I have received some very insightful comments about my recent posts concerning sources in genealogy. As a consequence, some of the ideas I expressed have proved to be incomplete. This post is an elaboration on some of my earlier ideas.
The concept of sources in genealogy seems like it should be an obvious part of the basic fabric of the process of discovering your ancestors. One experience this past week illustrates the fact that the concept of a "source" is far from obvious. I had a patron come into the Mesa FamilySearch Library and request some help with her research. She sat down at a table next to me and unfolded one of those huge multi-generational pedigree charts and began pointing to blank spaces on the chart as if I could magically fill them in with names. We focused on one family where the ancestors of both the husband and the wife were missing. I asked her where she had looked for information about her family and she gave me a blank look as if to say, what did I mean where did she look.
It turns out, that the information on the chart had been entirely copied from existing family group records from other people and from FamilySearch's family tree programs. She basically had no idea of the connection between finding a document with information about her ancestors and adding that information to her huge pedigree chart. Really. After a few minutes of search, we found the family, she had pointed to, in the U.S. Census. She was entirely unaware that there was such a thing as a U.S. Census. I spent about an hour showing her how there were millions of records about people's lives in dozens of categories and that searching through these records in some systematic way, usually produced information about specific individuals and families. After a fairly brief search, we did find the names of the wife's parents in the U.S. Census with an entry showing the target person, the wife, as a child in a family.
I realized that this idea of "sources" was not as simple as using the word would make it seem. When we speak of a genealogical source, we are, in fact, implying that there is a research process, which involves a number of steps, and which must be evaluated according to a set of criteria that have evolved over many years. The whole research process is not intuitive. Learning about the connection between looking at records and finding information about an individual or family is something that must be learned. The key here is that many of those people out there in the world of family research have yet to make the connection between the process of doing research and finding usable information. The abundance of online "family trees" submitted by millions of people give the impression that you can just go online and "find" your genealogy and that is exactly what this woman had done and what countless others of our compatriots are doing every day.
So when we talk about adding sources to our research, we are speaking in an unknown language. It is as if they are saying, I looked at my Great-aunt's genealogy and copied down (or got a GEDCOM) and there it is. My genealogy. What do you mean I need to put in a source? My source was Aunt Jane and she knew all these people or whatever.
The idea that the information may be incomplete or entirely inaccurate simply does not exist in the larger genealogical community, especially the ones online feeding the huge family tree programs with names.
At some point, if a person becomes interested enough in genealogy to talk to someone else about the topic or, in the case of this woman, come into a FamilySearch Library, they may begin to understand the concept that that historical information has to come from somewhere and we call those documents or records that provide information "sources." Then the budding genealogist has to gain the concept that recording these sources is a good idea. Sometimes the concept of recording sources requires years of experience and finally realizing that the same records are being searched over and over again.
I have shown this concept to many people over the years and have found that telling someone about sources doesn't work. You have to get the person to come to the point where they are willing to look and finally make the connection between finding a record and discovering more information about their family.
Of course, there is the next problem and that is the reliability of the information. But that is another topic.