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

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

When is a source not a source?

In my early days of collecting family history, I relied heavily on work done by my relatives. My pre-computer efforts were primarily aimed at reviewing thousands of family group records submitted by my family over the years. I would show up at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah with a couple of rolls of quarters and look for the next series of family group records. I slowly extended my pedigree. Very quickly, I realized that not all of the records were either reliable or complete and I was soon looking for additional information to resolve the controversies. Years later, I was to discover that I was in the "survey" phase of the genealogical research cycle.

As time passed, I acquired a series of computers and computer programs for recording my research (really my survey). In most cases, back then, I would record the "source" as "Family Group Record in the possession of James L. Tanner." As I grew in understanding of genealogy, I rued the day I started to put that on my computer entries. In migrating the files over the years, I still have hundreds upon hundreds of sources recorded in that manner, despite my systematic efforts to replace those notations with accurate and correct sources.

I need to note, very few of the records I examined had any sort of source notation. My reference to a family group record was decidedly not a "source." In many cases, however, I did note the originator of the record, but usually the "source" citation stopped there. Later, I began documenting my genealogy systematically. What I found was that many of these older records were done from memory by the people who actually knew the ancestors listed. They had no sources because it did not occur to them to document their own family's record, known from memory. As a matter of fact, these early family group records have a tendency to be much more accurate than the general run-of-the-mill records produced today by family members with no knowledge of the family.

At some point, of course, I became obsessed with trying to document my family with original sources. That turns out to be an unending lifetime endeavor. But the question arises, is a citation to a family group record compiled by a living person about that person's family a source? I guess I would have to say yes in most instances. The point here is that citing the family group record is not the end of the verification process. It is still necessary to search for and record source documents that were created at of near the time of the events recorded by someone who witnessed the event or had a responsibility to record the event. That is the key to the source issue. But if you think about it, many of those early family group records fall into the definition of a source, especially those recorded about the immediate family members of the person supplying the record.

Where are these records found today? In the Ancestral File on The task of pulling all those records over the years is much simpler now. But the trade off is that you do not get the opportunity to look at the original sheet and see all of the notations and comments made by the originators. Upon reflection, my early efforts taught me some valuable lessons. Most importantly, they taught me the importance of documenting my work through original source records and recording the sources.


  1. I've used a lot of family group sheete filled out and sent ot me over time. I cross-check these with primary source. In the book "Evidence Explained" by Elizabeth Shown Mills, it documents how to cite a family chart or group sheet on page 108. It further explains this on page 142.

    Regards, Jim
    Genealogy Blog at Hidden Genealogy Nuggets

  2. During the research of my ancestors, I noticed that the most important part is organization. I started over my whole documentation twice until I learned that all my sources should be saved online, and that no handwriting is allowed because I used to get mistaken with names and that all data sources should be listed in chronological order (by date of birth of the ancestor) with the members found on this source, these are some tips that I learned the hard way ... I wish all of you luck in your researches