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

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Challenges of Adding Sources to Family Trees -- Part One: The Historical Reality

Genealogy is not immune to movements, fashions and fads. Some of these turn out to be beneficial to individual genealogists, others not so much. In the past, a considerable amount of the genealogical effort went into compiling "surname books," the generic term for compiled family histories that either detailed the descendants of a remote ancestor or the ancestors of a more recent person. Many of these books were compiled from "personal information" or undocumented sources. I have at least five of these family history books about branches of my family tree and none of the five cite any significant number of sources. Errors in these publications have proliferated into the current crop of online family tree.

Until quite recently, the concept of documenting the sources of information referred to in compiling a family tree was almost completely missing from in the entire genealogical community. In fact, adding sources was actively discouraged by the paper forms used to record family information. Here is a screenshot of a "family group record" actively used for recording research between about 1940 and the present day which I selected at random from the website Historical Record Collections.

I certainly don't fault the people who were compiling and submitting these forms for their lack of documentation. Here is a close up of the section allowed for source citations.

The number for the item identified as a "Tanner Gen" does not appear in the Catalog. The number is very likely as modified form of a method of marking the relationships of the people in a book to the beginning or most prominent individual. The point here is that this old, and still commonly used form does not encourage documentation and the documentation that was provided is entirely insufficient to identify the source. Some of the more sophisticated genealogical researchers used the backs of the forms to type in a list of sources; but this rarely happened.

It would be impossible to accurately determine how many of the now-existing, online family trees owe their genesis to these undocumented family group records. As far as I know, the individual shown above, Harry Tanner, is not my relative. There are several unrelated Tanner families in the United States from England and Switzerland. By the way, there are over 2,500 individuals named "Harry Tanner" listed in the Family Tree and  incidentally, there is no such place as Hermon, Connecticut where the wife is supposed to have been from. I did find a reference to this same Harry Tanner in an family tree and the source for the information was listed as the Ancestral File, a compilation of these same family group records.

So the cycle is repeated. The original reference is in an undocumented surname book which is then copied to a family group record and then incorporated in the Ancestral File which is used to add the individual, unchanged, to an online family tree on the website.

Here is the entry for Harry Tanner from the Ancestral File.

Interestingly, the entry in the Ancestral File gives you a way to cite the reference:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "Ancestral File," database, FamilySearch( : accessed 2016-08-20), entry for Harry TANNER.
If I were to believe this undocumented entry, I would find that indeed Harry Tanner and I are related as the pedigree shown in the Ancestral File goes back to our common ancestor.  Unfortunately, the entries in the Family Tree about this common ancestor are presently duplicative and unsupported. In fact, as it now stands, the descendants of the common ancestor do not include this particular family line. To date, there is no documented connection between the early, colonial Tanner family in Connecticut and my Tanner family in Rhode Island.

This phase of genealogical research in which documentation was almost uniformly lacking is still with with us. As I have noted on many occasions, most of the online family trees are lacking in documentation and as I have demonstrated, the origin of some of the information is highly unreliable.

The idea behind this series is to examine the present cultural attitudes and physical limitations placed on researchers who wish to adequately document their research.


  1. The A13A50 was the call number assigned to the printed family history at the time. Since then, of course, all of the printed family histories were reclassified using a modified version of Dewey.

    The FS Wiki has an excellent article on the history of cataloging at the FHL and how to go about converting old call numbers to current call numbers:

    Pasted below are relevant portions of that wiki entry -- pasting lost the hyperlinks, but the hyperlinks were broken anyway. It turns out that the book that is needed to convert A13A50 to the new call number is online now, anyway, so there is no longer a need to go to the FHL to look at the conversion book.

    [Start of wiki block quote]
    The first numbering system for books used a topic code or a geographic code and a number, such as:
    R8A21 (reference books began with an 'R')
    NY 134 (a book about New York)
    Eng 369 (a book about England)

    The numbers were assigned in the order the book was received into the library's collection.

    Family histories were grouped into classes 'A' or 'B', such as:

    There was no direct correlation between any of the letters in the call number and the surname of the family whom the book was about.


    If you need to convert an old GS book number, consult one of these resources, most of which are available on film or fiche.

    Changed call numbers, Great Britain. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Genealogical Society. Library Division.
    Changed numbers of American publications and United States. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Genealogical Society. Library Division.
    Changed numbers of Latin America, Spain and Portugal. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Genealogical Society. Library Division.
    Changes of family history "A" group call numbers. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Genealogical Society. Library Division.
    Changes of family history "B" group call numbers. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Genealogical Society. Library Division.

    [End of wiki block quote.]

  2. In my previous post, I noted that a book is now online that converts A13A50 (an old FHL book call number) to the Dewey number.

    According to that book, A13A50 was changed to 929.273 T157te. Unfortunately, the conversion book does not list any publication information, such as the author or title.

    So I went to the FamilySearch online catalog, and clicked on Search For Call Number. I then entered 929.273 T157te in the search box.

    Wow, this is a tough one. The FHL no longer has a book cataloged as 929.273 T157te. There are plenty of Tanner family histories with call numbers starting with 929.273 T157 but none with the Cutter "te". So presumably what happened was that at some point the FHL decided to microfilm the book and no longer keep a paper copy of it after microfilming.

    It is STILL possible to find out the author and title of 929.273 T157te (and what microfilm roll(s) that work is now on) but it would be easiest to seek intervention by a staff librarian at the FHL who could use their staff-level access to the catalog to look at deleted item records. Or if you really wanted to do it yourself, you could look at the microfilm of the old FHL card catalog. The easiest way to determine which roll of microfilm to look at is to consult this finding aid:

    Guide to the microfilm edition of the Genealogical Society's dictionary card catalog

    Statement of Responsibility:

    compiled by the Library Division of the Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints


    Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Genealogical Society. Library Division (Main Author)






    Salt Lake City, Utah : Genealogical Society of Utah, 1973


    30, 10 p.

    027.424 G286g
    Family History Library
    Special Collections Book

    1. Thanks for the extensive explanation. Unfortunately, the book was not further identified by the original citation. So there is a good argument for putting in all the information available about the source.

    2. Yes, I completely agree with you. I did not mean to imply that the citation on your archive group sheet was adequate. But it is how numerous other group sheets from that era also cite sources. So I was trying to show that (usually) it is possible to eventually determine what was used so that that source can be evaluated to see if it does in fact support the conclusions that the original researcher drew from it.

    3. I know and I am grateful for you analysis. I did not find any reference to that particular number but you extended that to a catalog number. It may still be possible to find the book, but it is likely one of the several Tanner Family books that were printed beginning in 1915. The website only shows one of these books as digitized and only one in the Catalog. However, I have digital copies of three of these books and physical copies of two.

  3. Great topic -
    At some point I hope you intend caution Ancestry users about collections such as Millennium File; U.S. and International Marriage Records 1560-1900; Family Data Collection; etc. I wish Ancestry would put these and similar records in a separate category so the beginner is clearly warned to find confirming documentation.