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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Challenge of Sources

During the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to teach the volunteer missionaries and patrons at the Brigham Young University (BYU) Family History Library. This has involved up to 12 hours of teaching and support a day. This reminds me of my sometimes 16 hour days when I was teaching at Mesa Community College in Mesa, Arizona. One of the benefits of this intensive teaching and support schedule is that I get a feeling for some of the underlying issues involved in learning how to do genealogical research. I have been interested to discover that one of the most challenging concepts of genealogy is the idea of using a source to establish a fact. Over the past few weeks, I have confronted this challenging topic over and over again.

To illustrate this problematic issue, I will start with rather complex hypothetical situation involving comparing two researchers. In the time honored fashion of my legal background, I will call the first researcher "Researcher John Doe" and the second "Researcher Robert Roe." I will also work hard at keeping the two straight and try not to be too confusing. Let me introduce my two researchers:

John Doe is a entirely new to genealogy. He has limited computer skills and cannot remember is ancestral lines past his grandparents. He approaches the subject of seeking out his ancestors more out of a sense of duty than passion. He has trouble with basic tasks such as logging on to websites and using more than one program at a time. He has attended a few classes about genealogical research, but is unsure how to proceed with his own investigations.

Robert Roe is an experienced genealogist. He is mildly challenged by the changing new technology but has a good grasp of his ancestors going back four or more generations. He is involved in a number of activities including recording oral histories and is in the process of publishing a book about his Great-grandfather.

I am not trying to say that either of these hypothetical individuals is in any way "typical." In a sense, they are both arbitrary constructs. But they do represent two of the levels of experience I find every day in helping both the missionaries and patrons at the Library.

The surprising this about both Doe and Roe is that they are challenged by the concept of adding sources to support their research into their families. Roe, the experienced one of the pair, is very familiar with his ancestors. So familiar in fact, he views the process of looking for sources as unnecessary. For example, he cannot see why he needs to attach a source to his father or mother, when he knows from personal experience all of their basic facts: birthdays, anniversaries etc.

Doe, on the other hand, does not know any of the dates or other details of his family. But he is disturbed by the fact that what he finds as "sources" are either incomplete or, from his standpoint, wrong. He is very disturbed when he finds a U.S. Census record that has misspelled his father's name and sees no reason why he should attach a record that has wrong information to his family.

Roe is not challenged by any of the mechanics of attaching a source to an individual in his genealogy program, but Doe cannot remember the steps he needs to take and has no motivation to overcome this limitation when he cannot see why attaching the source in necessary, especially when the information the "source" is inaccurate (from his viewpoint) and incomplete. He is also disturbed at the suggestion that he needs to attach more than one Census record. He says, "Why should I attach more than one Census record when they all say the same thing about my father?" He likens this to finding more than one birth certificate. On the other hand, Roe adds sources, because that is what he was told he needed to do.

What is missing in both of these hypothetical researchers is the concept of a "source." That is moving from what you know, to what you do not know by accumulating sources or evidence of the missing data. There is certainly hope for both of them, but explaining the concept of moving from the known to the unknown seems to have little effect on their activities. Neither of them grasp the need to work methodically through a pile of records, each of which may add only one or two small facts to their knowledge of their ancestors. They both have difficulty differentiating between someone's opinion, such as an entry in an online family tree without a source, and facts gathered from sources made at or near the time of the event.

I am not particularly surprised at this difficulty, because I realize that many budding lawyers fail to learn the connection between evidence and proof even after three years of intensive study in law school. It is the part of the process where a record substantiates obvious or known facts that makes the whole idea of adding sources, difficult to understand. They "know" their father's birthdate, why do they need to spend time looking for a document to "prove" what they already know.

The idea that "sources" may be contradictory or wrong is also disturbing. I find this most commonly manifested by the commonly asked question about "how many sources are necessary to prove a point?" My answer is always the same; "all of them." Neither of the researchers has a clear concept of adding data by examining sources. They are missing the concept that additional unknown information is obtained by evaluating documents and that recording the documents is necessary both to substantiate the researcher's conclusions and a way to allow subsequent researchers a method to check or verify the conclusions. Adding sources, all of them, is not a meaningless activity, it is the basis for progress. Had our ancestors documented their own lives and those of their immediate family members, we would be out of a job as genealogists. We are essentially working to put our descendants out of the job of verifying our own conclusions. We do this by documenting every fact and every conclusion with a source.

Neither Roe nor Doe will be able to advance very far in their research without a consistent and careful documentation (citation if you will) of their sources of information. They may feel like they are accomplishing something by copying unsupported pedigrees but they will simply be perpetuating the problem and passing it along to another researcher.


  1. A fascinating analysis. After thinking about it through the day I've come up with a suggestion for your class. Take a white piece of paper with a 1/4" black dot in the middle and hang it up. Next to it, hang a nice Rembrandt print. The first is a name and date with no sources. The second is a unique individual shown in all the glories and complexities of life as revealed in the multiple of sources about him. Maybe that will get your point across.

    Actually, keeping that goofy census record in mind, maybe you should make that a Picasso, one of his more abstract works.

    1. Thanks for a very effective illustration of the difference. I may be able to use something like that, except I would probably show the difference on a computer screen rather than having a paper example.