franz Josef.  He was born in Varalmas, Hungary.


It also occurred to me that if you are creating any reports or charts from the database for relatives, one might be able to include the notes field in a report, but there isn't always space in charts, so if the historically inaccurate place name is in the database, that is the place name that will appear in the chart, and you're left with a product that might confuse your kin.

It also troubles me greatly that any software produced by major genealogy websites (such as FamilySearch, which Randy mentioned) would encourage genealogists to 'standardize' in this fashion.


Greta Koehl said...

I'm with you - I'm not changing the place names. If a city or area now goes under a different name, I mention that in the notes portion of the program.

Martin said...

What is the purpose of the place name and how is it being used? If you can answer those questions I would then offer an opinion. If writing prose and talking about an ancestor, I would use the name as it was at the time the person lived there. However, in scholarly genealogical writing, you want someone to find records for that person or you are citing to specific records. So, if an ancestor were married at the 2nd church of Saybrook, CT, but those records became later part of the Westbrook, CT church, you need to show both places. Saybrook (now Westbrook). This is particularly true of counties. The purpose is always to get the reader to the records accurately and quickly.

The problem (as always) is that whatever is in your database is your business. But no keeps it there business and they spill it out on to the Internet. There's a reason why you see family trees online with ten different (and I mean different) place names attached to a single event.

John said...

Martin - I wasn't talking about either purpose you mention. Neither journal nor prose, I was talking about the database.

I can see that a scholarly journal should indicate both, one for historical accuracy, and one to help the modern researcher. And for similar reasons, the current geographical info can be placed into a database's notes.

However, if I see a family tree with an obviously incorrect geographic location my immediate first assumption is that the genealogist is careless. And all other information in that tree is placed into greater suspicion.

So, as long as there is room for only one geographical name, I feel one should use the historically accurate one, so anyone looking at your records doesn't think you have been careless.

In the end, well-written detailed notes can of course eliminate all doubt as to the carefulness of research.

I think what is troubling me here the most is that despite my love for technology, it seems that technology is encouraging researchers to enter incorrect data into their database that they then have to explain why they are doing this unsightly thing in their notes.

Randy Seaver said...

I completely understand and debated this with myself for weeks. I chose one consistent standard - the current geographical location and jurisdictions. My database was an inconsistent hodgepodge before.

We'll see what happens! I can always take several months and change it to historical place names...except the mapping system won't find some places.

John said...

Fair enough

Another thing to consider that occurred to me last night after I made the post. Martin said, "whatever is in your database is your business," but I believe that comes from the perspective of someone who only does research for themselves.

If you are printing any reports and charts from that database for relatives, it's no longer just for yourself. For most reports you can probably add the notes field, but that isn't possible with all charts, so you're left with a product that may confuse a relative.

Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

I agree. Just last night I was going over my records for the Proctor family of Salem, Massachusetts. Actually they lived in Salem Village, the epicenter of the horror during the infamous witch trials. I've seen many records on line where people changed the name from "Salem Village" to Salem. Thus, folks believe the trials took place in Salem. They didn't. Salem Village later became Danvers, Massachusets, and then another section which was known as "South Danvers" became the city of Peabody, Massachusetts (named for the philanthropist). All these names are NOT the same place. These original names are clues to where homesteads stood, where deeds and records may be found, and where some vital records ended up being stored. It is important to know the history, as well as the names.

TK said...

I went through Legacy's process of standardizing place names several months ago, John, and by the time I was done, I wished I hadn't. I'm glad to see your post and others' comments. Hopefully people who stop by here will take the time to think it through and decide whether doing so would really serve their own needs.

Cousin Russ said...

John - Sorry for the delay, getting caught up on reading Blog posts.

I double enter Place Names, where it makes sense.

I want to take advantage of the Place Name standardization that Randy mentions, but I also what to have the Historical Place Name. I want to be able to use the Standardized Place Name for a Usage Report and looking at a Current Map to see where that is. But for Reports and Charts, I use the "Historical" Place Names.

I have Maryland ancestors where the term Parish was used. I know where to look online to see the jurisdiction line changes over time, so I can see the Parish to County (1) to County (2) to County (3) as that boundary changed.