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

Saturday, December 5, 2015

When is a source not a source?

I continued thinking about my post on my Rejoice, and be exceeding glad... blog entitled, "Is there a problem with adding multiple copies of the same document as sources?" and I thought I would move over here and address some other, more general issues. As I pointed out, the terms used by the online genealogy database programs to refer to the records or documents in their files or collections are slippery. Every one of the programs has a different definition of the terms records, documents, sources, collections, names, etc. In fact, as I have pointed out in several previous posts, there are no commonly accepted definitions of these terms among genealogists in general.

What is a source? One dictionary definition is so vague as to be meaningless: "a place, person, or thing from which something comes or cam be obtained." See Google search for "define source."

A source is the identity and location concerning where you got the information you are using. 

That isn't very artfully said but genealogists are talking about sources being reliable or unreliable. A source is a source. If I got my information from a book in the local public library, the citation information about the book and the place where I found it constitute the "source" of my information. Any questions about the accuracy, reliability or whatever of the information have nothing whatsoever to do with the "source." If I think your information is wrong or unreliable and you provide me with a source, I can go an check to see whether or not you are correct. Absent a source, I have to guess where you might have gotten the information and from my perspective, I have to assume, since you did not tell me where you got your information, that the information is unreliable and quite likely wrong. When people say a "source" is unreliable, what they really mean is that the information obtained from the source is unreliable.

I get comments about a source citation to a family tree as being unreliable. Isn't it a good idea if someone is citing information from a user created family tree that they tell us about it? Would you rather have no source citation or the knowledge that everything was copied from someone's family tree in an online program?

We absolutely need to know if there is any basis for genealogical information. Here is an example. This book has 491 pages of histories and family group records for one of my family lines.

Parkinson, Diane, and John Parkinson. James Parkinson of Ramsey: His Roots and His Branches : England, Australia, America : A Biographical History and Genealogical Record of the Family of James and Elizabeth Chattle Parkinson. Austin, Tex.: Published for the James Parkinson Family Association by Historical Publications, 1987.

There are numerous references to parish records and other documents, but not one citation to any specific record. Other than a few copies of letters and a short one-page bibliography, there are no specific references to the sources. As a result, even though there are a number of very interesting stories and a lot of information, most of it has to be re-verified by my own research. It is not that I think that what is in the book is unreliable, it is just not sourced. The sourcing part does not reflect on the ultimate reliability of the book, it only goes to the fact that I cannot look at the same source and draw my own conclusions. For example the book provides the following information about James Parkinson and his wife on page 140:

James Parkinson
Born 22 Oct 1808 Place Farcet, Huntindonshire, England
Mar. 23 Jul 1826 Places Ramsey, Huntingdonshire, England
Died 2 Sep 1870 Place Brookfield, NSW, Australia
Bur. 3 Sep 1870 Place Anleys Flat (now Dungog), NSW, Australia

Elizabeth Chattle
Born Aug 1806 Place Farcet, Huntingdonshire, England
Died 18 Apr 1872 Place NSW, Australia

All this seems to be very complete and reliable. But when I began my research on this family, since no specific sources were cited, I had to re-do all of the previous research which is still in progress. From the start, I had no citation to any records supporting birth, marriage or death dates or places.

The marriage date was confirmed from the following: Huntingdonshire, England, Extracted Parish Records [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2001.
By the way, the marriage record shows Elizabeth's surname to be "Chappell" so there is so question about her parents. But even with this confirmation, I still need to examine the original parish record. The death year for James Parkinson was confirmed from the New South Wales Deaths 1788-1945 Transcription found on the website. All of the links and citations that I have found so far have now been recorded in the Family Tree.

An inquest into the death of James Parkinson was held in Dungog, New South Wales on 3 September 1870 from New South Wales, Australia, Registers of Coroners' Inquests, 1821-1937 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc.

An so forth and so forth. By the way, there is no mention of a place named Ansleys Flat, the cemetery in Dungog, New South Wales is located on Tabbil Creek, just southwest of the town. There is a book with the cemetery transcriptions but the only copies seem to be located in Australian libraries.

This illustrates the problems that occur when there are no source citations. The information could very well be accurate or not, but I have to do the research all over again to verify what needs to done to extend the lines.

Now, back to the issue of complaining about inaccurate sources. If the source is recorded and is in existence, the source is correct. If the information is suspect, that can be determined from the source. Let's stop complaining about inaccurate sources unless they really are inaccurate. For example, information was recently added to the Family Tree about the James Parkinson Family adding source from Manchester, Lancashire. It is very apparent from the dates and birth and death information that this family was located in Huntindonshire and then emigrated to Australia. The Lancahire "sources' were welcome because they could be verified as inaccurate and detached from the record in the Family Tree.

It is important to point out, most of the complaints about adding wrong sources come from users of the Family Tree. They should really be thankful that the people told them where they got their information.

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