That Online Tree is NOT a Source! 25


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:

 

Greyfriar's Bobby was the loyal companion to John Gray, policeman in the area of Greyfriar's Kirk. After his master's death, the wee dog sat vigil at the graveside of his master.

Greyfriar's Bobby was the loyal companion to John Gray, policeman in the area of Greyfriar's Kirk. After his master's death, the wee dog sat vigil at the graveside of his master.


About Christine Woodcock

Scottish born, Canadian raised, Christine Woodcock is a genealogy educator with an expertise in the Scottish records. She enjoys sharing new resources to assist others in their quest to find and document their heritage. Christine is also a lecturer, author and blogger. She is the Director of Genealogy Tours of Scotland (www.genealogytoursofscotland.ca) and enjoys taking fellow Scots “home” to do onsite genealogy research and to discover their own Scottish heritage.


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25 thoughts on “That Online Tree is NOT a Source!

  • Michael Hait

    This post does not accurately represent current genealogy standards. All of the above items—online trees, emails, etc.—can be sources. A source can be an original record, a derivative record, or an authored narrative. All of the items you name might be classified as authored works.

    Their classification as sources, however, does not mean that they are sources of *reliable* information. Then again, neither are original records in all cases. Information is only as good as the informant who provided it. Some original records provide inaccurate information due to either ignorance or deliberate deception. Regardless of the source, the accuracy of information must be assessed.

    Their classification as sources also does not mean that they should be used as the final word. As you stressed, the original records should be sought and examined. This removes the possibility that the original record was misread, misinterpreted, or otherwise copied incorrectly by the author of the email or creator of the online family tree.

  • Keith Riggle

    What’s the source for your definition of “genealogical source”? I think it’s entirely too narrow. “Evidence Explained” defines source as “an artifact, book, document, film, person, recording, website, ETC., from which information is obtained. Sources are broadly classified as either an original source or a derivative source, depending upon their physical form.” You are referring to original sources, but an online family tree CAN be a source, it’s just a derivative source. The quality of online family trees varies widely, from those without any sources to those that cite original records. We don’t all have the luxury of examining every original source for ourselves. Sometimes online family trees are the only sources we have, and we simply cite them as such, caveat their quality, etc. But to say they are not sources and must not be used is snobbish and downright incorrect.

  • Susan Allan

    Christine’s comments totally resonate with me. The number of times Ancestry identifies a green leafed hint and I follow it up – – only to discover an error in someone’s tree – and which has been copied willy-nilly into several other online trees – never ceases to amaze me. In so many trees – no sources are quoted at all. In others, the source is quoted as an ‘ancestry tree’. In many others, a census return is quoted which is clearly not even realistic, likely or possible.
    I saw one today which quoted my 5x great grandmother as living in Angus in 1851, aged 57 and using her maiden name. when in actual fact, in 1851, she is married and living in Muirkirk in Ayrshire with her husband and 3 of her children and 2 grandchildren. ( All of my data corroborated by BMDs, Family Bible etc. ). We can all make mistakes or be guilty of the “this is so likely that it must be the case” – but I think folk need to take authenticity, veracity, accuracy and validity far more seriously than many do!

  • LDrewitz

    Christine! I am such a fan!

    I have been teaching and lecturing about this subject for years and YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY CORRECT! I walk around my classroom and ask my students to call up a family tree on Ancestry. Then I ask them to take note of any sources… Then a show of hands… “How many of you have a sourced tree?” It’s running pretty neck and neck either none of them do – or, occasionally one will have a source (but it’s a picture or a family memory from Great Aunt Edna , who heard it from Uncle Herbert!). It’s rare that ancestry trees are properly sourced with primary sources – and THAT’S A FACT.

    When you state that “A source is a record of the event, documented at the time of the event with information given by a witness to the event.”, you are right on target with that statement – by definition. You broke it down to it’s barest fact and you are correct.

    You also stated that,”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.”, Also, again correct! This is exactly what I teach and lecture about! Newbies are especially vulnerable to “trees” . They can and do take wrong turns routinely based on information found in trees.

    As for Michael Haits’ assertion – he is splitting hairs, “This post does not accurately represent current genealogy standards” (well, poo poo pe do!) Common sense dictates that every statement you made was true. He then goes on to explain why emails, trees, etc. are “a derivative record, or an authored narrative.” Well, duh… Derivative records, as well, should ALWAYS be checked back – but more often than not, there are errors because of their nature. YOU were not talking about this – Michael Hait brought up an entirely different area of concern, but none the less one that you were not addressing. His comments were unwarranted and his rudeness in correcting you that way was appalling. So that’s my 2 cents 🙂 – Not that you needed defending – sorry. Just tired of Gena-snob bullies, I guess.

    Leslie Drewitz

    • Christine Woodcock Post author

      Thanks so much, Leslie. I appreciate your comments and your support. I have certainly set the genea-world on fire today with this post. What they didn’t read, or more likely skipped over in their anger, was that I stated I wasn’t going to deal with what was primary, secondary or tertiary. As well, the genealogists can argue forever about the “Genealogical Proof Standards” and whether my blog post fits that, but in reality, the people who use online trees for sources have never even heard of that book, or those standards. Like I said, this wasn’t written for professional genealogists. As Shakespeare said, “the (genie) doth protest too much, me thinks”

  • Craig

    I received an e-mail today (I think it was via SMTP, not Facebook) from a newly-discovered cousin who visited a cemetery. He provided information he obtained from the cemetery caretaker and from the monumental inscriptions. Am I unable to use this information as a source (I have found no other official records of these ‘facts’)?

    Craig

  • Mary Anne Sharpe

    L Drewitz posted, in part: “As for Michael Hait’s assertion – he is splitting hairs, “This post does not accurately represent current genealogy standards” (well, poo poo pe do!) … Michael Hait brought up an entirely different area of concern, but none the less one that you were not addressing. His comments were unwarranted and his rudeness in correcting you that way was appalling. So that’s my 2 cents 🙂 – Not that you needed defending – sorry. Just tired of Gena-snob bullies, I guess.”

    I must support Michael in this discussion. He was not rude, nor were his comments unwarranted. Nor was he being a “Gena-snob” bully. IMHO, L Drewitz’s opinion as expressed here is a bit flip.

    For anyone who cares about “professionalism” (not “poo poo pe do”), it is VERY important to consider reporting where one obtained information/evidence, and then to analyze and interpret that information/evidence with regard to its reliability and accuracy. Often what we as researchers have is a “factoid” that is “reported” by someone, somewhere. Part of our JOB as genealogists is to determiine how far distant from the event that report might be (i.e. death certificate, recorded at the time, versus tombstone information possibly reported many years later), and, bearing that in mind, along with other factors (i.e. social considerations), how ACCURATE (i.e. “truthful”) that information may be.

    Michael and others are striving to establish a professional certification process, where genealogy researchers are held to a standard, so that one can assess their capacity to be relied upon to establish the reliability of certain information used to support genealogical conclusions. We expect them to be able to take any and all sources of information and give us an assessment of its value to any conclusions we might infer from it. IMHO, this kind of “professionalism” can help us all to be better researchers — especially those with online trees and such who tend to be a bit “lax,” shall I say, about acknowledging where they got the information.

    Personally, even as a scientist who demands to see the original documentation so that I can, for myself, determine its veracity, accuracy and reliability, I DO use information “sourced” from online trees and so forth. What this allows me to do is to provide an interpretation for that information – do I think it is solid and factual? do I think it contradiicts something else that may be more or less accurate? What is my interpretation of that contradiction (i.e. can I reason it away?) Am I simply using it as a clue to where I might find that original document that may eventually prove the “facts”?

    IMHO, it is extremely important for us as genealogists to scrutinize and analyze every bit of information that we may come across, so that we can evaluate it and decide what we believe in and what we don’t. It is also critically important for us to be able to identify (if only for ourselves) where we got each individual piece of information, so that we can understand how much weight to give it.

    We cannot do that by simply rejecting everything that is not from a direct. primary source! We need to look at everything, turn it over, analyze and evaluate it, in order to determine, within a “reasonable expectation” what is closest to “the truth” (if there is indeed such a thing!). In fact, one of the tenets of the Genealogical Proof Standard that Michael and others are promulgating is this reasoned consideration of information from all source, with all kinds of different reliabilities/accuracies, and then evaluating it. This is not “poo poo pe do,” this is reasoned argument and use of supporting documentation of one’s conclusion.

    I come at this from a science background, so for me, Michael’s argument makes imminent sense. I don’t believe it isi snobbish – I believe it is trying to support a thorough investigation of the information that we used to reach our conclusions. And if I have been a bit repetitive in stating my case here, I apologize.

    As the saying goes: “it’s all grist to the milll”

    Mary Anne Sharpe
    Ottawa, Canada

    • Christine Woodcock Post author

      Mary Anne, while I appreciate your scientific approach, you and other professional or semi-professional genealogists are not the target audience. And most of you missed the point. Perhaps as professionals who reason and deduct on a regular basis, we have over thought the post. I am telling people what to cite in that little small box on our family history software that asks for a source.

      I would really prefer beginners or hobbyists stay away from citing online trees as a source.I am not opposed to online trees. I am happy for them to consult online trees. In fact I often direct people to do so, particularly those who know their ancestor was from Scotland but don’t know where. Hopefully but consulting online trees they will learn that information. But really, and this is the way I teach, they then need to go and view the document. Even an index isn’t enough, but I don’t tell them not to use indices. I encourage and direct them to go to the document upon which the index is based.

      I had a woman tell me today of her friend who learned from a cousin’s online tree that his ancestor, a soldier, was buried in a cemetery in France. He went to France to see and photograph the headstone. It wasn’t until a year later when military records became more readily available online that he realized that the soldier he had flown across the ocean to honour was not HIS ancestor but a man with the same name. Had he been told not to use online trees as a source, but to consult the actual document, which listed the parents, he would not have wasted thousands of dollars and weeks of his vacation.

      This is just one example of why I don’t think online trees should be sources. Most people, not professionals, would feel they had their source and perhaps their proof from an online tree and would be “barking up the wrong tree” as it were.

  • Jillaine Smith

    Christine, while most of us would agree that online family trees are not the best sources and we should all encourage use of better ones, you are doing a disservice to your target audience (and to your own credibility) by giving an inaccurate definition of the term. Discourage reliance on online trees all you want. But please don’t lead especially beginners astray with an inaccurate definition of a source.

  • Klaus Dieter Cook

    Using the criteria “A source is a record of the event, documented at the time of the event with information given by a witness to the event.” one could not use a birth certificate to source an overseas event. In Germany for instance, births were recorded by hand in ledgers. If I ask for a birth certificate, a clerk pulls up the birth entry and types the information into the certificate stamps it official and sends it to me. I have not seen the original document. To properly document a birth I would have to request a copy of the birth entry………

  • John

    While I share your distaste for the way misinformation spreads across online family trees, your limited definition of what a source is concerns me. Not from a professional’s view, as I am no professional. But from a Family Historian’s point of view.

    If I follow the good advice to always write down the source of information when I write the information down, then if I don’t consider it a source, I can’t write it down. And I would be ignoring massive amounts of good information.

    Yes Great Aunt Carol was a witness to the event, but it is no longer the time of the event, so is she no longer a valuable source? I truly doubt you would advise any Family Historian to ignore the information given to them by their older family members. Yes, we must treat her memories carefully. Memory can be faulty. But she should be listened to. Her information should be written down. And she is the source, until corroborating documents are found.

    The information in online trees can also be written down. We just need to be hyper-aware that we don’t know where the information came from if there is no source cited. Sometimes emailing the owner of the tree can clear that up some. They might be able to lead you to some records that you feel more comfortable with. However, if you ignored the tree because you didn’t consider it a source, and didn’t email the person because you knew you wouldn’t consider any email they sent back as a source, you might not uncover the records they knew about. Or it might take you longer.

    Family members, and other researchers, are valuable sources the family historian ignores at their disadvantage.

  • Mark

    I think you bring up some really good points here Christine. I know not everyone would agree but you are correct that just seeing something online does not present is as fact and absolute. You as a researcher DO have to conduct your own research and back up some of the information that is found online. Documents, letters, photos, and etc. are important to help supplement what you find online or act as the definitive when there isn’t information on your ancestor online.

    That’s why we encourage our members to do research on our site, but ALSO store family documents, certificates, photos and etc., in our collaboration tool to back up the research they have done. It helps validate some of the information they are finding.

  • Judith Hayman

    There is a word for copying someone else’s work and using their references: plagiarism. It’s dishonest. There is no reason whatsoever not to use someone’s tree as an inspiration, but it’s not YOUR work and you can’t claim it is. The standards have been raised to echo generally accepted academic ones. Christine is entirely correct.

    • Jillaine Smith

      Judith,

      While plagiarism is an important issue and should be addressed since it is rampant in online family trees, to *cite* an online tree is not plagiarism. It’s just not great practice.

      I don’t think anyone is disagreeing with the underlying message of Christine’s to discourage reliance on online trees. The focus of the disagreement is on her inaccurate definition of the term “source”.

  • Tricia

    [quote]Christine Woodcock: “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.”[?]
    Amen to that !!!

  • Tricia

    [quote=Christine Woodcock]: “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.”[/]

    Amen to that !!!

  • Larry

    Of course, documentation is subject to prevarication. I recently heard of a case where, yes, the same man married 5 times bigamously in several states using several names. The professional genealogist who gave the talk was quite entertaining in describing how he unraveled all that to find the truth.

  • Susan Allan

    I have come back to have a look at this particular article as it’s in the Top Ten.
    I still think Christine’s basic argument is sound. You can argue the toss as much as you like about what constitutes a source and nit-pick whether Christine’s definition is correct or not. For me, what is important is the main thrust of her article which is about authentication. -What is totally clear to me is that copying details from someone else’s tree – which is in itself copied from another tree, – which is also copied from another tree (ad infinitum) – and all without any sources (such as BMDs, Census returns, Immigration lists et al) – is not the way to authenticate your tree. I am not debating how professional experts categorise a ‘source’.; I am talking about amateurs like me. When they ignore the basic principles of authentication and put out information without any sources – it behoves the rest of us to recognise that we cannot rely on this information. It can only ever be ‘a starter for 5’ and help us in our research. Most of us want to know that our tree is honest, truthful, valid and authentic. Christine’s advice is good.

    • LarryN the exLibraryN

      I agree. I have a tree on FamilySearch, and as a professional librarian I want it to reflect accurately all the work that’s has gone into it. Earlier this week I saw an addition by a non-relative who added a daughter who does not exist and who has a son who was born 70 years before his parents. Did they NOT PROOFREAD what they post? This kind of name gathering and posting willy nilly is a good example of the death of expertise. (We are not arguing that here). I am only saying that if you do post something, please read it to see if it makes sense!