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

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Comments on Becoming an Excellent Genealogist -- Chapter Three

This is an ongoing series of chapter by chapter comments on the book,

Meyerink, Kory L., Tristan Tolman, and Linda K. Gulbrandsen. Becoming an Excellent Genealogist: Essays on Professional Research Skills. [Salt Lake City, Utah]: ICAPGen, 2012.

I am now commenting on Chapter Three: Genealogical Analysis by Marilyn Markham, MLS, AG, CG.

If I were going to identify one element of the genealogical research process that was most ignored by researchers it would be doing a careful analysis of the evidence uncovered in the course of working through the research cycle. In fact, this issue begins for many would-be genealogists when they copy an exiting family tree or incorporate a relative's GEDCOM file without examining the details of what is being added to their own records. I commonly make the claim that if I am given only fifteen minutes to examine your pedigree, I could find at least one serious inconsistency or error. For this reason alone, I believe Marilyn's timely short article on this subject should be required reading for anyone presuming to construct a pedigree.

In just the last week this issue of the accuracy of information in a pedigree has been raised more than few times in helping patrons at the Mesa FamilySearch Center. Marilyn's chapter at page 37 suggests three key elements that should be considered in analyzing your genealogy:
  1. The validity of the sources used
  2. The likelihood that the data found is correct
  3. A determination of whether the data applies to that ancestor or the ancestral family
Unfortunately, as I have observed from time to time in this blog, very few of the online family trees have more than a token effort to providing sources for the information incorporated. This lack of sources is all the more incredible when you realize that two of the largest online hosting websites, and provide source references automatically. Even where sources are cited, it is not unusual to find that the source cited makes no reference to the individual in question. 

I must admit that years ago when I started doing genealogical research on my family, I did not fully understand the importance of keeping a careful record of the sources I used. I understand now that my failure to adequately source my records was due to a lack of training and education. It took me years of reading and study to fully understand the importance of completely cited sources. Part of my inexperience was due to an almost complete isolation from other genealogists. During most of the first fifteen years or so of my genealogical research, I did not attend one class or conference on the subject of genealogy. In fact, except for my chance meetings with genealogists at the Family History Library, I cannot remember even one conversation with an experienced genealogical researcher. 

It is certain from my present perspective, that I should have realized the need for sources simply by virtue of the fact that I had a background in writing scholarly journal articles and working on formal National Science Foundation grant programs. I can attribute at least part of the problem to the emphasis and structure of the early genealogical database programs I was using. Even the venerable Personal Ancestral File, did not really emphasize the addition of sources. I might make the same criticism of most of the current programs. There hasn't been a lot of progress in this area. Even though some of the current programs have extensive and complex sourcing resources, those parts of the program can be totally ignored. For example, do you know of a program that will report to you all of the events you have entered without a source? 

The question of the accuracy of the data found is also frequently ignored. Many newer researchers become confused and disconcerted when they begin to discover that all of the sources they examine do not agree about basic facts such as birth and death dates. At the end of this chapter, Marilyn give several examples of inaccurate data. As I stated above, there is no end to the examples of inconsistent or inaccurate data. Sometimes the incorrect information is just logical enough to go undetected by a series of researchers. I have found quite a few errors in geographic locations at the time an event occurred because the researchers simply used the current jurisdictions and ignored the changes in the past. For this reason, I have consistently taken to examining the time depth of locations as well as verifying the accuracy of the location description. 

The last element in the chapter is the issue of whether the data even applies to the person or family. This is probably the most difficult of the the three elements to detect. This is especially true if a child has the right name and apparently the right birthdate, but is not the right person. 

It is true that careful and critical examination of every detail is needed in constructing a valid pedigree. Genealogy would be much better if all of us adhered to the principles set out by this valuable book. 


  1. A minor point about source citations. I don't consider source citations created by or to be quality source citations. MyHeritage just tells you the database, an URL to the image, and a summary of the data. Not a true source citation.

    1. The main problem I have with online database citations is that of longevity and the ability of someone without a subscription to see the source in the future.