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

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Even more thoughts on sources

The AncestryInsider's post entitled "FamilySearch Values Sources?" has a quote that says, "Genealogy without sources is Mythology." I find the earliest reference to this quote in a RootsWeb post dating back to 2004 in the Ralston Surname posts where the quote is "Genealogy without Documentation is just Mythology." The contributor is not identified except by an email address and says that the quote was copied from an earlier source but fails to give that source. Since then the quote has appeared in several different forms and in several different contexts. If will likely be repeated hundreds and then thousands of times.

By using this quote, The AncestryInsider has aptly illustrated the problem with a lack of source citations. Without documentation of a source, researchers cannot duplicate the research thread. In this case, the failure of the 2004 post to cite a source is harmless. But failure to cite genealogical sources can   be disastrous. Errors always seem to replicate while the correct information languishes.

It is this ability to duplicate both the search and the methodology of the researcher that is the essence of the reason why sources are necessary. Failure to cite a source, assuming the information is deficient or incorrect in some way, perpetuates the error.

The most common reaction among new and old researchers to a discussion about sources is "So what?" Well, my experience in trying to push back end-of-line pedigrees almost always involves correcting misinformation. How much time do you want to spend looking for the wrong person, at the wrong time in the wrong place? For that reason I have come up with several myths of genealogical sources:

Myth No. One: My grandmother told me this information therefore it must be correct.

This is the Myth of the Oral Source. Gathering information from living informants is extremely valuable, if the information you obtain is verified from other sources. The most common excuse I hear for failure to further document this type of information is that the sources are no longer available. Well, yes, people do die but unless you are living in a society and culture without written records, there are likely outside sources that will either corroborate or refute the information obtained from then living informants. It is true that there are some sorts of information that are lost entirely when people die, but genealogical research focuses on oral AND written sources. Details about an ancestor's life may only be found from narratives and stories, but the facts of a person's existence should be independently verified.

For example. My father related to me that he had a stillborn sister. That fact has been recorded in my records and shows up in those records copied from me. However, my own research has yet to discover an independent source for that information. So far, I have not found any written evidence of that fact. Does that mean the incident never happened? No. It merely means that my research is yet incomplete. Should I have recorded the information? Of course, but I also should always note the source, that is, oral comments made by my father. This information automatically goes into the category of needing verification.

Myth No. Two: Previously recorded information in GEDCOM files, surname books and etc. must be correct.

I have written extensively on this myth. Just because the information is written down does not lend any more authenticity to the recording. The key here is to look at the files or books or whatever and see if the originator cited any sources. The simple question is "Where did the information come from?" For example, I have a book about the life of my Great-grandfather, John Morgan.

See Richardson, Arthur M., and Nicholas G. Morgan. The Life and Ministry of John Morgan: For a Wise and Glorious Purpose. [S.l.]: N.G. Morgan, 1965.

As is common with this type of book, there is not one citation to genealogical authority. Interestingly, my Great-grandmother, Mary Ann Linton, was his third wife. She is hardly mentioned in the book and neither the date nor the place of the marriage are recorded. John Morgan had three children by this marriage and none of those children are mentioned in this book. Fortunately, in my Great-grandmother's genealogical research, the date and circumstances of the marriage were recorded and documented. 

Myth No. Three: I don't need to document my own records. I know when I was born and when my children were born because I was there.

Your sixth great-grandmother was also there when each of her children were born, but wouldn't it be nice if she had recorded the dates for each of the births? Some of the time those dates can be found from records that exist, but many times the dates were lost because no one wrote down the information. Fortunately, we are not limited to any particular type of record to reconstruct a birth date. See "How to Find Birth Information in the United States." But documentation our own records will become essential to our descendants. 

I am sure I will be back with more comments about sources. 


  1. I fully agree with the a relative saud it myth. I have a relative that was interviewed about his life, he immigrated from Sweden. He got both his mother and fathers name wrong.

    Sven-Ove Westberg

  2. Oh, yes. A commonly seen term is "family records." Letters, accounts ledgers, vital-records certificates, military service discharges and personal diaries would be such.

    But the term is often applied to such things as Family Group Sheets compiled from existing trees or non-documentary publications, or the notes made by Great-Aunt Harriet from unstated sources found in the Library of Congress.

    One needs always to inquire as to the precise nature of what is so described.

  3. A corollary to "Genealogy without Documentation is just Mythology" might be "Absence of proof is not proof of absence."