Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, January 27, 2013

What are sources and why should I care?

As genealogists we talk a lot about "sources" but we do not have a very rigorous definition of the term to support our dialoge. Even though different researchers are using the same word, what is meant by the term covers a pretty large and rather vague area. Technically minded researchers get into subdividing the concept of sources into primary, secondary and so forth, without ever adequately defining what they are talking about. Citing sources is not genealogical proof. Assuming genealogy is subject to proof at all. Sources do not automatically become evidence to support conclusions merely because they are cited. I may have a dozens of sources cited but nothing that leads to conclusion I have made about the relationship of an ancestor.

When considering the issue of providing sources for genealogical data, there are two main camps, the academic and the legal. The academic approach is sometimes further divided into approaches from the humanities such as history and what is called the scientific method. These approaches to the idea of citations of sources are fundamentally different. When a lawyer cites an authority it is not to show where the information came from but to support a legal argument with a concurring opinion from some court's written opinion. On the other hand, academics are not citing authority in that way, i.e. to make a case, but rather using citations to document how their opinions and ideas fit within the greater academic community. Academic citation leans more towards attribution, i.e. telling where the non-original information came from. While legal citations are to "authority." An extreme legal example is the idea of "string citations" or attempting to prove your argument simply by listing a lot of court cases you claim support your position. It is also true that some academics pile on the citations to attempt to add validity to their conclusions.

Unfortunately, although these two different disciplines have vastly different goals in their use of authorities or citations, as genealogists, we have mashed the two into an almost incomprehensible discussion of primary vs. secondary, original vs. derivative and direct vs. indirect to some how arrive at a "proof." The discussion of genealogical sources and citations is rife with legal terms such as evidence, relevancy mixed in with academic jargon such as hypothesis, theory and proof. In the extreme, genealogists resort to using legally defined terms such as the levels of proof required in litigation: beyond a reasonable doubt, clear and convincing evidence, preponderance of the evidence etc. When in reality, there is almost no relationship between the legal process and what is commonly considered genealogical research.

The idea that quasi-legal terminology somehow creates a relationship between what goes on in a court room and genealogy has its roots in early 20th Century genealogical writers who were attorneys. Their heritage has created a genealogical environment of an almost incomprehensible and impenetrable mishmash of legal and academic jargon that defies analysis from either an academic or legal standpoint.

Genealogy seeks for Truth, with a capital "T." The legal profession seeks for justice and to support the law. All you have to do is sit through one three week first degree murder case to realize that finding the "Truth" is not the object. The last thing we need to establish genealogical proof is to apply the Federal Rules of Evidence to our research. If you were really going to try and prove who your ancestors were in court of law, most, if not all of what we commonly accept as evidence would be disallowed by the Rules of Evidence. A law case is made up of what the plaintiff believes and opposed to what the defendant believes and then what the court will allow as testimony and evidence and what both the judge and the jury are allowed to consider. What you get is a decision, not the truth of the matter. I am not being cynical about this at all. Our system of law works for its purposes, but it was not designed to establish truth but to make decisions that decide cases. In law, someone wins and someone loses or more commonly they both lose and settle their differences. Genealogy is not a game of win or lose although there are those who would like to make it one.

As an aside, an example from a trial I was in several years ago. The opposing counsel (attorney) was trying to ask my client some questions during the trial. Every time the question was asked, I objected and the Judge sustained my objection. That meant that the other attorney could not ask that question in that way. The attorney tried again and again to ask questions and every time I objected and the objection was sustained. Finally, the Judge noticed that the opposing counsel had "lost it" and could not continue. The Judge called a recess so the attorney could have a break and regain some measure of composure. Do we really want to be put into those types of situations as genealogists? Are we really trying to "prove" our case or merely reporting our research and drawing our own opinions? Do we really want rules of evidence for genealogists like those in the legal profession?

The difference between genealogical research and its conclusions and legal proceedings are more than a matter of degree. Using terminology borrowed from law creates a fog of jargon that cannot be penetrated by the average (or even, if they would admit it, the expert) genealogist. But you cannot go far in reading any sort of genealogical writing on the subject of evidence or proof without confronting a reference to some kind of legal terminology. I submit that this is not necessary and should be stopped and abandoned.

As genealogists we need to forge a new methodology with a new terminology based more on evaluation of evidence and seeking for historical truth or reality rather than miring down in legal jargon that, in reality, adds nothing to our understanding of the historical relationships we are seeking. Let's make the process of determining our ancestors less impenetrable.

So what is a source? I think the definition should be simple. It is where ever you got the information. Why should you record the source? To save time in going back and looking at the same documents over and over again and to provide a way for others to see the basis for your conclusions. Do I really need to get into a lengthy analysis of primary vs. secondary etc? Not to record sources. How do I go about analyzing the information and drawing some conclusions? That is exactly where genealogists need to develop methodology and procedures that do not rely on quasi-legal concepts. The general outline of how we go through the research process is basically good. What is not good is arriving at a "proof" when all that we mean is that we have an opinion. Proof involves the concept of a judge making a decision. Genealogical data is always inconclusive and tentative and always waiting for further evidence, in reality there is no "proof" in genealogy and using the term is misleading and implies a degree of certitude that is almost always lacking.

I realize that the whole "upper levels" as they are considered, of genealogy relies on the concept of a genealogical proof statement, but using the term "proof" is misleading. We do not prove anything, all we do is express our opinion. There is no genealogical judge or jury who will certify that our conclusions are correct. Genealogical methodology is not an adequate substitute for a court system of laws, procedures and judges. Neither would we want such a system. Genealogy does not "require a higher level of proof than most litigation. " See Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007, page 18. Legal proof and genealogical opinions are not the same thing at all. If I were to apply a "legal standard of proof" to almost all the genealogical arguments and opinions I have read, I would reject virtually all of them as there is nearly always a reasonable doubt in the legal sense of the word.

I realize I am probably the lone voice out here in the wilderness of Arizona, but it about time that an attorney spoke out and said enough is enough. Is the academic approach to genealogy more useful or reliable than a legal approach? Sometimes the term "scientific" is used in conjunction with analyzing genealogical evidence. But those are topics of yet another post.


  1. not sure I followed everything you said here in your post. My question is: how does all this fit with the information presented in a Webcast from the Mesa FamilySearch Library on the subject entitled "Source Documentation" by Lynn Melville?

  2. Mr. Tanner, you said, “As genealogists we need to forge a new methodology with a new terminology based more on evaluation of evidence and seeking for historical truth or reality...”

    I would ask you, “Why re-invent the wheel?”

    There is a perfectly good methodology for choosing, using, and citing sources which has been in place for hundreds of years: the methods employed by historians.

    As Bowdoin College explains:

    “A citation is the part of your paper that tells your reader where your source information came from. This is one of the most important elements to your paper. In order to evaluate your argument, your reader must be able to consult the same sources you used. Proper citing is crucial to making a credible and persuasive argument, and to conforming to professional standards of proof.”

    When, as a historian, I cite a source I am doing so in order to show you where I found the information so that if you wish, you may find the same book, record, or document and determine if it is, indeed applicable, appropriate, and accurate. This seems to me to be the whole point of citing genealogical sources.

    If you tell me that Maud was the daughter of Francis and Herbert and I think her parents were Nellie and Albert, then I want to know where you got your information. If we are talking about the same Maud, then clearly one of us is wrong, and I want to make sure that I have the correct information in the family trees and histories which I produce for my clients.

    If, upon closer examination of the sources we both cite, I find that my source is family lore but your source is Maud’s birth certificate or her baptismal record or her obituary (or all three!) then clearly you have superior information to mine, and I can correct my error.

    But if I find that we are both relying on family lore, or that you are basing your information on someone else’s tree, then unless that family tree has a more reliable source attached to it, I can safely ignore your information – for now.

    You stated that genealogy is in search of Truth, with a capital “T.” That is also the goal of history: to discover and evaluate all documents and records available to determine the facts relevant to a specific person or event and arrive at the Truth regarding that person or event. Genealogy is a branch of history, and as such, should be using all of the tools and techniques available to the rest of the historical world.

    There is no reason to spend time and effort creating some “genealogical” method for citing sources when the historical method is ideally suited to our task.

  3. You've made a really interesting point regarding the influence of legal thinking on American genealogy. The early articles on European genealogy that I have looked at were often authored by pastors and academics, and the focus was mostly on prominent families (nobility and bourgeoisie). Sources (when cited) consisted of official church and state documentation. I guess that academic approach has influenced my research - looking at what a source actually says and how it fits into the big picture, and whether there are other interpretations that would fit the evidence.

  4. My problem in using some of the current standards is which one. To my knowledge no 2 of the experts agree on how it should be done. This makes the decision to source your work difficult.

    I doubt that you can get 2 experts to even agree to a definition of what a source is. Most do not give any practical help to a non-professional as to how to do the sourcing.

    With this type of advice-"Before putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard): Make sure you study your style manuals so you will avoid these common pitfalls
    misplacing footnote numbers and misusing punctuation marks in sentences with quotations
    overusing brackets within quotations to clarify meanings (avoid at all costs!)
    errors in differences between first citations, subsequent citations, and repeat citations"

    How then can a non-professional source even the style manuals offer different opinions.

    Starting about a year ago I decided that the only way to accomplish this was to develop my own standard. The first thing I did was decide what was a source and then work out my own set of rules on how to met that definition. I now have a simple working way to footnote my research.


  5. I am all for getting rid of the legalese which is so intimidating to new comers in genealogy. Citing a source certain is important and I think you covered that, but the needs of genealogy are somewhat different than academia, so why shouldn't we try a fresh new approach? What can it hurt? It doesn't have to be re-inventing the wheel. All wheels are round, but after that each type of wheel is created to accomplish a specific type of job. Let's just try to make our wheel more efficient and effective for the type of work we require our wheel to accomplish.