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

Friday, January 25, 2013

Are sources necessary for genealogical data?

I guess the easy is answer to the question in the title to this post is yes, but then why do so many of the people involved in genealogy think sources are unnecessary? 

I have spent some time thinking about this issue and have come up with what I think is the main reason some genealogists do not adequately source their data. The reason is:

Just plain ignorance.

I believe this because it was the reason I failed to add sources to much of my early acquired genealogical data. I still have a huge number of people in my database with “Family Group Record in possession of James Tanner” as the source. It took me a few years of involvement to move past that level of my understanding. I can always claim that had someone explained to me some of the reasons for citing an actual source for the information I was gathering, I would have done so. But maybe not. It might also help to understand that during my early years in genealogy there was no Internet and no concept of people sharing data online. Even after the Internet became available, email was extremely limited and it took some considerable time to develop online sharing techniques. I have been gathering genealogical information about my family for a very long time. 

Many of todays genealogists are either new to genealogy or new to the Internet. If I have my own data on paper or on my own database program, who knows (or cares) if I have added sources? Unless I personally see the need for sources, who is going to question the way I have entered the information? If I go to any of the popular websites for genealogy, where does it say I have to add a source for every fact and event I record? Where are the source police? It is only very recently that anyone started harping on the issue of sources. 

On the other hand, my wife was trained in classes very early to add sources. So awareness of the issue depends on how you go about learning to do research.

The simple solution would then seem to be education, classes, books, webinars, and a plethora of other efforts to convince people that it is a good idea to add sources. This may or may not be effective. There are some people that will change their ways if they understand the reason for the change. But some will not change even when the reason for change becomes painfully obvious. Change is difficult and inconvenient and there is no visible reward for the extra effort. In addition, the people who are ignorant of the need to source their genealogical information are not likely to be going to classes, reading books on genealogy, watching webinars or participating in any genealogically oriented activities.

At the recent Arizona Family History Expo, Holly Hansen, the owner of Family History Expos, Inc. asked the participants in the opening how many were at the Expo for the first time. The number of hands that went up was significant. At the Mesa FamilySearch Library where I teach classes, I get new people all the time who have never attended a genealogy class previously. Ask yourself, how many members of my immediate family have attended a formal genealogical event such as a class or seminar? It is a good thing that there were so many new people at the Family History Expo, but my personal experience puts even these Expo attendees in the small minority of all those attempting to search out their ancestors.

There are those people who are knowledgeable about genealogy and the need for sources that agonize over the lack on knowledge of the newcomers and try hard to narrow the gap in their education. The challenge here is that the problem is not limited to the young or the newcomers to genealogy. There are those who have gathered huge files of names and have failed to add even one source. I have written before about the amazing lack of source citations in the Public Family Trees and I have demonstrated the same lack of sources in much of the published world of surname books.

In my case, my painful education over the years finally got me to the point where I began to source all of my information. But repentance this late in life has its drawbacks, I may not have enough time left in my life to add all the sources to the vast number of names I have gathered in my databases. I know the sources are available, but even adding sources to something like’s Family Tree, where the sources practically fall in your lap is a slow and somewhat painful process.

One challenge is that every time I look for additional sources, I find them for people who are already more than adequately sourced. I just cannot ignore one more source even when the number for any one individual grows quite large. This slows me down from adding sources to those who yet have none.

So what is the real answer to the question in the title to this post? Obviously, there are some controversial issues here. What if I say the source for the date of my own birth is my own memory? Is that really a source? How do I really know when I was born? I was there but not necessarily aware of the circumstances or the date. Do I believe my parents and the fact that I had a birthday every year? Would obtaining a copy of my own birth certificate help?


  1. Oh, Yes. As for me I KNOW the importance of sources. I completed many bibliographies as I pursued my doctorate. I started out in earnest to have all my information sourced. As the only member in my family doing research, I became increasingly frustrated with the source options on the genealogy programs. I was gathering info rapidly and when I started to imput I would get so confused as to what info went where and what the heck is a Master Source is anyway and where do I put this or that. I spent hours finding and hours getting it entered and way too much time trying to figure out how and where to put in what my sources were. I often put my references/sources in the notes section. I know they are not where they need to be but I have them. I have just recently stopped adding to my personal database. Istead I am using for my reearch and gathering because I can select only the records that have documented sources. I am hoping to be able to somehow download the trees and merge them later to one of the programs that will eventually synch with Any words of wisdom and options I cn try would be appreciated. I am in Mesa for winter. JE Nielson

  2. I kind of look at it this way: genealogy is historical research and as in any other discipline you have professionals and amateurs. Do we really expect the general public to understand the need for quality research? But does that mean we exclude the "amateurs" who don't play by the correct rules of the discipline? I wouldn't go to a plumber to fix my car or to an accountant to diagnose a disease. So should we assume anybody who wants to research family history cannot be expected to abide by the rules of scholarly research? And maybe a bigger question is: why does this matter? I think it only matters to those who are or who conduct themselves like professionals in the genealogy world. To everybody else, insisting on sources is likely akin to taking the fun out of the hobby.

  3. "You" are an excellent source, and should be your primary source. Just as "Your father", "Your mother", "Your relatives" and anyone who knew anything about the family should be.

    All genealogists know how important it is to talk to all your oldest relatives and get what they know. These "interviews" will have valuable information and clues to help you research further. They may not provide the raw evidence you need, which you'll have to look for elsewhere. But they may help you to solve the puzzles that is produced by the evidence.

    Never discount the value of your memory or the memory of any person as one of the best aids to your own genealogy.

    And yes, do get a copy of your own birth certificate. There is a chance you may be surprised.