Remember Charlie Brown's dog, Snoopy? Whenever anyone spoke to him all he heard was "waatt, waatt, waatt, good dog, waatt, waatt, waatt, biscuit, waatt, waatt, waatt..."
I think so many of us are like that.
"Wear sunscreen" ("waatt, waatt, waatt")
"Drink lots of water" ("waatt, waatt, waatt")
"Cite your sources" ("waatt, waatt, waatt")
We all know we are supposed to cite our sources. But we all think, "as soon as I get better organized", or "as soon as I have the time" Some of us are diligent, others not so much. And some of us just plain don't know what a source is. Although we might think we do.
Let's have a look at what constitutes a genealogical source. We won't even get into the primary, secondary and tertiary. Just a basic source. In our genealogical software, we are asked to give the source of the information. How do we know that information? Where did we learn that information? Just what are we to enter into that field?
A source is a record of the event, documented at the time of the event with information given by a witness to the event.
Generally the source is a document: a birth certificate, a marriage record, a death registration, a baptism roll, census record, tax roll, military record. These are all records of events that were documented at the time of the event and the information was provided by someone who was witness to the event, sometimes the person themselves. City directories, voters rolls, school records, cemetery or funeral home records are also considered to be sources. They, too, were documented at the time of the event by someone who was witness to the event. Headstones are in a gray area since they are usually placed after the fact. Although for the sake of citation, I will even give you them as a source.
I'll tell you what is NOT a source: Someone else's research. Someone else's tree. Someone else's educated guess or deductive reasoning. Neither is information received in an e-mail, from a message board, mailing list or Facebook group.
Even if that online tree contains a source, you can not use that as YOUR source. You need to see the actual document for yourself. That is the only way that you can be sure that you are documenting, adding and researching your ancestor.
Here's an example: I have 11 Walter Haddows in my tree. Three of them married women named Mary. So, it would be safe to assume that when I see a Walter Haddow born about the same time as my Walter and who is married to a Mary, that I can add any information that someone else has researched about Walter and Mary. However, I discovered that there is another Walter and Mary in another part of the same village. By looking at the census records, I see that only some of the children have the same names. And there is an extra child on the census. By looking at the marriage record for this Walter and Mary, I see that they don't have the same parents as my Walter and Mary. Are they related? Maybe. But for now they are in my "to be researched further pile" and not on my family tree. Had I not consulted the actual sources, I would have had the wrong people listed as my ancestors. And that could lead me to having living "cousins" that really have no connection to me at all, who provide me with photographs of people I am not related to and who share stories that are not my family's stories.
This is a relatively common mistake made by people who consult online trees and use the information contained within them as their source. Remember, the person creating that tree was not at the event so their information can not be considered as a source.
One really interesting example of how off-base people can be by using other people's information as a source is a woman who arrived in Edinburgh's General Register Office seeking information on her ancestor. She proudly proclaimed that she was a direct descendant of Greyfriar's Bobby. Had I been there, I would have congratulated her and told her there was a monument erected to her ancestor on the George IV Bridge: